Addressing Chronic, Overwhelming Work-related Stress...Burnout - Steve Barkley

Addressing Chronic, Overwhelming Work-related Stress…Burnout

Addressing Chronic, Overwhelming Work-related Stress...Burnout

Dr. Chris Jenson combines his experiences as an ER physician followed by ten years as a high school science teacher to provide a unique look at work-related stress and burnout. He identifies that while self-care is good, it is insufficient. In his book, “Triage Your School,” Chris states that educators gave health providers the problem-solving skills they needed and that now, health care providers can share strategies and solutions from their workflow findings with educators.

Find Chris’s Book, “Triage Your School” here.

Visit Chris’s website here.

Find Chris’s LinkedIn here.

Subscribe to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast on iTunes or visit BarkleyPD.com to find new episodes!

Podcast Transcript:

[00:00:00.740] – Steve [Intro]

Hello, and welcome to the Teacher Edition of Steve Barkley Ponders Out loud. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding, and my curiosity has peaked whenever I explore with teachers the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate and support their learners. Thanks for listening. I’m delighted that you’re here.

[00:00:31.900] – Steve

Addressing chronic, overwhelming work-related stress…burnout. Excited to welcome to our podcast today, Dr. Christopher Jenson, a former emergency room physician and high school teacher. Dr. Jenson is currently the Senior Advisor at Diagnosing Education, an organization that focuses on designing impactful solutions for health-related struggles in schools. He is the author of, “Triage Your School: A Physician’s Guide to Preventing Burnout.” Welcome, Chris.

[00:01:09.700] – Chris

Thank you so much for having me, Steve. It’s a pleasure to be here.

[00:01:12.480] – Steve

I’m excited. The earlier conversation we had has geared me up for this. I’m so excited to get it recorded into a podcast.

[00:01:22.230] – Chris

Perfect. I’ve got some caffeine on board, so I’ll try to talk slower than normal.

[00:01:27.250] – Steve

All right. Well, I’m wondering for starters, you got to give people a little bit of a background on your move from an ER physician, to high school teacher, to a school health consultant.

[00:01:42.960] – Chris

Yeah. You made it sound very nice as if there was a plan, but my life has been guided by serendipity and a really good wife. No, I went down the classic pathway of becoming a physician, college, straight into med school, straight into residency, and practicing the emergency medicine, and really enjoyed it and then married someone way prettier and smarter than me who was also a physician. And everyone has a way that they want their life to shake out. And for us, we needed some more stability. And I loved still working with medical students and junior residents so I got this harebrained idea that I would move from health care to education and jumped into teaching. And as you can imagine, that was a great financial gain. I say that with some levity, but no, it was the right call for us as our family. And I was fascinated by teaching. I really was. And so I got into the high school classroom and found out very quickly how hard teaching was. Student teaching was a trial by fire, just like it is for all of us and then having my own kids when the door shut and 35 pairs of eyes are staring at me, then you find out what you’re made of.

[00:02:53.390] – Chris

And I taught for nine years. But I was always in the back of my mind sad that I was missing health care. And so I figured out a way to put best of both worlds together. In 2018, I started consulting for health-related issues in schools. And that was things like vaping, opioid abuse, asthma protocols. And then obviously, 2020 hit and my job opportunities exploded as schools were reaching for advice regarding COVID management. And then I’ve just continued working with health-related issues. And the big ones right now, one of them being our topic, staff exhaustion and burnout. And of course, student mental health lingers as well, but this has become my passion, and it’s a chance for me to do both dreams in one job.

[00:03:37.920] – Steve

I’m wondering if you talk a little bit about work-related stress as a physician in an ER and work-related stress as a teacher?

[00:03:47.590] – Chris

Yeah. So honestly, while they are very different jobs, in some ways they’re not. In the underlying principles, educators are caretakers in the same way that a nurse or a physician is. In the emergency room, we might be putting IVs or slamming in chest tubes, and that’s how we take care. But both teachers and health care providers are dealing with someone who’s inherently vulnerable, that’s dependent upon their skills, where our goal is to make them better than when we found them, where we use a certain algorithmic approach of knowing what they need, where we look for assessments to show that they’re improving. There’s a lot of caretaking. I mean, that’s not even a stretch, right? I mean, the example is right there in in front of us. Having done both jobs, I lived that phenomenon, but I think our listeners can understand that, too. Caretakers are found both in health care and education. To no surprise, they are succumbing to the same stress points, and we’re seeing the same fatigue, and sadly, we’re seeing the same burnout.

[00:04:58.360] – Chris

As a side to that, because I am a little bit of a data-driven nerd, I became very interested when we were on the other side of the pandemic, ’21, ’22, why was it that certain health systems actually weathered the storm really well, like Mayo, Cleveland Clinic, a couple of others. I started researching, why did their health care providers hang in there? Why were their retention rates so high? What did they do? As I looked at what they did, it quickly dawned on me, oh, my gosh, you could scale a lot of these ideas to schools, simply because the solutions for caretakers in a hospital, not all of them coincide in a school, but a lot of them do. And I had proof right in front of me that it worked. So that’s when I started scrambling to create ideas and strategies for how do we take something that we knew weathered the storm under the worst conditions and scale it for educators.

[00:05:44.880] – Steve

What are some of the indicators of being overstressed that educators should be aware of?

[00:05:51.760] – Chris

Yeah, I’m glad you asked that question. It’s not just having a bad day or a bad week. It’s really, when you look at it, chronic stress should produce chronic changes. And so if you think about it, stress is going to trigger some level of fight or flight response in us. That could be something as simple as you’re worried about a presentation you have for your boss, and you get some adrenaline release, and you’re sweating on edge and stuff like that. I think we’re all familiar with that. But when I have a chronic stressor, that fight or flight response never gets to back off. It’s always there because there’s something provoking it persistently every day. And so what happens is you start to see physiologic changes in your body and your personality, and you become edgy and a little more anxious and quicker to anger and there’s typically sleep changes. There may be changes in weight that are unintentional. And the biggest one of all is persistent fatigue that seems to be independent of how much sleep you get. And so what I always tell people is we all have happy and bad days. What you’re looking for is, do you feel like you’re becoming a different person than you were six months ago?

[00:07:05.620] – Chris

And if the answer is yes, you’re probably staring down the barrel of chronic stress.

[00:07:10.860] – Steve

Before we jump into your book, “Triage Your School,” you have a whole chapter that looks at self-care, and you make this statement that self-care is insufficient and not a solution to burnout. Talk about that?

[00:07:29.430] – Chris

Sure. First thing I want to say, and I’m going to hit that head-on with a direct answer, but the first thing I want to say is I’m not against self-care. I just don’t think it’s enough. Here’s why. Teachers were beginning to fatigue between 2003 and 2019. There’s multiple articles from New York Times, Washington Post on it. Then here comes COVID and everything goes sideways. That’s probably not the best time to look at teacher burnout. But we’re now… everyone was excited in 2023 when Rand said, in their fiscal analysis, hey, teachers are back to the same level of stress that they were pre-pandemic. Okay, well, that’s 20% higher on average than most other career fields, and we’re 560,000 teachers short compared to where we were pre-pandemic. And add in the fact that all this has been taking place in the face of self-care. In January of 2024, there’s data that comes out and basically says that 85% of teachers surveyed, it was Devon Peck, thought their job was not sustainable. These are the folks that hung around throughout the pandemic or decided to go into teaching despite the pandemic. These are very resilient individuals. They’re still saying, I don’t know if I could do this for a very long time.

[00:08:49.000] – Chris

I mention all that because those results, those data points, are all taking place in the midst of very aggressive self-care initiatives. Instead of just pointing the finger at self-care, why is it maybe not working as well as we hoped? Well, let’s pick on me. I love to run to get rid of stress, and I love music. I play guitar late at night or my trumpet, badly, but I relieve stress. Those are good. Those allow me a pause in my day. They allow me to reset myself. They allow me to calm. But they do not ever address the driving forces in my job that provide me stress. They just don’t. There’s no music I can play that will deal with feeling ever expanding workflows and too many demands. There’s no run that I can take that will deal with the polarization in politics surrounding schools. You have to see self-care for what it is. It’s a great pause in the day to reset yourself, and I encourage it. But for districts or school boards or state agencies to just keep shoving more self-care down the throats of teachers is ridiculous because we need action items that will allow people to change the driving forces that are making them exhausted in the first place.

[00:10:07.130] – Chris

If self-care helps on top of it, great. By all means, go to yoga, go for a run. I love it. But I want something for educators that changes the driving forces that’s making them need self-care in the first place.

[00:10:19.930] – Steve

There’s two things that hit me as I listened to you there. Let me stay with the educator one first. I’m thinking it needs to be empowerment at a level that allows the person to change the conditions within which the work has occurred.

[00:10:39.390] – Chris

Absolutely. You said that so well. I wish I’d used you for my book as a quote. But yeah, these action items are something that teachers can institute effective immediately because they involve workflow. They involve the daily actions of staff. We can go through some of them, but in In the book, I go to painstaking detail of mapping out how to engage with these action items. It’s very clear that there’s no funding needed, there’s no state board approval. This is your personal workflow, you getting the job done, and how to recalibrate it in such a way that it becomes doable and allows you to be a human. But as you said, it’s empowering because you own it. It’s your classroom. These are your strategies. You own it.

[00:11:27.280] – Steve

So this is probably another podcast we can come back and do another time. But the other thing that struck me as I listened to you there is I’m afraid that we’re too often doing the same thing with students. We’re looking at self-care strategies for the student when we should be looking at systemic changes in the school and the classroom.

[00:11:51.860] – Chris

Yeah. It’s a really good point you make. And one of my other passions is student mental health and looking at what are risk factors for kids, what kids probably need, and then being fair. Okay, well, what are schools equipped to tackle? Going back to your point, having been an educator myself, they are generally, or at least all my colleagues, were good-hearted people with good intentions, usually type A, too hard on themselves, very hard working, and wanted to fix everything. In reality, what we need to be doing is if you look at the systemic issues that are giving kids one of the most profound youth mental health crisis in the last two decades, what’s our sandbox that we can correct? What are we equipped to tackle? Let’s tackle these systemic issues because, hey, we’re educators and we could do X, Y, and Z well, instead of doing 100 things half-heartedly. I don’t mean half-heartedly from lack of effort. I just mean we’re not made for them.

[00:12:51.070] – Steve

Yeah. There were a couple of items as I look through the strategies in your book that struck me as areas that I’ve worked on in school. I wanted to touch on a couple of those, if you would. You mentioned the importance of community resilience. Would you talk about that a little?

[00:13:12.070] – Chris

Yeah, sure. So to do that, I’m going to, again, pick on myself. Being a type A personality and wanting things in my classroom a certain way, I did most things for my kids in a silo by myself. I was a science teacher in a big school with other science teachers, I ran my own copies. I did my own lesson plans. I set up my own labs. I did all the things myself. But then I would complain about how there was a thousand things to do every day. A younger teacher came in and said, “I hear you. What are you going to do to change it?” That put me on my heels. She was very bright. We sat down and it dawned on me. Wait, we could borrow the same ideas that are being used at an outpatient pediatric clinic. Hear me, okay? They take care of kids. They do a good job. It used to be that those doctors would do all the things in isolation as well. There’s well patients, there’s sick patients, following up on labs, administrative meetings, calling back parents, all the things. They were all staying very late. Then they got smart and they said, hey, look, some of these things are always going to force us to stay late, but some of these things, if you could do them individually, you’d get out of here really quick.

[00:14:23.130] – Chris

Why don’t we rotate these jobs? Physician A will be the late physician taking care of the unexpected sick patients. That’s a hard week for them. They’re going to be there late. But then next week, they rotate to administrative meetings and lab reports. That’s easy. There aren’t that many meetings and the lab reports, they can fly through them quick. They’re out typically 2-3 hours before they usually would be. And they rotate through the responsibilities, and they share the responsibilities equitably across their group. And they know they have some late weeks, some short weeks, some middle weeks. And suddenly, instead of never-ending monotony and not knowing what you can do after work, you have a very predictable pattern of workflow that gives you stability, that gives you confidence, that gives you happiness on your quick weeks when you know you’re out the door and you can go to your kid’s soccer game and so forth. On the longer weeks, you’re not bitter because you know something good is coming. Basically, in the book, I scale those operations and I give several examples that districts are using right now, I had the privilege of working with them, of how they did it, how they rotated workflow in the elementary grades by grade level.

[00:15:32.320] – Chris

Small schools, no problem. You just got to be more creative. Big schools, you can do it by departments if you’re a secondary. There’s ways to do it regardless of the size or shape of the school or the demographics. What’s happened, those teachers and admins that I’ve been in touch with have come back and said, “This is great. We took your template, and then we started customizing it even more.” I’m like, awesome. That’s the point. Make it yours.

[00:15:57.710] – Steve

Well, that rings pretty strong for me because my big sermon is teaching as a team sport.

[00:16:06.190] – Chris

Absolutely.

[00:16:07.470] – Steve

I always found teaming to be empowering, and that’s exactly what I’m hearing there.

[00:16:13.440] – Chris

Yes. I think there are so many good reasons to do it, and I’m confident you bring many others to folks’ attention. I was focusing on the workflow aspects, which help sanity of the individual teacher. But yeah, just when you and I were chatting, there’s also secondary mentorship goes through that. I mean, if Mrs. Smith down the hall is really good at setting up activities quick, by all means, I’d like to go in there and learn how. And you suddenly in your workflow group, you’re helping each other out until everyone’s good at everything.

[00:16:49.060] – Steve

Another topic that caught my attention was understanding boundaries. And I’m guessing that was important in medicine, and you saw the connections to teaching.

[00:16:59.600] – Chris

Absolutely. Yeah. So when you think of COVID and the things that everyone went through, they were challenging, whether you were the Amazon delivery person, God bless them, or whether you were a physician in an ICU. It was just challenging. And when I went back and looked at those premier health systems that held on to physicians and nurses as well, one thing they did was they went out of their way to say, we understand from a system point of view that as badly as we want to save every patient, that’s not always going to happen. That’s hard as a human to accept. I think that’s a very parallel feeling for teachers. They want to help every kid. I don’t care how stressed or tired you are in your heart, you still want to help every kid. I’m not asking you to not try. What I’m asking you to do is to focus your time and energy on things where you know you can get results. You helping your kids, that’s something you can get results. You wasting time time and energy about how educators are perceived at the national level in a New York Times article, I don’t know that you can really sway that unless you’re a lot more famous and important than me.

[00:18:10.330] – Chris

The training that healthcare providers typically get is a series of questions that they force these providers to ask themselves. I’m going to summarize them quickly. The chapter in the book is much longer, but are you able to identify the problem that’s irking you? Usually, yes. Much harder question, do you actually understand the driving forces behind the problem? Can you itemize them? Then the third question is, of those itemized driving forces, do you have the skills and authority to attack those itemizations? If the answer is no, please continue to be informed, but stop expending your energy on it. If the answer is yes, okay, you may have a solvable problem. But it’s really training educators to think differently of, there are things that I can get a return on my emotional investment for. That’s where I need to put my energy. That’s where I need to see success, so I know my time and energy is worth it. There are things that, I could have the most brilliant plan in the world and scream it from the top of the hills but if I don’t have the skills and authority to make that change, you’re probably not going to see any return on that investment, and you’re going to get more frustrated, and it’s going to wear you out.

[00:19:30.540] – Chris

Scaling these concepts from healthcare to educators, it’s a different way to think. I have to walk people through it slowly. We do many case studies and play examples in the book, and I give resources for it until people start getting the hang of, this is how you might want to approach your job, which has never-ending concerns. So how do you choose the ones you want to go after?

[00:19:54.380] – Steve

So boundaries help me focus.

[00:19:57.990] – Chris

Boundaries help you focus. And boundaries also allow you to see a return on your investment. And I think we all need to see that, right?

[00:20:06.310] – Steve

That’s rewarding and energizing.

[00:20:09.130] – Chris

Exactly. Think of the moments you hold on to in teaching when you made an impact with a colleague or a kid, you need those. You need those to know your energy was worth it. And so this is scaling your thinking and operation so that you can continue to get those.

[00:20:26.290] – Steve

I’m wondering, as we look to wrap up here, if other areas of awareness that you think you want to put out to the listeners regarding stress and burnout?

[00:20:39.150] – Chris

Yeah, sure. I think the hardest thing is really to make changes. Again, just because it’s easy for me, we’ll pick on myself. I used to fall into a trap where I would focus on the problem and talk about all the driving forces of the problem and analyze the problem. Really, it took me about, oh, a decade to turn into a solution person. Now I only look at a problem long enough to understand what are the precipitating factors so I can attack them individually. That requires you to make a change. That saying, someone quoted it, of old keys don’t open new locks. If you are engaging in a workflow process that consistently makes you burn out, it’s just a simple statement to say you have to make a change. You have to. Because it’s a physiologic problem you’re going to lose. Workflow is one of the easiest things to make changes with, simply because number one, you control it, you’re empowered, you have the skills and the authority. Number two, it’s not changing the existential reasons you went into teaching. It’s just changing how you work. The reward is when you look at it, if I can change my process, it doesn’t impact my “why.”

[00:21:58.360] – Chris

My “why” for why I’m in education is personal and it’s still there. I’m just changing my process so I can rebalance my life. I would just advocate, I was blessed to work with SolutionTree. They have amazing editors that made my writing readable. But what I would say is that the book shows people how to take a process that has succeeded in the most chaotic of environments. I know school is chaotic, but you know what? In the ICU and the ER, even more. And it worked there. If it worked there, friends, give it a chance.

[00:22:35.510] – Steve

Well, Chris, I really appreciate the conversation and the insights. What’s the best way for listeners to connect with you to follow the work you’re doing, and find the “Triage In Our Schools?”

[00:22:49.940] – Chris

Sure. Well, the book is available on amazon.com or at SolutionTree. And again, it’s “Triage Your School.” And then I have a website, www.Ddiagnosingeducation.com. And then I’m on LinkedIn, creatively under my name, it’s Jenson. Or if you’re an X/Twitter person, it’s @DocJ4schools.

[00:23:16.160] – Steve

We’ll be sure to put your website on the lead-in to the podcast, make it easy for folks to find you.

[00:23:23.300] – Chris

Okay. Thank you so much.

[00:23:24.700] – Steve

You bet. Thank you.

[00:23:28.660] – Steve [Outro]

Thanks for listening in, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter at Steve Barkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.

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