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.
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