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Addressing COVID Fatigue and Chronic Stress in Schools

April 12, 2021 Melanie Moss

Woman wearing sweater an looking sadly out a window

Everything about this school year is different and uncertain. Staff is providing essential services while also contending with the constant threat of illness, civil unrest, natural disasters, economic insecurity, and even death of family or friends. With our lives and jobs turned upside down, some of us experience chronic stress and an emotional disorder known as COVID fatigue.

It is not uncommon for school employees who develop COVID fatigue to suffer health consequences, miss work more often, and get injured on the job. They might even undermine your pandemic response plan by abandoning best practices. If your organization learns how to combat chronic stress and COVID fatigue, it can promote employee well-being and continue serving its students, parents, and community.

A perfect storm

Trips to the gym, coffee with friends, time with family, and other self-care mechanisms do a lot for a person’s mental health. However, due to pandemic restrictions, we have not had access to the activities and social interactions that take us to our happy places.

The fallout can include boredom, loneliness, sadness, frustration, anxiety, fear, anger, and resentment— collectively known as COVID fatigue, according to Austin-based psychologist and behavioral health specialist Kay Allensworth.

“It is a perfect storm of anxiety-related factors,” said Allensworth. “It’s kind of like a bucket being filled with water a drop at a time. Eventually, the bucket will overflow if there is not a release or outlet. This continued stress and exhaustion leads to COVID fatigue.”

Compassion fatigue is another potential byproduct of the pandemic. Allensworth describes it as a state of mind that results in indifference to helping due to overload. The ever-changing landscape of public health guidance and the stress of maintaining in-person and virtual learning can lead to frustration and difficulty coping among educators.

Some might be unwilling or unable to help or devote extra time to meet the increased demands caused by the pandemic, including delivering extra meals, teaching a hybrid classroom model, or taking on extra administrative tasks.

We’re not built for long-term stress

The arrival of multiple vaccines provides hope that the pandemic will one day be reined in, if not stamped out. Until we reach herd immunity, however, COVID-19 remains a threat, and future waves are possible.

The constant increase in stressors causes people to become weary of basic best practices such as wearing a mask and keeping their distance.

COVID fatigue can affect mental and physical health, in large part due to our desire to return to normal. This is because the body responds to COVID fatigue in one of four ways:

  1. Fight or resist the threat
  2. Flight—evade the threat
  3. Freeze—become paralyzed in the face of the threat
  4. Fawn—give in to the threat

Stress is not meant to be long-term or permanent. The pandemic’s longevity, according to health organizations, has led to an increase in the freezing or fawning elements of fight-or-flight. With limited stress-relief options, the body stays in a constant state of alertness, even when it is in no immediate danger.

Allensworth explains that prolonged stress can disturb all major systems in the body and increase the risk of psychiatric disorders, as well as physical disorders such as cardiovascular diseases or diabetes.

“Stress is not just mental,” said Allensworth. “The physiological component is involuntary. The release of adrenaline happens without your conscious thought. How we react to stressors determines our resilience. This affects how quickly we reboot and reframe the effects of stress.”

Influences that can affect how a person reacts to stress include pre-existing risk factors such as mental illness. School district administrators should be aware that students, faculty, and staff may be more irritable or emotional. They might also behave differently, or they may experience behavioral changes such as nervousness and a sense of uncertainty.

Burnout and costly claims

Burnout is a syndrome that results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. The World Health Organization (WHO) associates burnout with three symptoms:

  • Energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance and cynicism toward the individual’s job
  • Reduced effectiveness

The WHO considers burnout an occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition. Still, it can lead to costly claims.

For example, burnout-related “increased mental distance”—distractions—can be deadly for employees who get behind the wheel of school buses, heavy equipment, and white-fleet vehicles. Similarly, fatigued employees doing hazardous jobs such as working with potent chemicals put themselves and their co-workers at risk.

Strategies for fighting chronic stress

Building a climate of support can help people combat chronic stress. Allensworth offers tips to help administrators start and sustain the process:

Foster confidence. Acknowledge staff involvement and commitment to their jobs. For example, provide positive reinforcement that helps students, faculty, and staff maintain confidence in their ability to solve problems and helps them trust their instincts to build resilience.

Create voluntary peer support groups. Consider dividing into peer groups. These peer groups can facilitate interaction and support through simple meet and greets while maintaining safety protocols.

Promote self-care. Allensworth points out that self-care is a choice that is controlled by the individual. She recommends employers reference Workforce Protection Wellness Dimensions to learn how to support self-care practices. For example, employees can benefit physically and emotionally if they:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat healthy
  • Spend time in nature
  • Seek out social supports such as friends
  • Participate in recreational activities
  • Learn to manage stress

Encourage employees to recharge. Sometimes, we need to step away from stress and recharge our batteries. Encourage employees to take short breaks during the day if they can. Some will benefit from a few minutes alone in a quiet place. Others will thrive on short walks with co-workers. You could also allow flexible schedules when possible for employees who need a little more time to unplug and take care of themselves.

Leveraging threat assessment teams

Your threat assessment team helps prevent tragedy by supporting individuals who show signs of harming themselves, others, or both. The team should include members with expertise in counseling and behavior management.

Because of its mental health responsibilities, your team is a logical support mechanism for anyone suffering from chronic stress or COVID fatigue.

Research indicates that providing mental health support can promote and maintain well-being. To the extent possible, and based on capacity and resources, continue to monitor employees and provide interventions.

How to get support

Schools continue to face challenges as they address public health and medical concerns. At the TASB Risk Management Fund, we’re committed to helping members continue to support students, faculty, and staff.

Fund members can contact your risk solutions consultant to learn more about our services. If you need guidance in preparing your organization for public health issues, reach out to Emergency Management and School Security Consultant Melanie Moss at 512.505.2868. Any district can access more resources through TASB HR Services and the Texas Education Agency.

About Kay Allensworth

Kay Allensworth Ph.D. serves as clinical director of the Central Texas Critical Incident Stress Management team. She is also a member of the Texas Disaster Medical System steering committee, the Texas Department of State Health Services Disaster Behavioral Health Consortium, and Texas Critical Incident Stress Management Network. She has served on disaster behavioral health forums for more than 20 years.

Tagged: coronavirus, COVID-19, "Risk Trends"