Dr Angie Wigford, Dover Court International School, Singapore
Here in Singapore we are a few weeks behind China but ahead of much of the rest of the world in terms of our experience with the COVID-19 outbreak. It is beginning to take a toll in insidious ways, and it seems that this might be an appropriate time to acknowledge the longer-term mental health impact, particularly from the perspective of the international school system, on both leadership and staff.
COVID-19 burnout involves accumulating stress for a wide range of reasons including:
It's gone on too long and it seems that there's no end in sight
There has been a significant impact on things we were looking forward to
Big plans and long-term goals have been affected
So many people (students, teachers, parents) have been disappointed or let down
Things keep changing
People in positions of responsibility may feel that they can't ignore or deny it as much as they would like to, because they have to keep updated and implement new regulations and restrictions daily
The worry is that the goodwill shown so far might go as this becomes a new type of normal.
The whole thing is just overwhelming.
The impact of this is likely to be a reduced capacity to empathise with others, raised irritability, anhedonia (feeling down), tiredness and difficulties getting a good night's sleep. For some people this will be the thing that pushes them to do something that they may not otherwise have done ('the last straw') such as ending a relationship or breaking a contract, thereby adding to existing stressors.
So how can international school leaders address this? My theory would be immediate practical approaches and post COVID-19 psychological growth. A growth mindset can be encouraged in the international school system at personal and professional levels through acknowledging the seriousness of the impact and looking ahead with an approach informed by psychology (preferably positive psychology).
We need to accept that things will never be quite the same again and we need to find ways to adjust. The three key principles of post-traumatic growth theory apply. As this situation develops on a personal level there will be:
1. Changes in the perception of self: improved self-knowledge.
2. Changes in relating to others: valuing others differently.
3. Changes in priorities, appreciation and spirituality: approach to life.
In taking a positive psychology approach, we can focus on the following key aspects.
Making the best of the current situation. For example:
Develop self-awareness (especially of current and new effective coping strategies)
Develop supportive professional and personal relationships - work on the challenging ones and be aware of how to reach out to people
Get together where and when you can, even if that is only possible remotely - have fun!
Be compassionate and accepting (reduce pressures if appropriate).
Ask for help and help others. Create opportunities for this to happen.
Envisioning positive long-term outcomes. For example, in the future there will be:
Vastly improved understanding of remote teaching and learning
Better understanding of social media feeds and their impact
Wiser, stronger staff and students
Improved/tested school systems
Better global management of these issues in the future
Much better environmental awareness.
The COVID-19 outbreak will change things, and many people and systems will bounce back stronger. However, at the moment many people will be experiencing high levels of stress and in order to avoid COVID-19 burnout, awareness of the psychological pressures of the outbreak may be used to help mitigate potential damage.
PRACTICAL STEPS TO LOOK AFTER YOURSELF AND OTHERS
For now, as the world deals with this pandemic, here are some practical steps school leaders can take to look after themselves, their senior leadership teams and their staff:
> Stay calm: this can be difficult. Be aware of your own stress levels and seek help if necessary. If you have not tried mindfulness before this could be a good time to start. The Headspace app provides a free trial.
> Sleep: a good night's sleep can be hard to get in these challenging times, but it is a powerful healer. After a good night's sleep one is calmer and able to think more clearly. Going to sleep at the same time every evening helps a lot - read the book "Why We Sleep" by Matthew Walker.
> Nutrition: fuel your body with good-quality healthy food, snack on nuts and fruit. Don't drink too much alcohol, it may get you to sleep but will impair the quality of your sleep.
> Being a leader is often very lonely. Seek other people at the same level as you to talk to as they are likely to be grappling with the same types of difficulties. If you are lucky to be in a group or association of schools then this may be easier.
> Understand that other people's anxiety may come out in challenging behaviour (complaining parents and staff). Try not to take this personally. Reassurance is important. Don't give false promises but be respectful and tolerant.
> Do what you can to maintain stability both in and out of school. Keep to your normal patterns and routines as far as possible. If you walk, run, read, go to the gym, etc, keep this going.
> Signpost and delegate: if you have had to spend too much time with someone, send them to someone else. Delegate where you can while being aware of the stress of others. Do not try to do everything yourself - people want to help, and it is good for people to have supportive roles - this helps their own stress.
> Prioritise: reduce pressures if necessary - on yourself and on your staff. This may not be the right time to start an intervention. While people need to be busy, teachers and parents generally are anyway and adding to this may make things worse.
> Stay positive however hard it is. This is very important. Smile and enjoy the little things.
> If you are lucky enough that your school is still open, but you're feeling really stressed (which no doubt you will), find a happy child to play a board game with for half an hour. If you feel like it, relieve a teacher for a lesson and teach their class. That can be a win-win, the teacher is likely to appreciate it and you can get back to your roots and remember why you came into teaching.
> Encourage collaboration. It is important to make sure your teachers are looking out for each other.
> Be aware that you cannot look after everyone. Identify the most vulnerable in your community and make sure they are being supported. Do not assume you automatically know all of the people who need help. Use the Circles of Vulnerability exercise to identify more comprehensively those who may need some extra attention.
Calhoun & Tedeschi (2006) Handbook of Posttraumatic Growth: Research and Practice. Erlbaum, NJ.
Wadel, M & Wicks R.J., (2012) Primer on Posttraumatic Growth: An Introduction and Guide. Wiley, NJ.