Do As I Say Not As I Do: A Self-Care Cautionary Tale During Distance Learning
Psst… I have a confession to make…
I am a school social worker, and I am not always great at self-care. There were two critical ideas instilled in us from day one of my MSW program: (1) Self-care: you can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself and (2) Boundaries: firm limits are essential and help prevent compassion fatigue. I am often the first to remind colleagues and friends to take time every day to relax, refresh, and refocus… as for me, that’s a whole other story.
You can often find me preaching self-care and boundaries to my students. I help them find a balance between schoolwork, social life, family life, and self-care for the sake of their mental health and general wellbeing. We work together to define personal boundaries to ensure they understand how important it is to protect those limits. However, I have been struggling to take my own advice during these weeks of online learning and sheltering-in-place.
SEL Is Everywhere!
Since the world turned upside down, the message about self-care and the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) is everywhere.
Many school districts have mandated SEL and acknowledged that academics may need to take a back seat to emotional well-being during this crisis. There are television commercials about taking good care of yourself and maintaining meaningful relationships: #weareinthistogether. As a social worker, it is validating and exciting to see social-emotional wellbeing and self-care being so widely promoted. You would think that seeing those messages all over would help remind me to make the time!
I tend to be exceptionally stubborn and hyper-focused when the well-being of others is at stake!
My school “office hours” were slated to be from 9 am to 2 pm Monday through Friday. In part, reduced work hours were implemented to help education staff focus on their own welfare during this upended time. However, with the amount of work it took to overcome the steep learning curve and create a remote learning plan from scratch, that was just not realistic…for me as well for many of my colleagues.
To quote a colleague, “Not being at work was so much more work than being at work. Self-care had to take a back seat.”
At the beginning of remote learning, I spent 9-10 hours a day setting up a system and learning how to use technology. (Shout out to Zoom and Google Classroom!) There was so much to do to effectively support the social-emotional needs of students during distance learning that self-care wasn’t high on the “to-do” list.
Where To Begin?
I had to seek out appropriate resources, create multiple SEL lessons, talk to parents, talk to students, consult with teachers and other social workers, complete remote learning plans, and modify and complete IEP/BIP paperwork, and, and, and… you get the picture. All while dealing with the many changes that had to be made in response to ever-evolving state mandates. Then another 1-2 hours would be spent on my own homework and other projects. I was in the middle of an online class, completing a project proposal as a student in Loyola’s School Mental Health Advanced Practitioner Program (SMHAPP). Plus, studying for my LCSW exam, and I became heavily involved with the Supporting our Schools During the COVID-19 Crisis effort through SSWNetwork. I have been able to slow down to a paltry 7-8 hours per day since finally getting into a good groove with online services. Naturally, it was just in time for school to wind down for summer.
Then there was the problem of “work hours.” So many of my students are in situations where they do not have access to adequate technology resources or internet access in order to complete work or reach out to staff. Some only have access by cell phone and are trying to do assignments on a 6-inch screen. Meanwhile, others share one computer with multiple siblings, who are also trying to do school work and have to use it when they can.
I could not, in good conscience, tell a high school student I can’t do a Zoom meeting for social work because it is “outside school hours”.
Then there was the issue of getting students to stay in touch or respond at all. I had minimal contact with my students until creating a Google Voice number, which is the number one resource I have found since this all began. During my search for ways to support students from a distance and how to get students to engage, I read an article from PEW Research Center stating “72% of teens say they often or sometimes check for messages or notifications as soon as they wake up, while roughly four-in-ten say they feel anxious when they do not have their cellphone with them.”
While I wrestled with the issues texting could present, I ultimately decided it was more important to communicate with my students “where they are” during this crisis.
Once they learned they could reach me by text, I was able to keep in contact with several students I would not have heard from otherwise. It also enabled me to cultivate relationships with a few students where there was none before. It seems the perceived anonymity of text helped them to initiate contact and (eventually) open up. However, teenagers do not keep a 9 am-2 pm schedule. If they sleep until noon, then wake up and get ready, it would be close to 2 pm before they even think about classes or social work. So faced with the choice of not supporting these students at all or answering a text at 6:30 pm, I chose the latter.
Emails and texts and late nights – oh my!
Now, I had excellent rationales…
- “The world is crazy right now, and things need to be different”
- “I haven’t seen/heard from/talked to this student at all in the past X amount of days, so if they are reaching out now, they must need something”
- “It’s just one less thing I have to do tomorrow”
….but ultimately, I was not making healthy, sustainable choices with my own self-care or wellbeing at the forefront.
I wasn’t showing any signs that I needed to take better care of myself; no irritability, depression, or fatigue. As a matter of fact, I often felt productive and invigorated. I didn’t even consider that those may be signs of long term “fight or flight” response. Can you say denial! As a social worker, I know better! Chronic stress can wreak havoc on social-emotional and physical wellbeing.
Then Facebook happened, my birthday was the first Sunday in May, and I took the whole day off. At 6 pm, I posted: “Took my first full day off since March. It felt… weird ??”. Most people “liked” the post or made a snarky comment, but one of my school social work friends commented: “When was the last time you took time for yourself without worrying about one of your students or everything else you have to do?”
At first, I laughed and rolled my eyes… of course I was making time for self-care! I AM a social worker, after all! I still watched my favorite shows… so what if I also had my phone out looking at resources or texting students. I got 8-hours of sleep a night… most of the time, right? I still listened to audiobooks before I went to sleep… for a few minutes anyway before I crashed from exhaustion. Then I asked myself… what would I tell one of my students or colleagues if they said that? It was then that I experienced one of those proverbial “aha” moments: I am NOT doing a great job taking care of myself right now!
Am I A Master of Self-Care Yet?
I would like to say I became a self-care guru; that I start every day with deep breathing and mindfulness exercises, stick to a better schedule, and exercise regularly, but I can’t. I would love to tell you that I don’t experience guilt when not returning a text or an email right away or that I don’t talk to students outside of work hours, but that wouldn’t quite be true either. I have returned to listening to an audiobook at least 30 minutes nightly, getting at least 8 hours of sleep every night, taking more walks when it’s nice outside, and trying to leave my phone alone while watching a favorite show. Plus, I no longer answer texts or emails once I’m in bed. Progress! While I still have a ways to go before declaring myself a master of self-care… I feel I am on the right track.
I am aware that being in constant “crisis-mode” and working at a fevered pace can lead to high levels of stress, compassion fatigue, or even physical ailments. Even before this worldwide pandemic, the need for self-care was evident with several studies indicating 21%-67% of mental health practitioners may experience higher levels of burnout (Salyers, Rollins, et al., 2012). However, my passion for helping others and my need to be there for my students and colleagues sometimes still gets in the way.
In the meantime, while I am working on taking better care of myself, do what I say… take care of yourself, engage in self-care, and self-compassion every day. During this time of “social distancing” remember to reach out, stay connected, learn how others practice self-care and self-kindness, and build that all-important feeling of community and connection into your self-care practice. Additionally, be sure to check out these other articles on the SSWN site encouraging wellness, and feel free to connect with me!
Editor’s Note: Feedback and suggestions are welcome on our https://schoolsocialworkers.mn.co/ SSWNetwork social media platform. SSWNetwork is always free to join, and there’s over 4,500 of us there already! And if you’re interested in telling us more about your SSW practice during this pandemic time, please consider participating in our School Social Work Practice During A Pandemic: A Web Survey Assessing SSW Needs today, a joint effort between SSW researchers at 4 universities.
Morse, G., Salyers, M. P., Rollins, A. L., Monroe-DeVita, M., & Pfahler, C. (2012). Burnout in mental health services: A review of the problem and its remediation. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 39(5), 341-352. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10488-011-0352-1