A year after the first news of a new virus, I remember wondering how dangerous this virus is to watch our world and lives suddenly turned upside down. We still don’t know what the future holds. We are still working with sub-optimal constraints. Teachers are working harder and longer, yet feeling they could and should be doing more.
What if these challenges continue or become more demanding or new ones? We will need more than resilience. We will need to acquire the skills to flourish under any conditions. But how, when surviving often seems to be the name of the game?
I’ve been down this road before, nearly twenty years ago. My life shipwrecked in the aftermath of the dot-com and telecommunications crash. One day, like every previous day, I arrived at the office, never suspecting the next thirty minutes would redefine my life. The owner called me into his office and said, “Rex, we don’t need a vice president of sales! We need sales. You can leave the company now or take a demotion as a commissioned salesperson.” As he finished, he held up my ten-year contract and ripped it to pieces. My sudden and dramatic change of fortune plunged my family and me to the brink of bankruptcy many times over the next five years. I was 46 and forty pounds heavier, highly stressed even before our meeting, and not coping well at home.
That experience was God ordained, because it exposed my true condition and required me to slowly rebuild from the ground up. Scripture explains that the truth sets us free. I studied Greek in college and remembered that one translation for “truth” is “reality.” The reality of my condition hit hard, but the signs had been staring me in the face years before. I foolishly (or desperately) thought I could delay this day of reckoning with just a bit more time. Likewise, it’s time to face up to the well-being challenges that have existed in our schools for years, but that COVID has now brought to the foreground.
Facing Our Reality
The Wellness Council of America, WELCOA, conducted a recent survey on the state of workforce mental health. The survey covered several sectors. Education represented 14 percent of the responses. According to the survey results, “Ninety percent of organizations are concerned that their employees are experiencing burnout, and for good reason.” Nearly half of employees describe having had symptoms of burnout in the last twelve months. Before the pandemic, 8 percent of the workforce lived with some form of post-traumatic stress. Current estimates suggest employee stress trauma is 40 percent or higher.
Seriously addressing burnout and trauma in any organization, including schools, requires far more than paid time off and a counselor on staff. The pandemic has pushed chronic concerns, like burnout and trauma, and made them acute threats organizations must immediately address. But we have a leadership knowledge gap to fill. Sixty-three percent of employers feel they neither understand nor are equipped to handle employee burnout, let alone trauma.
Healthy, happy, and productive teachers produce engaged and thriving students. The oppositive is also true. A stressed-out teacher creates a disengaged student. Our first priority is to take care of and restore our caregivers.
A Lack of Understanding
I have invested the last ten years researching engagement, health, and well-being with more than three hundred experts and leaders and produced four books together. In the past year, I coached more than one hundred leaders in business, with churches and schools, through every conceivable situation and challenges brought about by the pandemic.
After all of this work, I’ve arrived at one conclusion. We have to take better care of ourselves and one another. Physical and emotional health is part of a firm foundation upon which we can build lives of meaningful service to God, family, and to our churches and communities. The high-performing individuals I have met in every industry and sector have incredible gifts and drive. However, few have the training or skills to flourish through prolonged crisis.
This lack of understanding reminds me of the passage in Hosea chapter four, that God’s “people are destroyed from lack of knowledge.” The reason they lack knowledge is that the priests rejected it. I take this as a personal challenge. As a leader, coach, and parent, I must not only embrace the knowledge of health and well-being, but also walk the talk. I like to acknowledge when I have the opportunity that teaching is a habitat for heroes, not martyrs.
My saving grace twenty years ago included my wife, my closest friends, my faith in Christ, and my mindset. Without knowing it at the time, I had begun to develop consistent strategies that are in line with what we now know as the “six disciplines of post-traumatic growth” (see an earlier blog post here on these disciplines). These are:
- Resilient mindset;
- Playing to your strengths;
- “Circle of five” close friends/supporters;
- Sleep and physical wellness; and
- Daily accomplishments.
I encourage my clients to begin with a simple inventory of where they are relative to the six disciplines before scaling what may look like a mountain. Once I explain each discipline, rank order them from strongest to weakest and build out from the strongest. You may rank health as a top concern. If that is the case, start there.
In fact, we’ll spend the rest of this blog post talking about how to get started—this school year, right now!—with building a better foundation for health. Improving physical health may be a catalyst for the other disciplines. It is undoubtedly the fastest way to feel better and improve our lives. Over 60 percent of adults have a chronic disease, and 70 percent are overweight or have obesity. The road to flourishing is no doubt paved with well-being.
Physical Health: Busting Some Myth
Restoring our health is more than dieting or exercising. However, I’d like to help you get started by exposing a few myths and help you get to the root of many of our health challenges.
Myth #1 – I can get by with less than six hours of sleep.
I’ll start with sleep because it receives the least amount of attention. The CDC says that one out of three Americans does not get enough sleep. There is a long string of adverse health outcomes awaiting those who rob their sleep. If you’re getting less than six quality hours of sleep, your daily functioning is severely impaired. Shifting your evening routine is not an easy habit to change.
For years, I thought I was doing fine. My routine was to end the day by closing out a few emails, watching a show with my wife, and settling into bed around 10:30 to 11 p.m. I woke up between 5:30 and 6 a.m., went to the gym, and worked out. In 2016 I purchased a bio-tracker called a WHOOP strap because I read about top athletes using sleep as a competitive advantage. The strap quickly revealed I was operating on fumes but did not realize it before. My body had sub-optimized. In other words, it adjusted my to my low recovery levels. Feeling sluggish seemed normal. After a few weeks, my WHOOP results recommended I spend nine hours in bed to get the seven and a half hours of sleep I needed. I thought that was impossible. But after reading the research and books like Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker and Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevens, I concluded I needed to adjust my lifestyle to prevent all of the bad stuff that happens when you neglect your brain’s health. I was not, however, expecting the nice upside: more energy, better work and productivity, more resilience, and a greater sense of happiness overall.
Myth #2 – If I lose weight, I’ll be healthier.
The truth is that losing weight should be a by-product of enjoying a healthier life. Changing behavior is more challenging than simply repenting over and over again, and promising to do better next time. There are proven practices that will help shift to healthier behaviors. For example, if you have a healthier motive, change comes easier. Out of the people who were surveyed, those who wanted to work out to lose weight were less likely to stick with it than people who felt great after exercising. If you’d like to learn more about changing habits to improve your health, I recommend reading the book Tiny Habits by B.J. Fogg.
Myth #3 – If I eat a balanced diet, I should be okay.
The challenge with this is that the norm set by the food industry for a balanced diet is killing us. Your primary enemy begins with sugar in all forms. That includes foods high in carbohydrates and sugar slipped into all processed food. My daughter, for example, thinks drinking orange juice is healthy. One eight-ounce glass delivers a full day of sugar. My youngest son likes Dr. Pepper and sweet tea. One can contains two times the sugar you should consume in a day. One serving of lasagna at Olive Garden delivers three times the healthy sugar for one day in the form of carbohydrates. Someone sent me a note that said, “I use pure cane sugar, not the white stuff.” I broke the hard news to her and said it might look different, but your body reacts the same way to both. The amount of sugar in food is one area the food industry cleverly disguises, killing us for lack of knowledge and discipline.
I’d love to have the space to elaborate but simply put, our bodies can only handle up to twenty-six grams of sugar a day or less than six teaspoons a day. That’s it! Start slowly. I did twenty years ago. I gradually weaned off almost all sugar. I use the word “wean” deliberately because sugar is addictive. It activates a part of our brains, the nucleus accumbens, just like cocaine.
Myth #4 – I just have to work out at least thirty minutes a day.
Daily exercise is a great habit. However, what’s even better is incorporating movement throughout the day. NASA took this approach to develop a way for astronauts to counteract the adverse effects of weightlessness in space. The research has shown that sitting for hours has a similar negative effect on health as weightlessness. You can find several articles with scary titles like “sitting is the new smoking.” If you or a spouse are now working from home, you may be sitting more in back-to-back virtual calls.
NASA calls adding movement throughout the day “NEAT.” It stands for non-exercise thermogenesis. Examples include parking at the end of a parking lot and walking to a building, or using the stairs versus an elevator. My work now keeps me secluded in my home studio all day. I reduce one-hour meetings to forty-five minutes, and between meetings, I do fifteen sit-ups, fifteen push-ups, and ten deep knee bends while using a breathing technique. I then walk downstairs, fill up a glass of water, and walk back up to my office. I’ve timed it, and this routine takes less than seven minutes. However, by the end of the day, I will have done at least seventy-five sit-ups and push-ups. This kind of movement gets the blood flowing enough to oxygenate my brain and flush some of the cortisol (stress) out of my system. Doing this has more benefits than working out once at the end of the day or in the morning. If you’re interested in learning more about movement, read Eat, Move, Sleep by Tom Rath or Move Your DNA by Katy Bowman.
I encourage you to start by making a list of the six disciplines and find a quiet spot to make an honest assessment. Look at them from a few different angles. Consider the strongest to the weakest. Consider the one you want to develop most. Consider starting with the easiest discipline. There is no wrong way to get started. But get started, you must.
I did not approach mine in any logical sequence. One thing led to another and then to another. It’s nice to know that deep medical and psychological research established these disciplines. It helps me when I work with my clients. However, more importantly, these principles are woven into every book of the Bible. I appreciate so much God’s wake-up call in my life when I was forty-six. It brought rescue, but left a limp in my walk that reminds me of the struggle to rebuild and His blessing on that effort.
Striving to create a school to flourish under current conditions is a heroic journey. I hope this post provides encouragement for the journey ahead of you this year. Engaging in the six disciplines, including sleep and physical health, will enhance and expand your capacity to touch the families who go to your schools, their neighbors, and the communities you serve.
About the Author:
Rex Miller is the lead author for WHOLE: What Teachers Need to Help Students Thrive, which examines ways to create a healthy workplace in schools. His company, MindShift, has tackled numerous large and complex problems in various fields, including education. His books have won international awards for innovation and excellence. To learn more about Rex’s work, visit his website at www.rexmiller.com or reach out via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.