This past year has been challenging on multiple fronts for pupil transporters, as many wrestled with increased safety protocols, complicated shifts in scheduling and routing, and in some cases, furloughs and layoffs.
While these factors may have heightened the industry’s adaptability in emergency/pandemic-related situations, it has also highlighted the need for understanding mental health in the workplace and the impact of having more holistic, trauma-informed support services.
“What we know about trauma today is that it can erode our mental health,” says Charlotte DiBartolomeo, CEO of Red Kite Project. “When you have those experiences, it changes you, and if you don’t get assistance for it, it can become a lifelong issue.”
To help those alleviate experiences of trauma in the workplace, DiBartolomeo shared with School Bus Fleet several strategies for addressing mental health, and how pupil transporters can use these strategies to not only care for their mental health needs but also those of the students they transport.
1. Identifying traumatic after-effects
According to a recent poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association, more than four in 10 adults (43%) say that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a serious impact on their mental health, up from 37% in 2020. The same report also found that more than half of adults (53%) with children under 18 in their household say they were concerned about the mental state of their children.
Based on this data, it seems even as we move toward a “new normal,” many are still experiencing the lingering social and economic impacts of the pandemic. For some pupil transporters, this has caused a level of uncertainty, or some might even say anxiety, in returning to the workplace.
Identifying the reasons behind this uncertainty/anxiety, DiBartolomeo says, can be useful for addressing mental health issues.
“If you’re coming into a job, day in and day out, where you may feel like your survival is threatened — from not having the right personal protection equipment or the right de-escalation skills — it can be so overwhelming to the point where it becomes traumatic,” she explains.
That trauma experienced by staff members can present itself in numerous ways, including:
- Consistently showing up late or not showing up at all.
- Avoiding eye contact/interactions with peers and leadership staff.
- Expressing that they are more tired and/or fatigued.
This type of trauma can also be present in students, but may appear differently.
“For instance, with school-aged children [who are] dealing with depression, they often complain of increased headaches or stomach aches and they may lose interest in activities,” DiBartolomeo notes. “While this may not necessarily look like depression, it can give you some indication that something is not right and from there you can let leadership staff or a guidance counselor know.”
2. Establishing common ground
Once you identify the traumatic after-effects, the next step is letting students and transportation staff know they are not alone.
“This is about remaining as connected to your operators as much as you expect your operators to connect with the children that they're transporting,” DiBartolomeo says. “It's about trying to reestablish community connections.”
For students, if they know that there are adults out there who care about them and can recognize when they are suffering, it can have a significant impact on how they respond to and address their mental health needs, she adds.
While bus operators are not exactly social workers, they are considered human service professionals, and the connections that they make with the students they transport are an essential part of the job.
These connections, DiBartolomeo says, can be formed by something as simple as acknowledging students with a head nod as they board the bus or by asking how they are doing.
The same goes for establishing connections between transportation supervisors and their staff.
“I truly believe that the best managers are the best communicators,” she notes. “You have to be able to communicate to your frontline by saying ‘You know I care about you,’ or ‘I'm concerned about you.’”
Having those initial conversations — between supervisors and their staff — can be key to recognizing the trauma that people may have experienced during the pandemic — from losing family members and/or friends to experiencing job and/or financial loss.
“The long-term effects of all those things really add up,” she says.
3. Providing resources
Providing transportation staff access to basic training and de-escalation skills is not only essential for conducting safe operations, it is also crucial for employee mental health and success.
“Training gives people a reminder and the self-awareness that this is a human service job, not a self-driving job,” DiBartolomeo points out. “You have to be well-versed in yourself and understand how to get your needs met appropriately for your mental health.”
Doris Bean, a manager of transportation for Glendale (Ariz.) Elementary School District #40, told School Bus Fleet that debriefing after special-needs encounters with students, drivers, and monitors is something her district practices consistently.
“It is so important to keep your employees with therapeutic rapport after incidents,” Bean adds.
Besides training, staff can also look to their organization’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for guidance on how to access the proper mental health services.
“[EAPs] should be widely promoted, putting up posters in places like bathrooms or on frequently seen walls, reminding staff about the resources available to them,” DiBartolomeo explains.
Another resource that can be beneficial is creating small peer-to-peer groups or a buddy system within the transportation department.
“Some of the smaller agencies that we’ve worked with have considered this idea of having small task forces or committees that reach out to their new hires,” DiBartolomeo says. “It’s a little different than a mentoring system, but it’s another way to stay connected, by asking employees how they are doing and if they need anything.”
4. Moving past burnout, finding purpose
Most of us may have experienced burnout this past year — finding it hard to get up in the morning or get through the day — and it has caused many people to go into survival mode, DiBartolomeo says.
But now, as many states are back open and schools are conducting in-person learning, it is necessary for pupil transporters to find the light at the end of the tunnel.
Moving past the burnout phase can give school bus operators the ability to focus on all the mental health strategies mentioned above, but more specifically resource planning.
“A resilient organization is much more about resources than they are character strength," DiBartolomeo notes. “A resilient organization can manifest resilient employees who want to stay in their jobs longer and continue serving their purpose.”