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February 11, 2022

Reduce Burnout in Frontline Workers by Helping Them Rediscover Their Purpose

By Dr. Tonya Drake, WGU Washington Chancellor and WGU Regional Vice President

As Valentine’s Day approaches, we can offer more than candy and cards  to help heal the hearts of exhausted frontline workers, including teachers and health care professionals. A sense of purpose and some self-care can go a long way in  helping these professionals continue to serve their critical roles. As Frontiers in Public Health puts it, “Working in a stressful or challenging environment for long periods with little recovery time is a risk factor for burnout.”

That sentence describes the workplaces of educators, nurses and other health care workers.

During the pandemic, a recent analysis of nearly 100,000 health care workers in 21 countries found 22% are experiencing moderate depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress.  Meanwhile, another study found that compared to other public sector workers, K-12 public school educators were the most likely to report higher levels of anxiety, stress, and burnout. 

These dangers disproportionately affect women and people of color. More than 70% of COVID-19 infections in our health care workers are in women. Educators of color leave the profession at higher rates than white teachers — which is especially tragic considering that only 7% of teachers are Black, while 15% of K-12 students are Black.

Why is the toll so heavy? And what can be done about it?

First, let’s understand the predicament of these workers. Between family communication, planning, meetings, and managing remote instruction, the pandemic has increased teachers’ workloads. Four in 10 teachers work more hours—up to 15 more hours each week—compared to pre-COVID.

The toll is high on health care workers, too. Adding to the pre-existing nursing shortage, up to 1 in 5 health care workers have quit during the pandemic. Those who remain fill gaps and work extended shifts.

The problems are clear, but so are some solutions to improve their self-care. Treating burnout involves rest, learning to manage stress, and finding support. Fortunately, mental health resources are available, such as CARE for Teachers and the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ (NAMI) page for health care professionals.

Self-care is important too. Here are five tips that can affect one’s overall well-being: 

  • Take a power nap – rest is essential and power naps can increase focus and productivity.
  • Schedule time to relax – grab a book, take a bath, enjoy a hobby, schedule time for you.
  • Embrace natural light – we benefit immensely from the sun, beyond the Vitamin D natural light boosts your mood and alertness. 
  • Breathe – slow breathing exercises reduce stress, clear the mind and bring clarity to tasks. 
  • Exercise – whether a workout, a walk or stretching, exercise helps decrease stress and increase energy.

Overcoming burnout can lead to discovering new meaning in your life. What is your purpose, now and in the future, and how can you get there? For some, the answer is advancing their education to take on a new challenge that fills their heart. Pursuing a degree in a specialized area of teaching or health care can utilize a person’s skills while bringing more day-to-day satisfaction (and perhaps a bigger paycheck).

Western Governors University understands these needs and works hard to address them for our students—almost two-thirds of whom are pursuing degrees in education or health professions. Each student receives a mentor who stays with them throughout their enrollment. Mentors check in weekly to help students overcome challenges with their “day job,” educational process, and personal life.

With a six-year graduation rate that’s 11 points higher than comparable institutions, we believe we’re doing something right. I’m especially proud of that figure because 69% of WGU students are classified as underserved, and 39% are first-generation students.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, it’s lovely to give teachers and health care workers a box of chocolates. And for the long run, applying some self-care along with access to opportunity can ensure these professionals find meaning in their careers, reduce burnout, and protect their mental health.

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