Feature

Taking Care of Ourselves the Way We Take Care of Others

Elizabeth Mitchell

If you had asked any educator in Ontario in February of 2020, “How are you doing?” you would have heard about stress, long hours and struggles with work-life balance. In a profession that already places great demands on the people charged with educating the next generation, ETFO was in the midst of the biggest labour action and threat to public education in a generation.

Then the worries about a far-away virus turned into a real and imminent danger. On March 12, 2020, the announcement came that Ontario’s public schools would close (for two weeks) after March Break. What followed was the first of many “pivots” between in-school and online learning, a whole new mode of teaching and learning, and the anxiety that went with the fact that the government, which had so recently been battling educators, now had their health and safety in its hands.

The impact of the pandemic on learning, on the social-emotional wellness of students and on the physical safety of our school communities would have been much worse without the amazing educators who taught themselves online learning platforms, connected with children and their families however they could, followed challenging health and safety instructions and generally continued to be caring adults creating a safe space for their students. Along with helping navigate the uncertainty of a pandemic, they engaged their students in supportive and challenging conversations as the news of the day revealed the prevalence and impact of racism and colonialism in their world. But that came at the expense of the mental health of those educators. They cared for the students as they themselves experienced these same events, and many went from stressed and overworked to clinically significant levels of anxiety and depression and reports of burnout. The impact of the pandemic on learning, on the social-emotional wellness of students and on the physical safety of our school communities would have been much worse without the amazing educators who taught themselves online learning platforms, connected with children and their families however they could, followed challenging health and safety instructions and generally continued to be caring adults creating a safe space for their students. Along with helping navigate the uncertainty of a pandemic, they engaged their students in supportive and challenging conversations as the news of the day revealed the prevalence and impact of racism and colonialism in their world. But that came at the expense of the mental health of those educators. They cared for the students as they themselves experienced these same events, and many went from stressed and overworked to clinically significant levels of anxiety and depression and reports of burnout.

In October 2020, the Canadian Teachers Federation conducted the Teacher Mental Health Check-in Survey. Fourteen thousand educators responded. Educators indicated that they were experiencing “unbearable levels of stress, anxiety, and a struggle to cope with the demands of teaching during the pandemic.” Seventy percent of the teachers expressed concern about their own mental health. Over 5,000 ETFO members participated in another study conducted by the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) and the Institute for Work and Health (IWH) in November/December, 2020. The results showed that educators felt the psychological health and safety climate in their workplace was not safe (46 percent gave it a negative rating, compared to 20 percent in a pre-pandemic survey of Canadian workers) and 57 percent of educators working in schools had either moderate or severe symptoms of anxiety.

While the battle with COVID-19 hasn’t ended, as people have been vaccinated they have begun to emerge from their homes and are going out to work, to play and to school. There’s a temptation to try to forget the worst of the pandemic and return to “normal,” but the fact is that educators in Ontario have been changed by this experience. And if we don’t learn from it, the next health crisis may be the mental health of educators.

You Need to Feel Safe to be Safe

The OHCOW/IWH study showed not just that educators were experiencing clinically significant levels of anxiety, but that the anxiety was closely correlated with their report of the presence and adequacy of infection control practices and PPE. The study didn’t assess the effectiveness of PPE and infection control practices in school, but it did ask educators if their needs were being met in those areas. A sense that their needs for health and safety measures were not being met, made them feel less safe. The moderate/ severe symptoms of anxiety were much higher (26 percent and 38 percent higher) in educators who said that less than half of their PPE or infection control needs were being met.

Peter Smith, one of the researchers, said, “Obviously, the purpose of providing PPE and infection control practices is about protecting workers from COVID-19 but not adequately doing so is also associated with higher level of anxiety.”

Workers in Ontario have more rights than they realize when it comes to health and safety. It’s important to know that:

  • Workers, through their representatives on the Joint Health and Safety Committee (JHSC), have a right to be a part of discussions about health and safety issues and concerns in the workplace.
  • When there is disagreement between the employer and workers on the JHSC, the worker representatives can make recommendations, to which the employer must respond.
  • Safety concerns should be reported first to the supervisor, but can also be reported by anyone to the Ministry of Labour, who will investigate.
  • Any worker has the right to refuse unsafe work, when they have reason to believe that their work is likely to endanger their health and safety.

There were shockingly few instances of work refusals, Ministry of Labour complaints or recommendations made to JHSCs during the 2020/21 school year, in spite of the fact that in November/December, 18 percent of educators said that less than half of their PPE needs and less than 67 percent of their infection control practice needs were being met. In instances where the Ministry of Labour became involved, there was some frustration at the lack of enforcement, but there were also members who stood up for their rights and saw both immediate and longer-term improvements to safety precautions.

Workplace Safety Includes Physical and Psychological Safety

Since the first “pivot” to remote learning, outbreaks and shut downs have meant a near constant state of anxiety. The workload of remote learning and the concerns for safety in schools compounded the mental distress. Many educators accessed their sick leave because their doctors indicated that their stress had reached a tipping point. Occasional educators were facing their own stressors, including exposure to many different schools, financial insecurity and an increased demand for their services.

There is an emerging understanding that mental health is a part of overall health and that the outdated stigmas about mental illness must be discarded. Employers are responsible for providing an environment that is both physically and psychologically safe and both physical and psychological injuries/ illness that happen at work are occupational injuries/illness.

If you twist your ankle on the job, that’s a workplace injury/illness and you are paid and supported by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). If you experience a traumatic event or chronic mental stress that could also be a workplace injury/illness. But very few workers report traumatic events or chronic mental stress, although they may access their sick leave and benefits. Others will “muscle through,” believing that the system cannot go on without them. One respondent to the survey said, “I have never been this tired or stressed out before … we cannot take days off because there are not enough OTs to cover our classes.”

The Canadian Standards Association released the voluntary CSA Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace in 2013. This June, the International Organization for Standardization released ISO 45003: Psychological Health and Safety at Work. But these standards are only guidelines. There are not yet minimum standards to hold employers accountable for mental health in the workplace.

Workplace violence and harassment were added to the Occupational Health and Safety Act in 2010, yet we are still struggling to hold employers accountable for protecting us from those hazards.

Change is slow, and there’s a long way to go to address mental health hazards in the workplace. Very few employers take responsibility for creating a psychologically safe workplace beyond motivational posters and email reminders advising workers to go for a walk and drink more water. WSIB claims for psychological injuries are often not submitted since so many are denied (except for PTSD in first responders) or because the process often requires the worker to divulge past and present medical history.

But we can be a part of accelerating change by insisting that the system operate the way it is supposed to.

  • Report incidents that have caused psychological injury or impact (e.g., bullying, racism, traumatic events) as workplace incidents in the same way you would report physical injuries and near misses.
  • When there are ongoing workplace factors impacting the mental health of the staff, request assistance from your Joint Health and Safety Committee representatives in the same way you would for a physical hazard.
  • When workplace incidents or environments lead to mental strain that requires medical intervention or time off work, consider a WSIB claim (working with your local ETFO office or ETFO Professional Relations Services (PRS) will help you determine if this is the right course for your situation).
  • Be mindful that the language you use is supportive of mental health as part of overall health, for example “accessing your sick leave” versus “taking a stress leave,” “getting medical help” versus “couldn’t take it anymore.”
  • Establish and enforce healthy boundaries between your work and personal life and place a priority on your own health.

Take Care of Yourself the Way You Take Care of Others

Every profession has its stresses, and every life will have tough times. Most stress is manageable and most tough times get better. But every year one in five Canadians experiences a mental health problem or illness, and the pandemic created a variety of stresses that can impact mental health.

We don’t run to the doctor when we’ve got the sniffles (in pre-COVID-19 days) and we don’t always run to a counsellor when we have a tough day. It’s important to be able to recognize when professional help is a good idea and to know what help is available.

Do You Need Help?

  • If you have symptoms of mental distress that are severe or long-lasting, speak to a health-care provider.
  • If you have thoughts of self-harm, get immediate help through a hotline or emergency department.
  • Let your support network know you are struggling.
  • Once you feel you need mental health help, stand your ground, even if that means you need to look for help in a few places before you find a good fit.

Where Can You Get Help?

  • Start with your primary healthcare provider.
  • Understand and access your benefits for counselling through OTIP (permanent contract entitlements) and/or your school board’s Employee Assistance Program.
  • Investigate other mental health services otip.com/Help-Center/Coronavirus/Mental-Health-COVID.
  • Review other mental health advice from ETFO’s PRS Matters etfo.ca.

In years to come, educators may find the word “pivot” to be a trigger that brings them back to the feelings of stress and anxiety that they experienced over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic’s first waves. Along with the other professional burdens, educators didn’t feel safe at work and/or they were challenged by virtual instruction which impacted their mental health. With the preexisting workload and burnout issues, work environments are ready for change. Let’s assert our rights to safe and healthy workplaces. Let’s make sure the law acknowledges mental health injuries at work as occupational illness and everyone gets the support they need during difficult times. This can happen, not just through the advocacy of ETFO to change systems, but as individual educators stand up for themselves and take care of themselves.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please seek immediate assistance:

  • Go to your nearest hospital/emergency department,
  • Call 211 (211ontario.ca/) to find appropriate supports in your community, or,
  • Call 911.

Elizabeth Mitchell is an executive staff member at ETFO.

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