All Stressed Out

For parents and caregivers alike, stress, even occupational burnout, is a very real and stubborn problem. Terms such as isolation, emotional and physical exhaustion, lack of appreciation, and depression are synonymous with being a parent and/or a child care provider.

The contributing causes of stress and burnout are many. Through interviews with individuals at all levels of the early childhood field and research on stress and burnout, Paula Jorde Bloom, author of Avoiding Burnout, Strategies for Managing Time, Space and People in Early Childhood Education, has narrowed the causes to three main categories. These are: 1) causes inherent in the profession; 2) causes intrinsic in the individual's personality and behavior; and 3) causes fundamental in our society.

Causes Inherent in the Profession

"Most who enter the field of early childhood education want to do worthwhile things for people," says Bloom. "When asked what they want to accomplish, teachers say things like, "I want to tap the creative potential of my students," or "I want to give the children a good self-image." Burnout can occur when these laudable goals are frustrated, when reality doesn't quite square with expectations."

The many demands of the job, the parents and the children is a huge responsibility that as Bloom notes, is often a non-reciprocal balance of living. The teacher or director gives and the child or parent takes, resulting in resentment, in a realization that they can never, despite their exhaustive efforts, satisfy all the needs of the parents and the children they serve.

Other factors, like trying to run a program with limited funds, lack of appreciation or positive job feedback, low wages and few benefits, as well as a lack of professional standards, the view of society that "Anyone can teach," add to the disillusionment and eventual burnout.

Causes Intrinsic in the Individual

According to Bloom, the effectiveness with which an individual is able to handle the many situations that can lead to stress, is an often overlooked component of the burnout picture. She breaks down the causes intrinsic in the individual's personality and behavior into 4 areas:

    * Stress-tolerance level
    * Coping and adaptation ability
    * The Type A behavior pattern
    * The stress-prone diet.

Stress is unavoidable. As child care providers and parents we must deal with an enormous amount of change and outside demands. "As individuals, we may not always be able to dictate the number and intensity of events that happen to us. But making decisions about changes in our lives and maintaining some control over how we react to those changes gives us a powerful tool for managing stress and reducing the likelihood of burnout." says Bloom.

Causes Fundamental in Our Society

In all our efforts to make the world a safer and better place for our children, we have lagged far behind in our views about child care. The power struggle between the stay-at-home Mom and the working parent continues. The superwoman image remains a far-fetched dream rather than a reality. Add to that the day-to-day pressures of living in the 20th century, the erosion of our network and support systems and the lack of a national commitment to child care, and you have what Bloom terms the "five aspects of our society that contribute to the burnout phenomena."

Dealing With It All

Naturally some stress is good for us. It makes us work harder, aim higher. It puts a challenge in an otherwise monotonous life. With an understanding of some of the aforementioned causes of stress and burnout, we can work towards developing personal strategies to restore a sense of balance in our lives. Too, by recognizing the following signs and symptoms of burnout, we can take pro-active steps to make our lives more manageable. In Avoiding Burnout, Bloom lists the following signs and symptoms of burnout:

    * Headaches and muscle tension
    * Depression/boredom/apathy
    * Absenteeism/decline in performance
    * Hypertension/insomnia
    * Irritability/increased anxiety
    * Increased smoking, drinking, drug dependency and other addictions
    * Escape activities: shopping sprees/overeating/daydreaming
    * Stress related physical and emotional ailments
    * Tensions with family and friends.

Parents should be aware of these signs and symptoms in their child care provider. In a centre-based setting, a decline in the quality of a program and/or the overall moral of the staff may also indicate a problem.

The best strategy for dealing with stress and possible burnout is to take stock of your present situation, both personal and professional, listing the strengths, limitations and skills in each area. Then take a closer look at these in terms of time management, space management (your surroundings with regards to lightening, sound, temperature, colour, clutter, etc., do affect your stress level), and people management. By noting the limitations you face in each of these areas, you can apply your strengths and skills to get these limitations under control.

For example, to organize your time effectively you could use a weekly calendar to mark down those activities that are paramount, like the parent's meeting, or the two evenings you spend at the gym. Next, using a separate sheet of paper, prioritize your other obligations and things you need to do during the week, according to their importance. Fill your calendar in accordingly, marking off activities as you accomplish them. Just realizing how much you actually get done in a week is a great confidence booster.

To organize your space, take a closer look at how you utilize the areas of your home, office or centre, as well as what problems you feel you need to solve, such as cluttered books, the lack of shelving for toys and art supplies, or the overall appearance of the room. Make some time in your weekly calendar to work on these problems. Some may be as easy as rearranging the furniture or purchasing a new shelving unit. Perhaps you need to give the room a face-lift with a fresh coat of paint in warm hues. To help with the noise level, try adding a carpet, more shades and blinds, or some decorative wall hangings.

Managing people requires that you learn what Bloom calls, "the fine art of delegating." Get the parents involved, the staff trained to handle other duties, your spouse or kids to handle more chores. Then smile. It's the best stress-buster of all.