Ofsted regulations mean that nurseries must have an adequate staffroom; but there is much more to gain from staff facilities than mere legal compliance.
Staffrooms are an essential element of the wellbeing of nursery staff and the respite they provide can be invaluable.
'I think it's quite a stressful job,' explains Linda Knight, chief executive of Nunu nurseries. 'We make sure staff have morning and afternoon breaks and their lunch, so that they've got time to just get away from it.'
The break from the working environment, however, is not just a matter of quantity, but quality too.
'I designed the buildings so that the staffrooms are as far away as possible from the children's areas,' says Linda. 'I think they need to have a complete break from being with children. If they're too close to the children they can hear the noise and I don't think they switch off completely. I like them to have a comfortable environment that is similar to their home, so they can relax properly.'
So what constitutes a quality environment? Distance from the children and a rejuvenating atmosphere are sound starting points.
'We try to make sure the room is light and airy,' says Philippa Westly, project manager for Kidsunlimited, 'and tucked out of the way a bit, to give staff that bit of privacy, so that when they're on a break, they're on a break.'
Home from home
The resources in the staffroom are very important too. Most chains will attempt to make their staffroom both comfortable and practical, providing a core set of amenities that enable staff to relax, and replenish energy levels with a decent meal and a good sit down.
The room should be equipped with the essentials: a fridge, kettle, tea and coffee-making facilities, a sink, and microwave. There should also be ample seating; some nurseries go so far as to provide leather sofas, a colour television, reading material, a CD player and a radio, telephone, IT facilities with internet access, and space to sit down and do paperwork.
The latter two are especially useful for those working towards qualifications. The need for good facilities is all the greater in nurseries that are not close to shops and cafes.
One of the Nunu nurseries has a first-floor sun terrace. 'They've got a fabulous balcony,' says Linda Knight. 'It's really nice!'
Having the areas within the room suitably divided is a plus, so that kitchen, television, work and locker areas can retain their individual sense of purpose.
An important aspect of the staffroom is that it is communal and can help bond the team together, and this is to the benefit of the children and the productivity of the nursery.
'Staffrooms quite often can be a place that provides the opportunity for staff from different areas to meet and chat,' says Gemma Rolstone, director of operations for Puffins of Exeter Childcare Centres.
'A place for the baby room staff to meet with,. say, the Foundation Stage practitioners that they don't always get time to in the normal flow of the day. It's a good opportunity for that sort of unity between practitioners.'
The room can also act as a useful means to disseminate staff-related information, such as training details, announcements and social events.
'Quite often you'll walk in and see a list on the wall inviting all the staff on a night out,' says Philippa Westly. 'Working on shifts they're not guaranteed to see each other all the time.'
If the staff can make the room their own, this adds to the sense of team building and bonding. It develops a sense of collective ownership and the responsibility can help to bring people closer together.
'I think our staffroom is primarily a place to relax in, to get out of the hustle and bustle,' explains Sarah Karkeek, operational director for Happy Days Day Nurseries in Cornwall, where phone lines and an intranet give staff access to other nurseries in the chain. 'But it is also a place of communication; whether that be internal communication within their own team or within the wider Happy Days family.
'Sometimes you have a bit of an adrenalin rush, maybe you've done something that morning that's been really fantastic or gone really well, and it's just really nice to share it; that's what they do.'
Linda Knight agrees, 'It's where they can watch "Neighbours" in their lunch break, catch up, and it's a good team-building thing as well if they've got room to spread out and be comfortable.
'When we open a nursery we recruit the new staff several weeks before and they're involved in things like making decisions to buy furniture and they put their own stuff on the notice board and that kind of thing.'
The level of participation varies; some staff are happy to leave the decor chosen by their predecessors, or the directors who have arranged the room.
However, some want to make their space unique and bring in their own pictures, cushions, plants, and sometimes they go even further.
'In one of our nurseries they've just recently thrown out all their chairs because they like bean bags,' says Sarah Karkeek. 'So they're all sitting on bean bags now.'
A good environment at work helps to keep up staff morale, which is crucial in helping a chain hold on to the valuable staff they have already, as well as enticing new workers.
'Because the competition is harder now, we're fighting to keep the best staff,' says Linda Knight. 'It's not just about the salary; it's about the working conditions and the environment as well.'
Nunu shows its staffrooms to the parents of prospective attendees, proving that a high quality staffroom does not appeal to just employees.
'I'll take parents in, especially when we open a new nursery,' Linda Knight explains, 'because they want to know that the people looking after their children are treated properly. Happy staff means happy children, so I think it's really important.
'We're marketing childcare at the upper end of the market so we want staff that are used to that environment and can respect that environment.'
Count the cost
What reasons might there be to not to invest time and money in creating a pleasant staffroom, then? Predictably, perhaps, there are financial ones.
'There always is that thought in daycare where, if money isn't being spent directly on the children, practitioners find it harder to justify to themselves,' says Gemma Rolstone. 'But certainly it is something that's important for staff wellbeing, and if staff aren't well in themselves, they can't be good role models for the children.'
Even if it is hard to justify a staffroom as a financial priority, nonetheless it is worthwhile. The staffroom has the potential to act as the hub of the nursery, keeping staff going and keeping the team together, which can help to maintain the energy levels of staff partaking in intense and sometimes draining work.
'When you've got investors who are saying you want to build so much space per child, it's extra space that you need to build and you're not getting children in there,' says Linda Knight. 'I've always taken the long-term view and insisted that we allocate so much space to the staff rooms. It looks a big space when you open a new nursery but when you've got, say, 40 staff in a building and you've got a third of them on a lunch break at the same time it soon fills up.'
'When you're looking at priorities, it'll be the rooms for the children as the first priority,' says Sarah Karkeek. 'Really what we're saying now is, the children have to come first, but the staff are pretty much equal to that, because it's they who provide the care for the children, and we need to ensure that their welfare is well catered for.'
The quality of staffrooms varies, not just in the quality of the furnishings, but the atmosphere, resources and basic architecture too. Yet if chains get the staffroom right, it can have a huge effect on the staff that use it, making it very important to the success of the nursery.
'We're expected to make sure the children have adequate rest and relaxation facilities, quiet time, sleep and rest time,' says Gemma Rolstone. 'So why shouldn't we be expecting the same for staff?'