Raising the bar on workplace wellbeing

Published on Tuesday, 28 September 2021
Last updated on Monday, 27 September 2021

Article hero image

Early childhood educators face unique job-related challenges that can take a toll on their physical and mental health. The emotional nature of the work, the reality of workplace issues such as noise, time demands and minimum breaks can add significantly to the burden on employees, making a supportive workplace wellbeing program a must-have.

Workplace wellbeing goes beyond feeling happy at work and contributes to an educator’s feeling of belonging to a community, personal safety and job satisfaction.

In business literature workplace wellbeing has shown outcomes that includes a drop in employee turnover rates, increased productivity and reduced absenteeism.

Personal wellbeing helps people function well in the world and contributes to feelings of happiness, enjoyment, curiosity, contentment and engagement with physical and mental health benefits. Having educators with good wellbeing can increase the quality and consistency of care for young children and families, which is so important in the years before school.

A US study found that despite the importance of an educator’s health and wellbeing, the lack of resources and working environments often leads to significant physical and mental health disparities.

A review of research literature also linked long hours, low job control, and high job demands, to a higher risk for injuries and other occupational hazards, as well as adverse effects on worker’s psychological, emotional, and physical health.

Currently there is no single agreed-upon definition of wellbeing, but most have in common physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects.

The Education Hub, offers a description specifically for teachers: “Teacher wellbeing can be described as a state where teachers perceive job satisfaction, experience positive emotions more frequently than negative emotions, and function well both as a teacher and in their other roles in life. Functioning well includes supportive professional relationships, professional growth and a feeling of self-efficacy.”

While the Government committed nearly $9 million towards wellbeing support for teachers in early education and schools in September last year, much of the mental health spending promised is behind schedule, according to news site Stuff. Issues such as the pandemic have made the implementation of a supportive wellbeing program more important than ever.

What can services do?

Educator wellbeing is not just the responsibility of the educator alone. Services need to ensure a positive culture and formalise organisational support. Research by early childhood teacher and PhD candidate at Australia’s Macquarie University, Catherine Jones, found a significant link between centres that implemented wellbeing initiatives and higher levels of workplace wellbeing.

Wellbeing initiatives included:

  • Employment Assistance Programs
  • The provision of mental health days
  • Inclusion of formal wellbeing policies
  • Acknowledgement from management, for example awards or small gifts
  • Professional development to support wellbeing
  • A positive work climate, with dedicated supervisory attention to core components such as reflective supervision, teacher appreciation and general support from management
  • Social events such as celebrating birthdays or end-of-year parties 
  • The creation of comfortable and appealing spaces for breaks and programming time.

Catherine Jones provides the following suggestions for leaders and managers to enhance and support the wellbeing of educators.

Clear and equitable job roles and responsibilities

Early childhood work is complex and requires many varied roles to be carefully executed in order for educators to feel competent, such as time for quality interactions with children, colleagues and families, and opportunities to create meaningful documentation.

For this to happen, supportive relational and structural conditions need to be in place, for example, sufficient time and training.

Careful thought given to staffing arrangements:

Leaders can support teams through professional development sessions, looking at the individual strengths of educators, and by ensuring that correct ratios are being upheld at all times during the day. Breaks and the provision of flexibility is also important to enhance educator wellbeing.

Understanding the emotional work of educators:

Being an educator requires a high amount of emotional work, and this can take a toll. Strategies for supporting this could include:

  • Ensuring a positive workplace culture, acknowledging the reality and demands of the ECE setting
  • Identify ideas in team meetings and action them to support educator wellbeing
  • Make accessible and support self-care programs and behaviours in staff and educators, this could include emphasising the benefits of healthy eating, exercise and ensuring mental health supports are in place for those under stress. Examples could include providing healthy snacks, gym membership or a practitioner visiting your centre.
  • Provide forums for discussion and strategy-sharing among centre staff and educators
  • Provide opportunities for staff and educators to communicate openly and safely to express their feelings
  • Consider introducing a mentoring system where educators are given opportunities to share and reflect on experiences with their colleagues

Self-care for educators

Solutions to wellbeing depend on multiple levels of support and while self-care is essential it is not enough without high levels of organisational support. However, creating a self-care plan can assist you to build in activities and check-in processes to ensure you are doing okay.

Science backed approaches include regular exercise, getting enough sleep, meditation and practicing gratitude.

The Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand outlines The Five Ways of Wellbeing, to support people to stay mentally well:

  • Connect, me whakawhanaunga
    Talk and listen – me kōrero, me whakarongo
    Be there – me whakawātea i a koe
    Feel connected – me rongo i te whanaungatanga
  • Keep learning, me ako tonu.
    Embrace new experiences – awhitia te wheako hou
    See opportunities – kimihia ngā ara hou
    Surprise yourself – me ohorere koe i a koe anō.
  • Give, tukua
    Give your time, your words, your presence; tukua te wā ki a koe, ō kupu, ko koe tonu.
  • Be active, me kori tonu
    Do what you can – whāia te mea ka taea e koe
    Enjoy what you do – kia pārekareka tāu i whai ai
    Move your mood – kia pai ake ō piropiro
  • Take notice, me aro tonu
    Remember the simple things that give you joy – me aro tonu ki ngā mea 12ama noa I ngākau harikoa ai koe.

References and further resources:

Beyond Blue: Wellbeing matters

CELA: Make a staff sanctuary

The Spoke: Understanding and supporting educator wellbeing

Related Articles

Article image

How to manage different personalities among your educators

One of the most challenging, time consuming, and subsequently costly elements of running an early childhood centre is the recruitment, training, and retention of quality staff members.

Article image

Burnout busters for worn out educators

Strategies for supporting the health and wellbeing of early education and care providers over the long months of winter to avoid burnout.

Article image

10 ways to be a more reflective educator

Ten top tips for becoming a more reflective early educator, the habit of pausing to think about everyday interactions and how they can be improved.