Wednesday, March 2, 2016

"A cascade of little annoyances can easily gather momentum"

"A cascade of little annoyances can easily gather momentum." That's a quote from the book Cultivating Teacher Renewal: Guarding Against Stress and Burnout (Barbara Larrivee, 2012, p. 8). Chapter one in her book is entitled “The Consequences of Stress and Burnout.” As she notes, some stress is normal and useful. The problem, she says, is when stress is long-term and ongoing. Therefore, “the goal is not to be stress free but rather to keep the harmful effects of cumulative stress at bay” (p. 3).

She makes the distinction between big stresses and little stresses. We all deal with job stresses of various sizes. An example of a big stress she mentions is an increase in work responsibilities that becomes hard to manage. Another example of a big stress I can think of is the endless stream of e-mail we endure. I get increasingly irritated by long e-mails in my inbox. Brevity, people, brevity! I try to keep my e-mails short and to the point. Lately I find a phone call to be way more efficient than a sequence of e-mails.

We shouldn’t overlook the little stresses that add up, like someone knocking on your closed door when you're eating lunch or someone who asks you for a last-minute favor. I really try to be respectful of people's time. I try not to shove work onto people's plates. I think a lot of stresses -- big and small -- could be lessened if we better respected each other's time. I rarely meet someone looking for more work to do. Most of my colleagues are stretched to the max.

Larrivee says there’s a link between stress and burnout. She describes burnout as "the physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that results from chronic job stress and frustration" (p. 8). She emphasizes that burnout is a process that develops over time. Unfortunately, people often don't realize something is wrong until they've reached the exhaustion stage.

I'm trying to be more aware of the stresses I'm encountering. And I chat up my colleagues about stress. We should be talking about our stress and sharing our coping resources. Workplace norms like "do more" and "be more productive" can leave one feeling inadequate. I'm not running around advocating that people "do less" or advising people to "be less productive." I'm only saying that we shouldn't make each other feel like we're never good enough or that we should always be doing more work.

The myth that we have summers off to restore ourselves doesn't help. Many of my colleagues work through the summer by teaching courses and by catching up on research. For some of us at teaching-focused institutions, summer is the only time we can do research for an extended length of time. And for some people, teaching in the summer isn't optional, it's something they need to do to pay the bills.

Most of us want to be team players and be productive members of our institution, but there are times we have to say no and times we have to be protective of our time. We want to make meaningful contributions without burning out. I'm increasingly interested in learning about (and promoting) personal strategies and forms of interpersonal and institutional support that can lessen our stress so that we're in better shape for the long run.

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