Staff well-being, or engagement, is so important because it is the differentiating factor in a successful business,’ says HR consultant and nursery director Sophie Haylock. ‘Whatever your measure of success, whether you achieve it or not will come down to your staff.’
Unfortunately, the demanding nature of caring for children combined with high workloads and poor pay form a toxic mix. Stress, anxiety and depression within the early years workforce are commonplace.
In 2018, the Minds Matter survey found that one in four early years practitioners was considering leaving the sector because of the impact on their mental health. Last year, a Nursery World investigation found that half of all childcare workers earn poverty wages.
The current coronavirus pandemic now means many childcare workers are furloughed. This means those on the minimum wage who have been furloughed will now receive less than the statutory minimum, as the Government pays 80 per cent of wages. They could well be struggling. Then there are concerns over the future of the sector as a whole. Given the already considerable pressures outlined above, the impact of widespread closures and lack of Government compensation for loss of fee income, the sector’s viability is on the line.
What is obvious is that, when nurseries do fully re-open, providing baskets of fresh fruit or toiletries, however nice and well-meaning, will not be enough to support staff well-being.
‘Staff consistently report high levels of support for well-being issues’ is now a leadership and management grade descriptor for Outstanding settings. Ofsted wants to see that leaders recognise their responsibility to their team, according to Stella Ziolkowski, director of quality and training at the National Day Nurseries Association.
According to the early years handbook, ‘Leaders ensure that highly effective and meaningful engagement takes place with staff at all levels and that any issues are identified.’
Ms Ziolkowski says, ‘To ascertain if this is the case, they will ask questions of both leaders, staff and parents to see if staff report feeling supported in the workplace and whether parents feel the staff are well cared for and happy. The integrity of the leader is something that Ofsted will also take an interest in, and what staff say about their manager will support the Leadership and Management judgement during inspection.’
Ms Haylock says well-being is often adversely affected by staff not knowing what is expected of them. ‘Engagement is about being in a job that fits your skills and where you understand where you fit in the company. Understanding the contribution that you are making leads to engagement and well-being – and then stems down to having clear expectations.’
She says staff need to be told immediately when they are doing well or need to do better, rather than retrospectively in appraisals or supervisions, which can lead to anxiety or issues becoming magnified.
Ofsted’s attempts to address workload in the EIF and reduce the amount of evidence that practitioners need to produce has been welcomed. Amelia Joyner, pre-school leader and Early Years Teacher at Cullompton Pre-school in Devon, says she aims to be ‘realistic and constructive’ in the way she manages staff workload by allocating key workers time to complete children’s folders. She also discourages taking work home.
‘We give extra time for staff to complete transition documents and we set up cover for the settling-in period each autumn to ensure we don’t get burnt out quickly,’ she says. ‘The staff are praised in specific and clear ways and also nurtured – if a staff member has a particular area that causes anxiety, I do my best to allay that with training or by changing the process or circumstance by really looking at the “why” and then the “how I can help”.’
During the current lockdown, staff are ‘apprehensive and anxious’ and some are struggling emotionally while also proud that the pre-school remains open to support key worker and vulnerable children. No staff have been furloughed. Ms Joyner has been ‘scouring’ the internet for mental health support to share with her team and has found lots of information on the gov.uk site.
‘We have set up a staff Whatsapp group for our whole team to support all of those who are self-isolating for different reasons. The group is used daily, staff feel able to share when their anxiety is overwhelming, and staff support each other really well with positive comments and ideas and sharing photos from home activities,’ she says. ‘I email everyone at least once a week so no-one feels left out, and staff who have chosen to stay at home have as much work to do as we can find them.’
The setting already encouraged staff to support and praise each other, which is now helping during this difficult period.
At Yorkshire Montessori Nursery group, the Leuven Scale – an assessment to measure children’s emotional well-being and involvement – has been adapted to monitor employee well-being and all managers have undertaken accredited mental health training. On occasion the company, which owns four nurseries, has paid for personal counselling for staff members.
‘It may sound corny, but we are a big family and we do support employees through tough times,’ says owner Helen Gration. ‘It is a busy role and it can take everything from you. Managers have a good eye for mental-health awareness, which helps to identify any problems early. We know each other, which also helps to look out for someone when they are struggling.’
Ms Joyner also acknowledges the mental and physical demands of working in a highly inclusive setting. ‘Staff are deeply committed to their work and while the financial rewards are not high, the personal rewards and satisfaction are the rewards for the work we do,’ she says. ‘The team here are supported by me to perform at their best, to feel proud of working in our outstanding setting and to be trained to a high level to promote confidence in their work.’
She promotes ‘a listening ear’ and offers support where needed. ‘I am very conscious through all my safeguarding work that incidents of conflict in the home or domestic abuse happen to one in four families, so caring for my staff is important and I ask at every review or supervision “are you happy at home and safe in your relationship?”.’
Staff well-being in the pandemic
The pandemic is an excellent opportunity for staff to feel part of a bigger effort and have their contribution recognised. Linda Baston-Pitt, chief executive of Purple Bee Learning and co-founder of the PANCo qualification, which provides early years health and well-being training, says, ‘When staff enjoy coming to work and feel that their contributions are recognised, so their level of motivation and engagement rises. Research suggests that flourishing and engagement go together, so if you want to attract and retain staff, your well-being strategy should create the conditions for people to flourish as well as providing support for those who are struggling.’
During the pandemic, she says the ‘most important thing’ is to be open and maintain a constant flow of communication with everyone, including those who are furloughed. She also advises:
- Maintain a level of continuity as you would do normally within the nursery by providing individual support.
- Check in on team members regularly by planning meetings in the setting if appropriate or by telephone or internet conferencing.
- Don’t shy away from difficult conversations and ask open questions that focus on well-being, for example: ‘How are they adapting to the change?’, ‘What plans do they have?’
- Keep a record of how staff feel and build the support they need around this.
- Create a bank of useful information and guidance that you can draw on and signpost staff to.
- Encourage staff to share with their colleagues via closed groups such as Facebook or Whatsapp.
Advice for leaders
- Well-being is a very broad concept which can include how satisfied people are with their life, how much control they feel and their sense of purpose, so staff need to know what is expected of them and feel valued.
- Anxiety, stress and depression can be caused by a mixture of work and home pressures, including workload, sudden change, relationship problems, health and financial worries, so a supportive leader needs to focus on both work and home life.
- Be aware that many people still feel a stigma associated with mental health which may prevent them from talking about their problems for fear of discrimination.
- Develop positive relationships by valuing difference and diversity and actively encouraging and listening to different perspectives.
Nursery World’s survey on working poverty in the early years: https://bit.ly/3eUlNEX
Minds Matter by the Early Years Alliance: https://bit.ly/3cV4i5L
Purple Bee: www.purplebeelearning.com
Anxiety UK: www.anxietyuk.org.uk
EY Matters: https://www.eymatters.co.uk
NDNA guidance on coronavirus: https://bit.ly/2Y6SM2P
Government guidance: www.gov.uk