• Anne

The Educator’s Red Badge of Courage: Exhaustion

Updated: Feb 27

The red badge of courage – a battle wound – proved a soldier’s bravery in battle. There was a sense that soldiers who survived or weren’t injured were cowards. Educators have a similar badge of courage – exhaustion. Last week I wrote about the stories we tell ourselves about self-care that get in our way. The flip side of the equation are the stories we tell ourselves about overworking and exhaustion.

At my last institution, it was difficult to convince students that obsessive studying was actually less effective than taking appropriate breaks and making sure they were getting enough sleep, eating right, etc. A big part of the problem is that whenever a student saw other people studying until 3AM or sitting in the library all day, they thought they better do it too. Over-studying was the culture. We usually think about peer pressure in regards to drinking or partying, but this kind of peer pressure can be just as damaging.

Many of us have stories about working long hours and being at the students’ disposal 24/7: if you really care about students you need to come in early, stay late, and respond to student’s emails or texts day and night. At many institutions, that’s the culture. The problem is that means if you try to create appropriate boundaries between your work and home life, it can be perceived that you care less than other people. And it’s not just other people making that assumption – we believe it ourselves, “Oh no, everyone else is staying late to catch up. If I go home it’s not fair to them/they’ll think I don’t care/I’ll seem unsupportive.” No matter what the message, it means we’re staying late too.

Beyond the culture, the problem is that overworking is often a part an educator’s identity. As long as we consciously – or subconsciously – believe that our worth comes from the quantity of our work instead of the quality, we won’t be able to commit to self-care no matter how hard we try. Scheduling times for self-care activities may get us to do something for ourselves occasionally, but if overworking is a part of our identity, it’s too easy to put other people’s needs ahead of our own. So, what’s the solution?

Step 1 | Become the type of person who sets appropriate work/life boundaries. In other words, you need to change your identity around overworking. How do you change your identity? By reprogramming your subconscious mind! Easy, right? Lol. It’s not easy, but it’s also not as hard as you’d think. You can do it two ways – by changing your habits or hypnosis. Check out next week’s blog for more on this.

Step 2 | Find other people who also want to create a more balanced approach to work. Then support each another in your efforts. Agree when you’re leaving for the day and walk out together. Meet in the garage in the morning at a reasonable time, instead of coming in early. Set a time to get lunch, get coffee, or go for a walk to make sure you’re taking appropriate breaks throughout the day. Talk through your work load with one another to get an outside perspective on things that may not be as important as we thought so we can let them go.

Step 3 | Discuss and work with your coworkers and supervisor to make setting healthy boundaries around work a team effort. In other words, change the culture of your area, department, or institution. If your supervisor or coworkers are constantly emailing or texting after hours for non-emergency things, it makes you feel like you should be working late too – even if they tell you they don’t expect you to do the same thing. When you belong to a group that values the same thing – in this case creating a healthy work/life balance – changing your habits become much easier.

The steps above don’t necessarily need to happen in that order. Likewise, you don’t have to do all of them to be successful. If everyone else wants to keep coming in early and staying late, that doesn’t mean you can't make a change. The important thing is to understand how you really see your overworking and exhaustion. You may wish you didn’t have so much work or complain about the long hours, but if at your core you wear your overworking and exhaustion as a badge of courage - or dedication, then that is what needs to change first in order to achieve more balance in your life. The more you can get others on board with this change, the easier it will be.

© 2018 Strengths University