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Professional Development

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Self-Care to Avoid Burnout

Twice in my nearly 20-year career in youth development, I have wanted to walk away from working with students and never return.

It wasn't that I had a traumatic experience or that I suddenly stopped caring about children and youth—the problem was not the kids. The problem was me. Specifically, the problem was that I had done a terrible job of taking care of myself in the process of caring for the students in my programs.

Sometimes, as caring adults who work with children and young people, we forget that we are human beings as well. We forget that we don't have endless stores of energy and creativity. We fail to give ourselves the opportunity to recharge. We ignore the fact that we are as prone as anyone to the experience of burnout.

Burnout, as defined by Ayala Pines and Elliot Aronson, is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in emotionally demanding situations. If we fail to pay attention to and take care of our physical, emotional and mental states, we can set ourselves up for struggles as we work in "emotionally demanding situations" that often come with students in afterschool settings.

Burnout for afterschool staff is not inevitable and it doesn't have to be a part of your experience. These suggestions will work for avoiding burnout and can also contribute to your recovery, should you find yourself in a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion.

Find an Outlet
Be intentional about making time to participate in activities that can reenergize you and/or help you relax. It could be a hobby like painting or sewing or it could be a physical activity such as walking or playing in pick-up basketball games. It could even be as simple as setting aside an hour a night to disappear into your favorite genre of books. Whatever it is, be intentional and consistent in your engagement with your outlets.

Set Boundaries
Be clear about how and when you will get your work done. Examples of boundaries may be that you don't check work email after 7 p.m., learning to say "no" to opportunities outside the scope of your job, or not giving your cell number to parents or students. You have to decide what boundaries are realistic and will work for you. Understand your limits and work to stay within those limits.

Be Honest with Yourself
We are great liars to ourselves. We tell ourselves stories that we are "just a little tired" or "if I can make it to the end of next week, I will be fine." These stories can mask the ugly reality that you could be headed for a meltdown. It is better to be honest and take the time to care for yourself voluntarily now than to experience burnout later.

Eat Well, Get Sleep and Exercise
When your physical state is not healthy, it can have a profound effect on your emotional and mental health. When you are not eating well or exercising, it is easy to become sluggish and short-tempered. As Mark Twain said, "Without enough sleep, we all become tall two-year-olds." Good nutrition, adequate rest and physical activity can greatly improve your outlook on your life and your work.

Change Behaviors and Mindsets
This is another area that takes honesty and intentionality. You will need to look at the work habits and practices that brought you to the edge of being burned out, then make adjustments to how you think and how you approach your job. Learn to delegate! Understand that the weight of the world does not rest squarely on your shoulders. Ask questions about how you can work differently. If you don't change your approach, you will continue to get what you have now.

Be Kind to Yourself
Brené Brown asks a great question in regard to the way we talk to ourselves: "If you had a friend who talked to you the way you talk to yourself, would you still be friends with that person?"

Many of us are hard on ourselves and have extremely high expectations when it comes to our personal work. Learn to recognize when you are speaking more harshly to yourself than you would ever speak to another person. Be kind to yourself!

This is not an exhaustive list of how to avoid and recover from burnout, but it is a start. It often helps to let someone else know what you are experiencing. Talk to a friend and don't be afraid to talk with a professional therapist, if that is necessary.

Your students need you, but they need you to be healthy as you help guide them through their education and their life.

Be intentional about taking care of yourself.

Written by Brad Lademann, the Resource Center Coordinator for the Missouri AfterSchool Network (MASN).