This post was written by guest blogger B Grace Bullock, PhD.
In a 2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey, roughly two thirds of the nearly 5,000 respondents said their work was “always” or “often” stressful; twice the rate felt by professionals in the general population. Sponsored by American Federation of Teachers and the Badass Teacher’s Association, school staff reported that their mental health is poor, they’re sleep deprived, and they’re more likely to be diagnosed with hypertension or a blood sugar-related condition like diabetes than people in other professions.
This is no surprise for school employees struggling with insufficient resources, educator shortages, stagnating wages, increasing responsibilities, and an education system that may not be well-equipped to meet student’s diverse social, emotional and academic needs. What may be less apparent is that persistent stress places staff at heightened risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, obesity, heart disease, diabetes and chronic pain.
OEA Choice Trust, the only organization solely dedicated to promoting the health and well-being of Oregon public school employees, is on a mission to reverse this trend and create healthy school environments for all staff and students.
Building a Blueprint for Change
Several years ago the Trust conducted a comprehensive investigation of the workplace challenges faced by Oregon school employees that resulted in a white paper: Fostering Healthy, Resilient Schools to Address Chronic Stress. The paper noted the deleterious effects of chronic stress on employee health, and pointed to the need for pragmatic, sustainable tools to increase well-being. Similar to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report, the white paper identified a school-centered, mindfulness- and social emotional learning (SEL)-informed approach as a promising strategy for reducing chronic stress and enhancing employee’s health.
As part of its commitment to inspire schools to create healthy workplaces for all staff, the Trust is now taking action.
With collaborators Drs. B Grace Bullock and Lori Allen, and Oregon Research Institute Community & Evaluation Services, the Trust is developing a Blueprint for creating a mindful approach to employee wellbeing as part of a 5-year, Trust-funded effort. The Blueprint and its offerings will provide a flexible framework for schools and districts to develop their own, unique, sustainable communities that support collective flourishing.
Beginning this month with an online survey, our team will invite school employees to share their experiences and tell us what they need to make that happen. TAKE THE SURVEY.
4 Great Tips to Lessen Your Stress!
One of the promising strategies emerging in education involves the use of mindfulness-informed tools to address chronic stress. In my book, Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success – Integrating the science of mind, body and brain, I explore seven, accessible, pragmatic ideas that you can play with right now to defuse the effects of stress.
Here are 4 of my favorites.
- Notice how you’re breathing.
The mind, body and brain participate in an endless dance. If you can think back to a time when you were overly hungry, tired, or hot there’s a good chance that you were also grumpy, restless, frustrated, or focused on getting some relief from your body’s discomfort. What occurs in your body determines your experience.
The same can be said about how you breathe. The breath cycle reflects what is occurring in the body, and often what is happening in the mind as well. When your mind or body are under stress, your breath tends to be shallow, rapid, and irregular. This triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol that increase your heart and respiration rates and blood pressure, tense up muscles, increase blood sugar levels and so on. When your breath remains shallow, your system gets stuck in a stress feedback loop, increasing the risk for chronic muscle pain, disease and eventually burnout.
The first order of business is to pause and take note of how you’re breathing. If your breath cycle is short or quick take a few deep, slow breaths and bring a bit more ease to your mind and body.
You probably already know that taking deep breaths can help you to relax. But in my work I’ve discovered that most of us are unaware of how much lung capacity we really have.
Try this exercise. You may be surprised to discover that you can breathe more deeply than you ever thought possible!
- Observe where you are in the moment.
If you think about it, a great deal of what causes stress occurs when our minds are wandering. For example, when something upsetting happens at work, do you often respond by hashing through a litany of failures and negative interactions with others until you’ve completely stressed yourself out? Most of us do.
Although you can learn from the past, you can’t change it. The future is pretty much out of your control. What you can influence is how to respond to what is in front of you in the here and now. That’s it.
Being mindfully aware means noticing whether your mind is hanging out in the past, present or future. If you find yourself somewhere other than the here and now, try nudging yourself back to the present.
Most of us have minds that resemble a runaway puppy. With some curiosity, love, humor and practice you can teach your puppy mind to stay in the present a bit more each day.
- Pay attention to your thoughts.
You may have heard the adage “What you think is what you will become.” There is a lot of truth to it.
If you pay attention to your thoughts you’ll likely notice that your mind has a running narrative. How you feel is often a reflection of that storyline. If the story is a happy one, you feel great. If it’s full of anger, gloom or doom, you feel awful.
Once you pay attention to your stories you can use your observations as a learning opportunity, challenge the narrative, or realize that those stories are the mind doing its thing, and those thoughts aren’t very helpful. With practice, you can even change them.
- Give up the idea that life is perfect.
Life is messy.
One of the biggest gifts you can give yourself (and others) is to cut yourself some slack and accept that life is an imperfect business. We all have good days and bad days and that’s OK. It’s called being human. When you hear yourself using the word “should”, that’s often an indicator of perfectionistic thinking.
Your moments of feeling stressed, imbalanced, hopelessly happy, cranky and all points in between are the catalysts that transform you. If you expect or demand perfection you’re bound to be disappointed. If you can accept life’s unpredictability with affectionate curiosity, humor, and a bit of grace you’ll be less likely to get stressed, and more inclined to let go of what you can’t control. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it is possible!
Notice when you start “shoulding” on yourself and see if there might be another way to go.
Can you accept that things often don’t work out as planned? If you can, it might just lessen your stress and make life a bit more enjoyable.
OEA Choice Trust and collaborators, Drs. B Grace Bullock and Lori Allen, and Oregon Research Institute Community & Evaluation Services (ORI-CES) are thrilled to announce the launch of an initiative to develop a Blueprint for creating a mindful approach for enhancing Oregon public school employee well-being. Research shows that chronic stress is a primary cause of physical and psychological illness, burnout, job dissatisfaction and attrition among public school employees, with over 50% of educators leaving the profession in the first 5 years.
Recognizing the important links between mindfulness-informed practices, stress resilience, and enhanced physical and mental health, the Trust has committed to expanding its service to Oregon public school employees by funding a collaborative partnership to develop, deliver and evaluate a Blueprint for creating a mindful approach to employee well-being. Unlike most programs for school employees, the Blueprint will provide a flexible, modular framework for schools and districts to build internal capacity to use evidence-based, mindfulness-informed practices to support individual and school-wide well-being and enhance stress resilience. We are excited to continue collaborating with Oregon public schools to cultivate communities that support our collective flourishing.
OEA Choice Trust is the only organization solely dedicated to promoting the health and well-being of Oregon public school employees working with K-12 school districts, community colleges and education service districts. The OEA Choice Trust team has over 25 years of collective experience working with schools and districts to create healthy school environments for staff and students. Dr. B Grace Bullock is a psychologist, Associate Research Scientist at Oregon Research Institute, Founder and CEO of the International Science and Education Alliance (ISAEA), Adjunct Professor at the Van Loan School of Graduate and Professional Studies at Endicott College, Faculty at the Oregon Mind Body Institute (OMBI) and author of Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success – Integrating the science of mind, body and brain (Handspring Publishing). Dr. Lori Allen is the Founder and Co-Director of OMBI, a Licensed Psychologist specializing in mindfulness-based interventions, and Adjunct Professor at the College of Education at the University of Oregon.