Raising the bar on workplace wellbeing

Published on Tuesday, 30 November 2021
Last updated on Wednesday, 02 November 2022

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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 to the burden on the individual and the workplace, 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 positive outcomes that includes reduced employee turnover rates, increased productivity and reduced absenteeism.

Research indicates that when educators are well, they can be more responsive, thoughtful and respectful as they interact and build relationships with every child. Ensuring good physical and psychological wellbeing assists educators to meet the demands of their role and deliver the best outcomes for children, families and colleagues.

Australian studies have identified that an educator’s wellbeing can be adversely impacted when effective, ongoing supports are not in place. Along with high rates of stress, this contributes to emotional exhaustion and educators leaving the profession. The resurgence of COVID-19 has also contributed to higher stress levels for many educators, service leaders, children and families.

Additionally, a 2019 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 the psychological, emotional, and physical health of employees.

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

New Zealand’s 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.”

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.

  1. Clear and equitable job roles and responsibilities

Early education work is complex and requires many varied roles to be carefully executed 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Understanding the emotional work of educators:

Being an educator requires a high amount of emotional work, and this can take a toll. Strategies 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 practising gratitude.

Beyond Blue provides factsheets for educators on wellbeing topics varying from Nutrition and Mental Health through to Mindfulness. A Staff wellbeing factsheet includes ‘Self-care: You do you,’ that includes stress management strategies.

References and further resources:

Victorian Government: Mental health and wellbeing in early childhood

CELA: Make a staff sanctuary

The Spoke: Understanding and supporting educator wellbeing

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