Inspiring Change, No Nonsense Educator

Managing Wellbeing in Times of Stress

Leading or supporting a team of people is challenging at the best of times. No matter what is going on in your day you need to be available and professional, ready to lead by example with a level head and appropriate reactions.  Doing so in a time of stress is even more challenging.

This post is not going to be about meditation or self-care. Instead, I will discuss common sense matters than involve shifting mindset.

In my teaching work, I talk quite a bit about cognitive load.  It is made up of intrinsic load, extraneous load and germane load. 

In short, we only have the capacity to manage so much cognitive load at any one time.  Under normal circumstances your cognitive load might look like this.  

Of course, each person’s cognitive load profile looks different. Each person’s position holds a different level of intrinsic load. You might be new into a challenging role, or experienced in a simpler one.  There may be different aspects of the role that challenge you differently from someone else. Perhaps you are a member of school leadership learning to walk the often fragile tight rope of people management, learning to deal professionally with staff issues and development. Perhaps you are a curriculum advisor, having to juggle the different ways that the schools you support manage their teaching.   Many factors increase the intrinsic load of your role.

Extraneous load refers to all of the factors that place extra pressure on you and your team.  This includes budgetary constraints, unreasonable departmental or district decisions, staff whose attitudes, needs or disruptive actions place extra load on you and fatigue from trying to juggle home and work life.  I also place all negative emotions into extraneous load. Guilt about being a working parent, frustration about blocks to your own goals, financial worries and family stress all contribute to extraneous load. When we throw COVID 19 into the equation, you can see that trying to carry on with business as usual leaves us severely cognitively overloaded. During times of uncertainty or upheaval, you need to manage not only your stress, but that of your team or schools’.  Keeping a level head can be difficult on a normal day, doing so during COVID 19 can be almost impossible.

So how do we manage our cognitive and emotional load when the current circumstances leave us overloaded and vulnerable to distress?  I cannot begin to pretend that I have the answers for each of you, but I do know that meditation and getting enough sleep are not the whole answer. Of course these things can help to create some balance and are generally good for us, but without a shift in some other area, we will not get our load back within our individual limits.

Let’s do an exercise together

Download the attached worksheet and find 10 minutes for reflection.

Start by mapping out the factors in your own cognitive load.  It is entirely possible that there are ‘hidden’ factors effecting your cognitive load that you aren’t conscious of. Sometimes we need to put it all in writing before we can sit back and say, “S*&t! Look at everyone that I’ve gone on my plate. No wonder I’m struggling!”


Once you have created your own person cognitive load profile, consider how you can reduce intrinsic and extraneous loads and maximise germane load.

Some suggestions might include:

  • Consider what you can just not do anymore. These things fall in the category of ‘nice to do’ but you can let them go and the world won’t fall over.
  • If you can’t drop things completely, think about how they can be broken down into smaller, more manageable chunks or steps.
  • How can you adjust the pace of your work, in terms of the rate at which you and your team achieve particular goals to give yourself and others breathing space?
  • Rework your goals into micro-goals. After all, you don’t have to get things all done in one hit.
  • Set priorities.  Use the priorities matrix to decide what is really important.
You can find this matrix here
  • Think about your networks and who can support you.
  • What systems and structures can you utilise in order to maximise your performance?
  • What expectations can you manage? What are you expecting of yourself or others than may need to adjust?

Maintaining your calm and supporting your team in times of stress is not just about eating right and getting enough sleep.  While those self-care activities are important, they aren’t sufficient to get through difficult times. Give yourself a break and cut things back a little so that you can go on inspiring change.

Are you a school leader, curriculum coach or senior teacher looking for some support and inspiration? You may like to join my Inspiring Change Facebook Group.

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