Sleep and Stress
Learn why stress is keeping you up at night and how to reclaim your sleep.
With the coronavirus pandemic in full swing teachers around the country are struggling to juggle the responsibilities of their job while adjusting to a new “normal.” Along the way, they’ve faced new challenges and stressors that have taken a toll on their mental health.
Teachers, we see you and acknowledge the major changes you are navigating through. As a result, we conducted a survey and reached out to 100 teachers across the country and asked them to share their struggles teaching during COVID-19.
Our guide uncovers the challenges teachers are facing and works to help them find realistic ways to manage their mental health and wellbeing. If you are a teacher struggling to find time for yourself and keep your head above water, breathe. We are here to help and tell you that you are not alone.
Our teacher survey respondents range in age and years of experience and have all been faced with new challenges unique to their school systems, location, and personal circumstances.
There’s no doubt the coronavirus pandemic is stressful. People are worried about their health and their loved ones, worried about the state of the economy, worried if and when life will get back to normal. Teachers are on the forefront, and the emotional and physical burden of it all weighs heavily on them.
“Teachers, like many other essential workers who are navigating the pandemic, are prime candidates for compassion fatigue — a distress response that presents as the reduced ability to be there emotionally for others,” states Sierra Hillsman, a licensed associate counselor, at Legacy Speaks.
According to our survey’s respondents, a staggering 92% of teachers say they feel more stressed now than before the pandemic. Among them, 70% say they’d label their stress level as “significantly higher” compared to before COVID-19 began.
“We are expected to basically do three jobs but in the same time frame of one job,” says a 35-year-old public high school teacher balancing a husband and kids while teaching both online and in-person students.
Unfortunately, throughout the survey, the high amounts of stress continued to be a trend. When asked about how teachers were managing stress, a 54-year-old public high school teacher and survey respondent teaching in-person noted that keeping up with all the new rules and regulations to protect students from the virus has added to her stress.
“We have about three different classes in our room each day, and we have to disinfect everything in between classes, I’m exhausted!” she says.
But the overwhelming feelings don’t stop there, one teacher survey respondent notes: “We have to create virtual resources and video lessons and upload all this. We have to provide instruction to the students that are at [in-person] school. And somehow answer questions constantly for the [virtual] students. I have never worked this hard in my life.”
“I am at high risk due to chemo and lupus. [I] worry about my kids, my students. I’ve cried more this school year than in all my previous years combined,” says another teacher, fearing for her life.
This is not a surprise according to Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, a Harvard trained clinical psychologist working at Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health, in New York City. “Many teachers at this point in the pandemic are experiencing burnout, which occurs when motivation or incentive loses its sustainability because one is not able to produce the anticipated results,” Romanoff states.
“In other words, when effort is not equivalent to the outcome, motivation to continue to sustain determination begins to waver,” Romanoff continues. She goes on to mention that stress can also be stored in the body and can have psychomotor symptoms such as stomach pains, headaches, and body pain.
But not all hope is lost, there are still ways for teachers to manage their stress even when they are going through a time in their careers that looks significantly different and poses unique challenges.
Teachers, the results of our survey have given us a clearer picture of the sacrifices you have made for our students and children all around the country, and we are here to share your struggles and help you manage your stress during these challenging times.
Use the following stress reduction tools so that you can take care of your needs and be the best teacher you can for your students:
Unsure about meditating? There are some apps available that can talk you through the process. Meditating enables you to focus your attention and eliminate intrusive thoughts. By taking a few minutes to meditate, you reap the benefits of relaxation and stress reduction.
Hillsman also encourages teachers to increase self-awareness by identifying their needs and making peace with parting with what no longer serves them. “This [self awareness] will lead to strengthening self-advocacy skills and help teachers communicate and stand up for themselves based on their current experiences. Practicing relentless honesty with where you are emotionally and mentally helps create checkpoints before you find yourself at the end of the rope.”
Another thing you can do, according to Dr. Romanoff, is to shift your thinking. Learn to shift your bias from the negative and all you cannot do to all that you can. One way of doing this is with the 3 good things exercise.
“Every night write down three things that happened that day for which you are grateful. Research has found this to be an effective way to increase happiness because it increases gratitude and appreciation for all that you do have,” says Romanoff.
Still struggling to cope? Make an appointment to talk to a therapist who can help you process and may be able to lift some of the weight you have been carrying with you.
Even before coronavirus became a “thing,” medical experts were concerned about increasing reports of insomnia and its impact on physical and emotional health. But the added stress of COVID-19 on our sleep has led to what some experts call a “second pandemic of insomnia.” Teachers are definitely not immune.
To say that the added stress causes a lot of sleepless nights is an understatement. In fact, numerous studies have linked stressful events and anxiety to insomnia and insufficient sleep. Most adults need at least 7 hours of sleep each night to wake refreshed the next morning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Yet 55% of teachers who responded to our survey say they get less than 7 hours of sleep each night. And, 9% of them say they get less than 4 hours of sleep.
“I never used to wake up, now I wake up four to five times [a night],” says a 38-year-old single mother and teacher working remotely for a Title I public elementary school. “I’m always exhausted.” “I am constantly unable to sleep because I am either up late working or thinking about all the things I need to do the next morning or day,” says a 35-year-old married mother teaching both in-person and virtual classes at a rural public high school.
The majority of teachers in our survey who reported getting insufficient sleep say that COVID-19 is affecting their mental health as well. This causes a reciprocal effect. Stress and anxiety can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep, and a sleep deficit can cause or worsen mental health conditions.
Improving your sleep may seem like a daunting task. But it is not hopeless. Here are some suggestions for helping you get the sleep you need in order to be your best.
“Pain is inevitable in life, but suffering is optional – even in a pandemic!” says Dr. Romanoff. “The difference lies in our interpretation and perception. To be more deliberate about your mindset, first, you need to distinguish factors that lie within and beyond your control. Then, learn to reduce your reactivity and bias to dwell on the negative. This is an exercise of self-control and discipline as it requires you to constantly filter out the negative bias and instead challenge yourself to consider the alternatives”
It’s difficult enough to juggle a full-time job and responsibilities to family and friends. But when your job has suddenly become more stressful and, in many cases, more time-consuming, it can feel downright overwhelming, especially when your students’ parents are relying on you more now.
“I am constantly communicating and definitely out of school hours — serving as the parents’ therapist, kids’ teacher, and full support system,” says the 25-year-old elementary teacher working remotely for a middle school.
“Work takes up about 95% of my life,” adds a 45-year-old elementary school teacher who is teaching both in-school and remotely while also juggling the responsibilities of being a wife and a mother. “The other 5% is making dinner, doing laundry, and staying in touch with friends and family.”
“My husband is a daily reminder that I am neglecting my family due to long work hours,” says another teacher. “Also, I had to take my own child to daycare — knowing that the pandemic is still out there and real — just to be able to work at home without noise. I think it is unfair because my child is not immune to the disease, yet the district expects teachers to be online and virtual, putting our own family at risk daily to complete their online priorities all day long. It has taken a mental toll on me. I stress over my child daily, and these work hours have made me tired. At times I just want to quit my job. I’m so stressed out daily.”
Most of the teachers who responded to our survey say they are either married or living with a significant other. But even single teachers are having a difficult time managing their jobs and their personal lives.
“During the week, I don’t really have a personal life because there is a lot to do once I am home,” says a 25-year-old single middle school teacher. “I try to keep Saturday as a day of rest, but Sunday afternoons and evenings are dedicated to preparing for the upcoming week.”
Suddenly changing from a traditional in-person school to one that is entirely or partly virtual can be more time consuming because you’re learning an entirely new way of teaching. Add in family responsibilities, and it can be exhausting. Here are some tips on how to make time for both work and yourself.
There are times teaching can feel like a thankless job. Teaching during the coronavirus pandemic is no different and, in some cases, may be worse. Many teachers feel that their concerns about returning to in-person school aren’t being heard. This has taken a toll on teachers’ overall job satisfaction.
Our survey found that 68% of teachers feel less satisfied with their jobs than they did before the pandemic. At least a third of them report feeling “significantly less satisfied.”
“I’m always drained. I feel like I’m failing like a teacher. I just feel blah all the time,” says one teacher. “I’ve thought about changing my career more than I ever have.”
“I feel more stressed and anxious about everything — the state of the world, exposure to the virus, and my work. I feel added stress teaching under a microscope, parents who are not understanding, administrators that are not supportive or understanding, students that are falling between the cracks. It all weighs too heavy on my heart and mind.”
But there are some silver linings to the COVID-19 cloud. “I’m talking to parents all hours of the day and on weekends,” says a 28-year-old elementary school teacher working remotely for a Title I school that serves mostly low-income families. “I actually feel more connected to my parents this year than ever before.”
The pandemic has also been a wake-up call to parents, giving them a much better perspective of the challenges teachers face teaching the younger generation. “I’m glad more and more people are recognizing what teachers do in terms of instruction and learning,” wrote Gretchen Weber, Vice President of Policy, Practice, and Systems Change for the American Institutes for Research, one of the world’s largest behavioral and social science research and evaluation organizations. “If ever there was a year to make Teacher Appreciation Week the biggest celebration ever, this is the year.”
Finally, we asked teachers to tell us what is weighing most on their minds during this stressful time. Many express concern and compassion for their students.
“My students balance more responsibilities than any fifth graders I know. Because [my students] are at home, grownups are asking them to be babysitters, caregivers, parents, money makers, and students all at once,” one teacher says.
“When they come off mute to share, I can hear how distracting the workspace they are in is. Many of my students have babies bouncing on their laps during class or have to make food for siblings.”
Another teacher says, “I am definitely more worried about my students now. I go above and beyond for them in the virtual setting. I know this is part of the reason I work so much and I am stressed. But I feel obligated to make sure they are OK more often now because their mental health is important, too. I definitely have the mindset that their mental health is more important than my own.”
And, they feel frustrated with the lack of support on many levels.
But beyond it all, there is a guiding light that gives them strength. As one teacher says, “We’re all in this together.”
COVID-19 has rewritten the syllabus of our lives. It has changed up our routines and upended our expectations. Whether educating students behind a mask, in person at a social distance or virtually from a computer screen, teachers have stepped up to the challenge. We know some of you have done so tepidly, concerned for your health and the health of your family. We see you, and we applaud you for stepping into the unknown.
If there is a positive spin in all of this, it’s that COVID-19 has changed perspectives. Parents now see and appreciate the extraordinary efforts educators make to reach our children and the passion that drives them every day. Even students have come to appreciate the educational and social importance of school.
We hope that teachers see that we care, take time to care for themselves, and reach out to other teachers going through the same challenges. As one teacher in our survey says—and we couldn’t agree more: “We’re all in this together.”
Learn why stress is keeping you up at night and how to reclaim your sleep.
We've all spent nights staring at the ceiling, wishing we could cast off into a deep sleep. If you have trouble sleeping, it's a good chance that anxiety has something to do with it.
Dr. Sabrina Romanoff specializes in issues related to relationships, work/academic stress, and life transitions. She finalized her clinical psychology doctoral training at Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance and completed her post-doctoral fellowship at Northwell Health/Lenox Hill Hospital.
Sierra Hillsman is a Licensed Associate Professional Counselor who is credentialed as a National Certified Counselor and Certified Clinical Trauma Professional.