Last year, Bedrock (Issue 1, 2020) introduced you to the Early Childhood Education Wellbeing Project (ECEWP) run by Charles Sturt, Macquarie and Griffith Universities, specifically studying the wellbeing of early childhood education workers on a holistic level. Since then, COVID-19 and its ongoing impacts have placed a renewed spotlight on the psychological wellbeing of those who work in the sector. Dr Tamara Cumming (pictured), a lead researcher on the project, talks to journalist Jessica Willis about the importance of the psychological wellbeing of early childhood education teachers and assistants.
“Psychological wellbeing includes a person’s mental health, but also things like their self-esteem, emotional wellbeing, stress, motivation and job satisfaction,” Cumming said.
“Psychological and physiological wellbeing are closely linked, so it can be hard to tell which comes first or is the most important aspect to attend to.
“Early childhood education workers’ wellbeing is in everyone’s interests, and employers, governments, families, children and workers’ themselves need to be involved in improving and sustaining wellbeing.
“The first step is in recognising the value of teachers and educators and their work and seeing teachers and educators’ and children’s interests as interconnected – not competing.
“Teachers’ and assistants’ wellbeing is an ongoing process that ideally includes prevention and universal supports and requirements that guarantee this issue will get the attention it deserves.
Essential but often overlooked
Research shows that the psychological wellbeing of early childhood education teachers and assistants is essential for the quality care and education of young children; however, often this gets overlooked.
“There are so many reasons why teachers’ and assistants’ wellbeing has been invisible for a long time – it can be perceived as ‘women’s work’ and therefore both ‘natural’ and not requiring effort or expertise, but also because ‘women’s work’ tends to be less valued in society,” Cumming said.
“There is also a tendency to think in very binary ways about children and educators – that if children are to come first, teachers and assistants must always come second.
“The thing about that is if teachers and assistants are not encouraged and supported to have good work-related wellbeing, they can’t do their best for children.
“As workers, they also have a right to decent work and workplaces that support them.
“Part of that is having decent pay, because having poor financial wellbeing can have a big impact on workers’ feelings of stress that impact practice quality for children as well as quality of life for workers,” Cumming said.
The other part is ensuring that all workers in the sector have access to protected working conditions and rights comparable to their colleagues working in primary and secondary schools.
Causes of stress and injury
Cumming said there are many contributors to early childhood education teachers’ and assistants’ workplace mental stress.
“Things like: complexity and intensity of educators’ work, lack of resources (including things like supplies) to provide activities for children, poor public recognition of workers’ professionality, and work conditions including problematic relationships with colleagues and families.
“Psychological injuries like anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress can happen due to work related harassment or bullying, work pressure, or exposure to workplace violence or traumatic events.”
Warning signs to look out for
There are a few different warning signs of poor psychological wellbeing that workers can look out for in themselves and their colleagues.
“Burnout is a term that is used a lot, and it’s actually quite helpful as a way of monitoring how you are going yourself, as well as how your colleagues are going.
“If you see behaviour developing over time that looks like emotional exhaustion (feeling empty of feeling or the ability to give), hating your job, becoming indifferent to children, families or colleagues or feeling that you are doing your job poorly, these are signs of burnout, and need attention.
“Blaming, victimising, bullying behaviours, losing interest in things you used to enjoy can also be signs that a person’s mental wellbeing is compromised.
“Physiological signals also give clues – consistently disrupted sleep, no appetite, chronic digestive problems or headaches can also be part of poor mental wellbeing.”
“We know from our own research, and research done by a team from Monash University that teachers and assistants have suffered emotionally and psychologically because of COVID-19,” Cumming said.
“As well as the stress of additional day-to-day cleaning, and emotional care of children and families, teachers and assistants reported feeling they needed to remain strong and calm on the outside, even if feeling scared about risks to their health or angry about inequities in how the sector was treated.”
Cumming said that many workers felt severely let-down by the federal government, which recognised the sector as an essential service but failed to acknowledge the effort and professionalism demonstrated by the workers who were expected to “just get on with it.”
“They were also very disappointed to not have universal access to Personal Protective Equipment (at least for travelling to and from work) and when JobKeeper was removed first from the early childhood education sector.”
Cumming said it was hard to tell whether or not the public perception of early childhood education staff had changed since COVID-19.
However, the need to amplify the message that early childhood education is an essential service and that workers’ wellbeing needs to be attended to as a matter of urgency, is critical to sustaining the workforce.
Taking action as a union
IEU members can contact their relevant union branch for support and advice regarding any workplace injury, including psychological injury.
Union officers are highly experienced in, for example, supporting members to access leave and entitlements; WorkCover referrals; or supporting workplace IEU Chapters enforce collective agreement/award provisions (such as hours of duty) which may relieve workplace stress.
On a federal level, our union continues to advocate for better pay and working conditions for early childhood education workers, so that they are comparable to those working in primary and secondary schools.
Other resources for workers
Cumming said that in terms of helping prevent psychological injury in the first place, free programs like those offered by BeYou are key to preventing problems occurring.
“But to really support the whole workforce it may be that changes to the National Quality Standard are required, so that all organisations – whether they are single, standalone, private or community-operated – are supported in how to help prevent psychological injury as well as be accountable for doing this as part of the overall quality of their service.
“BeYou and ECA have some excellent fact sheets and resources for supporting early childhood education workers’ mental wellbeing.
Some organisations have made Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) available (where an employee can get psychological support over the phone), and these are likely to help.
“There are also online chat services available through organisations like Beyond Blue, and through your union.
Seeing a GP or another qualified mental health workers are also good first steps for those needing support.
Members can find the Early Childhood Educator Wellbeing Project on Facebook @EarlyChildhood EducatorWellbeingProjectECEWP.