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Rutgers expert discusses impact of burnout from remote learning on educators

Ann Murphy, director of the Northeast and Caribbean Mental Technology Transfer Center at Rutgers School of Health Professions, said the rapid adjustment to remote learning could result in educators experiencing burnout.  – Photo by Pixabay

Given the transition to remote learning, educators may face “burnout,” a condition that develops due to prolonged work-related stress, faster than before, said Ann Murphy, director of the Northeast and Caribbean Mental Technology Transfer Center at Rutgers School of Health Professions. 

Murphy discussed the condition of burnout and how educators can handle it while teaching remotely during a pandemic.

“For most teachers and professors, remote learning is a new way of teaching,” Murphy said. “This has necessitated them learning a new system and caused them to have to change the teaching strategies and approaches they typically use in a very short period of time.”

The remote environment has also significantly changed the teacher-student interactions that educators are used to and that motivate many of them, she said.

“Some teachers are grieving not being able to see their students and some are very concerned about students who (may) be in difficult or traumatic homes or who have limited access to the resources they need during this challenging time,” Murphy said. 

Additionally, educators are having to do this all during a pandemic, which is already causing emotional strain for many, she said. 

“All of this can lead to higher levels of stress, anxiety and exhaustion that can contribute to burnout,” Murphy said. 

She said factors that may provoke burnout include perceived lack of control, feelings of being under-acknowledged, unclear job expectations, work-life imbalance, lack of social support, feelings of isolation, conflict in personal and organizational values and lack of equitable treatment.

If these factors do end up inducing burnout, a range of emotional, behavioral and physical symptoms may occur, Murphy said.  

“Burnout includes: emotional symptoms, such as feeling unfulfilled, overwhelmed, irritable, exhausted, helpless and negative, behavioral symptoms, such as being easily distracted, difficulty concentrating, disengaged, withdrawal from others and loss of motivation and physical symptoms, such as fatigue, difficulty sleeping and changes in appetite,” she said.

She said burnout can also lead to more serious health issues if not dealt with properly.

“Over time, if not addressed, burnout can lead to more serious anxiety and depression, increased alcohol and substance use, headaches, hypertension, cardiovascular disorders, ulcers and insomnia,” she said. “Checking in with yourself to assess your experience of these symptoms can help identify the need for additional support.”

Murphy said that burnout is also prevalent in students and their symptoms can be very similar to those faced by educators. Students may become overwhelmed by their amount of work, perceive a lack of control and have feelings of isolation, she said.

“I think the best thing we can all do is have compassion for each other,” Murphy said. “Recognize that right now things are very challenging, emotionally taxing and anxiety producing. Treat others with kindness and understanding and support each other in taking good care.”

It is important that all members of a school system feel that they are heard, respected and being taken into consideration, Murphy said. 

“Administrators can create nurturing environments that recognize and support the good work being done, promote team building and inform teachers and staff about available physical and mental health supports,” she said. “They can also empower and encourage teachers to set boundaries to help facilitate greater work-life balance.”

This environment can be achieved by holding forums to discuss concerns, maintaining regular communication, being transparent and including all stakeholders in decision-making to the greatest extent possible, Murphy said.

It is also critical for educators to attend to their own wellness and prioritize self-care, she said. If educators do not do this, they are more likely to experience burnout and will be less able to meet the needs of their students. 

“There are many ways to cope with the current stressors, and most educators are aware of what they ‘should’ be doing like exercising, eating well, meditating, deep breathing, yoga, connecting with others, etc,” she said. “The challenge is actually making the time and commitment to regularly participate in these activities.”

While it may be difficult for educators to prioritize themselves, Murphy said that it helps to pick enjoyable activities so it doesn’t feel like a chore. 

“You can also try to create balance between your work and home life, by doing things such as scheduling related activities in a group,” Murphy said. “Instead of replying to emails as they come in, set aside blocks of time and return all emails then.”

If an educator is experiencing burnout, it may be helpful for them to try and reconnect with the reasons that they teach, she said. 

“Have compassion for yourself and recognize that this is a very difficult time,” Murphy said. “Connect with others so you are not trying to cope with all of this on your own. You also may consider professional support from a mental health specialist, many of whom are offering telehealth services.”

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