by Christine Snyder, University of Michigan Health System Children’s Center
In fall of 2019, I accepted a leadership position in an early childhood program with 45 full-time staff and approximately 150 children ranging from 6 weeks to 5 years old. I had exactly 6 months to establish relationships and my role as a leader in this program prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Eighteen months into the pandemic, like many leaders in our field, I am proud of the care we have provided and how we’ve navigated the pandemic, but I am tired. So incredibly tired. I’m sleeping just fine, I’m exercising regularly, I don’t even mind wearing a mask all that much. So why am I so tired? I finally realized I’m experiencing decision fatigue. Fatigue from making hard decisions. Fatigue from having to make big decisions regularly. And too often without enough information. Relatable? Decision fatigue is real. And it is taking a toll on us as leaders.
Here’s what has caused us to get to this point of exhaustion:
- No right answers—of course we have expert guidance and policy recommendations from the CDC, local health departments, and infectious disease doctors. But the reality is, there’s no magical way to completely eliminate risk and ensure complete safety for our children and staff. And measures that we do take to mitigate risk are often met with pushback. This situation can result in us as leaders feeling like there are no right answers, and the pressure to find the magical solution that doesn’t exist can feel paralyzing.
- We are experts (but not experts in infectious disease management)—of course we are in leadership because of our expertise. But for most of us, we lack the background of infectious disease management and policy that would help us effectively develop and communicate policies to keep our early childhood communities safe and healthy. We are experts, experts in early childhood education. This has been a year and a half navigating waters we weren’t prepared for.
- The science of COVID-19 is rapidly being updated—we’ve made extension plans, adapted them, and adapted them again. The rapidly updated science is both a gift and a challenge. Remember when we were wiping off our groceries when we brought them home? It was such a relief when we learned that not a significant amount of transmission occurs on surfaces that haven’t been recently touched. However, the flip side of rapidly updated science is that it can be hard to keep up with procedure and policy changes and it can be exhausting trying to remember it all.
- Determining sense of urgency—we’ve always had to triage need in early childhood programs, but the pandemic has shifted what demands a sense of urgency and what can wait. Again, this situation presents a challenge of fully understanding infectious disease and being able to quickly pivot when science or public health mandates have been updated.
- Vaccine mandates—in an effort to establish community protection where we can, many organizations have implemented a vaccine mandate. Regardless of whether or not this is the right decision, it is on program leaders to communicate and enforce this mandate, putting them in a precarious position of facing contention and potential staffing challenges.
- Balancing education with health needs—of course we want to keep children healthy and safe, that is our top priority. But we also have a desire and commitment to supporting their educational needs. Finding this balance means new investigation in how we support learning in ways that are pandemic-friendly and reduce the spread of illness. This work has been a remarkable effort of educators everywhere.
- Responsibilities to educators—as leaders, we have a lot of people depending on us to make clear and timely decisions and to disseminate information to a large number of people sensitively. The process is complicated and the pressure can be intense. We know our teachers are as tired as we are.
This feels hard because it is hard. So what can we do?
This feels hard because it is hard. So what can we do?
Lean on experts—we don’t have to gather all the information and make decisions on our own. The more we lean on experts, the less we have to trust our ability to cognitively keep up and make solid decisions in stressful situations.
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention
- American Academy of Pediatrics
- Healthy Children
- Your local state or county health
Lean on each other—we don’t have to do this alone. Connect with other leaders in your program and determine ways you can share the work, offset the stress, support each other emotionally, and contribute to collective high-quality care in your community.
- NAEYC offers a platform for educators to share ideas and discuss challenges. You do not have to be a member to search and read the discussions: https://hello.naeyc.org/home
- Social media platforms have groups and forums where educators can connect and support one another.
- Other local or regional professional organizations
Prioritize decisions—give yourself permission to let go of things that aren’t urgent. Determine what you can handle in one day or in one week and then decide which of those things can wait. Set your boundaries and your limits with both great care and great confidence.
- Set aside time to catch up on email
- Plan time for returning phone calls
- Keep drafts of regular announcements that you can cut and paste (illness notices, teacher absences, policy updates, etc.)
- Start the week organizing tasks into urgent and non-urgent
- Create a timeline for non-urgent matters and then double the time you think things will take to make space for the unexpected
Delegate decisions that can be made by other people—consider what is on your plate that doesn’t need to be. Are there other people in your organization who can take over smaller or lower pressure items.
- Ask for help. Letting people know that you’re feeling overwhelmed might encourage them to offer expertise you didn’t know they had.
- Organize committees. Inviting parents and teachers to brainstorm and gather ideas, even when they are not able to make a final decision, can reduce your time spent on the legwork.
Take breaks—burnout can have a very real impact on the quality of your work. Take breaks in your day, take a day off each month, or go for a walk in the middle of a project. You need the time and space to reenergize, collect your thoughts, and breathe.
- Go for a 10-minute walk outside
- Take a lunch break away from your office
- Take a half day off at least once a month
- Walk away from something frustrating or overwhelming for 15 minutes
- Find a space that feels calming and soothing and just breathe for 10 minutes
Minimize decision making in other parts of your life—it may seem like a small change, but simplify other areas of your life. Avoid spending energy on things that can run without your attention.
- Set up online automatic bill pay
- Simplify your wardrobe and lay your clothes out the night before
- Keep your meal plan simple and consistent
- Order groceries online for pick-up or delivery
Include daily tasks you do enjoy—life can’t all be high-priority tasks. Build in time to do something you love. Even 30 minutes a day can provide the necessary balance that you need and deserve. Recommendations:
- Read a book
- Going for a nature walk
- Work on a puzzle
- Talk to a good friend
Take care of your mental health—you know yourself the best. Make adjustments that will help you be successful. This might mean making adjustments to your regular routines and habits to reduce your stress level and increase the likelihood you’ll have the energy you need in all areas of your life.
- Reducing caffeine and/or alcohol consumption
- Reduce time on social media
- Get more fresh air
- Pray or meditate
- Journal or write poetry
- Do something else that is soothing or calming to you
Get professional help when you need it—there are many avenues you can take to seek support for your mental and emotional well-being. Many large organizations offer access to services or resources at little to no cost. In addition, many insurance companies will cover a limited number of visits to see a counselor or therapist.
- Consider what kind of support would be helpful for you
- Consider online support
- Contact your human resources department for resources available through your organization
- Contact your insurance company to see what is covered
- Explore local resources in your community
When the pandemic started, we thought it was going to be just 2 weeks, and then just a month or so. Psychologically, we can handle short-term stress and cognitive strain. Being required to operate under continuous high stress for extended periods of time wears on our well-being and ability to operate at high-performing levels. The pandemic isn’t over and likely won’t be soon. As leaders, recognizing our stress, fatigue, and need for additional support will continue to be necessary as we persevere to a new normal and return to a focus on providing care and education for young children.