Honestly, who has time to sleep eight hours per night? I have too much work to get done.
I know I should go the gym but if I stay at work for another hour or two, I can get these lesson planned.
I’ll just get take-out of instead cooking something healthy so I can finish grading these tests.
Sound familiar? Many of us feel caught between a rock and hard place: our health and our job performance. We want to be great at our jobs. We also want to do things that we know are important for our health like exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and eating healthy. The problem is that all of these healthy habits take time, time that we could be working. Since we care deeply about our students, our co-workers, our clients, etc. and we consistently prioritize work for our jobs. Throw family obligations into the mix and it feels even more difficult to have healthy habits. The only way to be healthy, we think, is to sacrifice job performance. Conversely, the only way to perform well at our jobs is to compromise on our health.
What we're missing
This is a logical and common way to look at things. It is also a flat-out wrong way to look at things. Yes, in the short-term, there is a trade-off between health and job performance. We cannot be in two places or doing two things at once, e.g. we cannot be at the gym working out and at school tutoring students at the same time. The key phrase here is “in the short-term”. When we think this way, we are ignoring the long-term. On a given day or week, we have to make trade-offs between health and job performance. Over months or years, however, health and job performance go hand in hand.
The Thought Experiment
To prove this, let’s do a thought experiment. First, imagine a person who consistently gets eight hours of sleep per night, cooks healthy meal, plays sports, and exercises regularly. To do all these healthy things, this person leaves work promptly at 5:00 pm everyday and does little to no work on weekends; this person does not work long hours and sometimes leaves tasks for work undone.
Now, imagine a second person who works ten to twelve hours per day, which often means working on evenings and weekends, not cooking healthy meals, not getting enough sleep consistently, etc. Early in their careers, this second person is getting more done at work on a given day or week. Fast forward ten years and the situation is different. The effects of the second person’s poor diet, insufficient sleep, chronic stress, and lack of exercise have accumulated. The second person has lower energy levels, worse mood and ability to focus, and health problems that probably require doctor visits and medications. This person’s job performance after ten years has suffered significantly.
This is an especially difficult and important dilemma for teachers--difficult because teachers care so much about their jobs and important because so teacher burnout rates are so high. It is extra hard for teachers to say to themselves, “I’m not going to get this grading or planning done so that I can go to yoga class” because it feels like going to yoga is hurting students. But that is exactly what we want teachers to do! When teachers do not take care of their health and well-being, they burn out and leave the profession in the long run. And in the short run, their mood and focus are worse with the very students for whom they are sacrificing.
What can we do about it?
The system-level answer is to stop putting teachers between a rock and a hard place. There are number of realistic ways to make the teaching profession more sustainable. Here are a few: (a) give teachers fewer different courses to plan, (b) keep the school day short so that teachers have time after school to plan, grade, and attend meetings, and (c) celebrate teachers who balance work and self-care rather than teachers who work superhuman hours.
The individual-level answer is for teachers to prioritize their own health and wellness and protect time to exercise, sleep, prepare healthy meals, etc. There are many teachers who are successfully balance demands of work and their health (I was one for many years). These teachers see the big picture and resist the pressure get more done at the expense of their own well-being. For teachers newly trying to make the shift to a more balanced lifestyle, a health coach can help. Whether alone or with the help of a health coach, teacher should operate with the understanding that when they protect time for their own their health, it is a net plus for themselves and their students.