When you think about hazardous workplaces, what springs to mind? Construction? Manufacturing? How about early childhood education?
In Australia, over 900,000 children attend services like preschools and long day care centres each year. More than 195,000 early childhood teachers and educators provide these children with stable, stimulating, supportive, effective learning environments. However, relatively little is known about teachers’ and educators’ work environments and how hazardous they can be.
High rates of serious injury
To learn more about teachers’ and educators’ wellbeing in their work environments, we have been analysing data from NSW’s largest workers compensation insurer – icare - as part of our research in the Early Childhood Educator Wellbeing Project (ECEWP). Icare’s 2016-2017 claims data indicates early childhood work environments can be very hazardous.
A majority of the 1200 claims in 2016-17 were for ‘injuries’ (85%), with 15% for ‘diseases and conditions’. Of ‘injuries’, physical injuries attracted the highest rates of claim (94%) with psychological injuries only making up 6% of claims. Educators and teachers aged 19-32 years were involved in 42% of claims for physical injuries, with 33-45 year olds involved in 25% of claims, and 46-60 year olds in 27%. Females made up 93% of claimants in this category, and males 7%.
To put these figures into context, claims for the top three most serious physical injuries for educators and teachers are higher, or the same, as for those working in construction. And, in early childhood education rates of physical injury in two of these top three categories are higher than the national average.
Psychological injuries and mental stress
One hundred claims were made in the claims period for psychological injuries or mental stress, including the effects of work related harassment or bullying, work pressure, and exposure to workplace violence or traumatic events.
Older educators and teachers were strongly represented in this category, with 46-60 year olds involved in 37.5% of claims for psychological injury or mental stress, 33-45 year olds involved in 35% and 19-32 year olds in 26%. The majority of injuries/stress in this category were caused by work related harassment and/or bullying (39%), or work pressure (32%). Females made up 90% of claimants for this category, and males 10%.
High average numbers of days off per claim
As well as experiencing high rates of physical injury compared to the national average, within this category the early childhood education sector averages the highest number of days off per claim – 46 days off work – for body stressing. Body stressing is defined by Safe Work Australia as ‘muscular stress while lifting, carrying or putting down objects’; ‘repetitive movement, low muscle loading’ and ‘conditions affecting the nervous system and sensory organs’.
The numbers of days off for psychological injuries and mental stress in the early childhood education sector are even higher. Claims for mental stress averaged 154 days off overall – over three times as many days reported as required for body stressing claims in the sector (46 days). However, the highest number of average days off per claim was for ‘work pressure’ (176 days off work).
Costs of workplace injury
Workplace injury is extremely costly, with estimates of the total costs of workplace injury and illness to the Australian economy at around $62 billion per year (Safe Work Australia, 2015). Estimates of the cost of mental health claims are $146 million per year and reduced productivity due to poor mental health costs $6.1 billion annually (PwC, 2014). These are significant costs for any industry, let alone one such as early childhood education, where increased business costs are most often recouped through increased fees to families.
Educators’ and teachers’ injury costs also impact on the early childhood education sector through high workers compensation insurance premiums and the expense of recruiting casual and new permanent staff.
For example, the cost of replacing a teacher who is absent due to workplace injury is estimated to be 26 weeks of average wages, and training new staff costs around two and a half weeks of average wages (Safe Work Australia, 2015). Work Cover QLD also reports that the longer an employee in the early childhood education sector is off work, the less likely they are to return, potentially multiplying the cost of replacing staff. For example, if someone remains off work for 20 days, there is a 70% chance of them returning to work. However, if they remain off work for 70 days, there is only a 35% chance of them returning.
Hidden costs of workplace injury
Far more hidden and more difficult to quantify are the ongoing effects of workplace injury and resulting days off work for the employee, other teachers, children and families. These effects include: social isolation of an employee who is absent due to workplace injury, low staff morale as team members leave, increased workload for existing staff, decreased quality of relationships and less than optimal experiences and learning outcomes for children and families.
While no breakdown by qualifications is included in the icare data, there does appear to be quite a lot of variation in rates of claim based on region. For example, a number of regions, across the city, coastal and western areas of the state record low or no instances of psychological claim, while others seem to have high rates per worker insured.
Similarly, some regions have higher numbers of days off required, and others less – for the same type of injury. These variations are hard to explain, but do suggest further enquiry is warranted to understand whether low rates are due, for example, to underreporting, stronger return to work support or better overall support for teacher wellbeing.
Also notable in the figures above are the high rates of physical injury for younger educators and teachers (41%), high rates of psychological injury/stress for older educators and teachers (37.5%), and the higher rate of claims for psychological injury/stress for male teachers and educators (10%) than males’ claims for physical injury (7%). What might explain these particular rates of claim?
Perhaps the disproportionately high rate of claims for younger educators is due to their engagement in more physically demanding work tasks than their older colleagues; perhaps males’ rates of claim for psychological injury/stress reflect other accounts of prejudice and discrimination experienced by males working in the early childhood sector.
Higher rates of claim for psychological injury/stress involving females 46-60 years (37.5%) is harder to explain. Assuming that older teachers might be more involved in management or educational leadership positions might explain some of the claims for ‘work stress’, but not for harassment and/or bullying. Or, do the higher rates reflect cumulative effects of longer tenure in the sector?
We do not know the answers to these questions, but given these high rates of claims, injuries and costs, it is clear that urgent attention needs to be given to addressing educator and teacher safety and wellbeing in the work environment.
The ECEWP team’s research is well on the way to understanding more about this issue via a multi-disciplinary, holistic assessment approach. We already know from our pilot study that our participating educators had high levels of emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation, and often continued to work regardless of ongoing work related pain from injury.
Findings such as these will be used to inform interventions which better sustain and support the early childhood education workforce. Otherwise, without focused attention, the costs to educators and teachers, their employers, children and families may become too high for Australians to bear.
Tamara Cumming, Charles Sturt University (CSU); Elizabeth Wulff, CSU; Sandie Wong, Macquarie University; and Helen Logan, CSU
The IEUA NSW/ACT Branch will assess ongoing research in this field, including advice on how to avoid workplace injury. This survey was of both teachers and educators in NSW