People in helping professions have always experienced a risk of burnout. These are high-intensity occupations with numerous challenges. The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic has made everything infinitely more complicated and stressful. One counterpoint to all this stress is building strong relationships. The irony is that the very thing we need most in times when we are stressed and feeling overwhelmed is the thing we do not have time for.
If we think about what relationships do for us, innately and even in an evolutionary sense, we are wired for relationships, and we function better with relationships in our lives. We deal with stress better. Studies show changes occur in our stress hormones by just being connected to someone who knows us and loves us and is walking alongside us. We deal with pain better. We can deal with adversity better, and we can even transform our pain into a purpose that improves the lives of others.
Relationships can also center us on what's important. It's difficult to overstate the importance of relationships, but often they become almost an afterthought. It’s a different story when you actually create space for them, become intentional about them, make sure you’re being present in those relationships, and surround yourself with people who bring joy to your life.
We’re currently at an intersection of trauma and pain and a host of changes that have disrupted people's lives. Frankly, we cannot sustain ourselves physiologically when high levels of stress are tapping out our systems over and over and over. At some point, there’s going to be a moment when we can no longer adapt. That's a part of burnout: continuously having to deal with the challenges that young people are facing now, their stories of pain, confusion, and trauma. There’s also the impact of racial reckoning in our country and the devastation we’ve seen in the last several months with mass shootings.
When there is heightened stress, or a threat of some kind, we're wired physiologically to deal with it immediately. But if we bathe in stress hormones over and over, it begins to pull from our resources in ways that significantly deplete our ability to stay engaged, to focus, to feel energetic, and to have a sense of excitement. It can ultimately lead to feeling a little bit hopeless and paralyzed.
What we often expect of teachers and leaders is unrealistic. You have to be a counselor, a coach, a teacher, an educator, a disciplinarian—all of those wrapped into one. We can challenge that expectation by making systemic change in a collective way—coming together to say, “We can't do this alone, but we can do this together.” From there, we can figure out how to create systems that really involve people to bring all of themselves to the task of solving problems together. That will always be a challenge for youth-serving organizations, especially in the school systems right now, as they're completely tapped out in so many ways.
I had an advisor who said that change happens when the pain of being the same is greater than the pain of change. I think we're feeling a lot of those pain points right now. Research has looked at this craving for relationship connection and more meaning-making. What are those things, those patterns, that connect us? What are those things that we can agree on universally? How do we begin to come together in our communities and build relationships to make changes? There are opportunities for school systems and youth-serving organizations as a whole to have more permeability, as well as more community and family engagement.
We're at a point where families are experiencing a greater desire to know what's going on in schools. Additionally, we have really amazing out-of-school-time organizations that are beginning to embed themselves in schools. They provide additional support so that teachers, principals, and superintendents don't have to be all things to all people at all times. There are also exciting opportunities to leverage and develop developmental assets that are already in the community. The challenge is about making connections between them.
How do we help people live this summer? How do we think about connecting people to things that are most meaningful to them? The things that bring them life, things that, even in their day-to-day lives, they can create moments around and be more intentional about.
There’s a lot of pressure in saying, “I’m going to go on vacation. When I come back, I have to be ready to go.” But we can create mindsets and habits and connections through the summer that we can integrate into the busyness and chaos of the coming school year. Whether you are a schoolteacher or a practitioner, if you're intentional about creating these things, your work will be much more sustainable.
Self-reflection and action are very important for creating patterns that sustain us through busy times. And that's a useful view as we think about rest. For teachers and practitioners, it comes back to thinking about why you do what you do. What was it that drew you to this field? What was it that was most meaningful that made you choose to be in the field? This purpose is exactly why investing in your own relational and emotional health is so critical. The world needs you. The young people you work with need you!
Organization leaders should also examine their own value systems. What are the important values that you want to lead with and engage people around? Your actions have to match up with those values. The disconnect that can happen often is that the systems might claim to value relationships or connections, but the systems are set up in a way that undermines those values. In some cases, structures and processes are designed to meet the needs of some people while pushing others to the margins and requiring them to prove their worth.
When your worth and value as a human being are gauged by your performance, you can become driven by a fear of failure, a sense that the organization only cares about what you can do for them, not for who you are. The stakes can be very high when you're a leader. The challenge we face is, how can we begin to measure success by what is most important? Performance and results do matter, but the quality of the relational culture will determine how sustainable it is for your staff. That requires true connection and shared purpose around what is most meaningful.
We want to be able to model that holistic approach to the young people that we work with because we want them to develop those skills and habits that are healthy and meaningful.
My thought for practitioners is to really understand that paying attention to your own needs and your own emotional health is not a selfish act; it's essential for a sustained career and for beginning to recognize how to bring life to yourself outside of that career—in your families, friends, and relationships.
With relationships, we look to the five elements of the developmental relationships framework that we’ve determined are critical to forming and nurturing relationships that young people need to grow and thrive: express care, challenge growth, provide support, share power, and expand possibilities.
We also have to have the conversation about what it means to move beyond resilience—not just surviving, but thriving when it comes to young people and how we demonstrate what that means. We have to agree that all kids deserve to feel like they are people of value and that they're safe. When we establish that for young people, it's pretty amazing to see their resilience. But then if we move beyond that to start thinking about their aspirations and their potential, we can create experiences for them that challenge them to grow. We begin to go down the path of challenging growth and expanding possibilities and connecting them to bigger things—to opportunities and resources and networks.
When adults share power with young people, it allows them to act on those gifts, those sparks, to begin to make change in their communities. That's one thing we've seen, too, in the middle of all of the pain and burnout and struggle: We have seen a younger generation stepping up to advocate for mental health, for social justice. It's really important to provide experiences for young people to move beyond resilience and to experience these opportunities for thriving that align with their interests, their sparks, and their access to resources and opportunities.
It’s time for a relationship reboot. As we build and nurture developmental relationships with young people, we need to remember that our relationships with ourselves and others are key to our own resilience and thriving and ensuring that we can be there for the young people we serve. As you take time to recharge and reset, consider how you can move this concept forward across your own youth-serving program and encourage relationship building at all levels.