You can’t work in a nursery without spending considerable amounts of time kneeling down, bending over and lifting things, and these can all cause long-term problems. A Nursery World survey from 2015 found that 70 per cent experience work-related physical strain at least once a week and more than a quarter suffer daily. Ailments range from bad backs to muscle and joint issues and repetitive strain injuries.
Staff are often worried to tell their employer that they are suffering from pain. This can be for a number of reasons – they feel that their illness is not visible so will be considered ‘not real’, they feel that nothing will be done, or that by sharing their discomfort they will be seen as moaning. Some staff worry it would result in having to leave their post.
This is a culture that we need to change; first, to ensure all employees are well cared for, but also because a workforce full of injuries and discomfort is often unhappy, which directly impacts children and their families.
More employers are using the recruitment and induction process to understand and combat illnesses and injuries. Using in-depth medical and health questionnaires allows adaptations to be made. For instance, if someone suffers from a bad shoulder it would be preferential to place them in a room with older children who don’t need picking up.
Employers should not be frightened to ask questions during supervisions and meetings to check on staff’s physical, as well as mental, well-being. Ask if there are any reasonable adaptations you can make to support them in their role. Ensure that staff feel they can talk to you if they are not feeling well. All discussions regarding staff’s physical health should be recorded. If a staff member had an accident in the setting, that would be recorded, and so should aches, pains and discomfort. This will give you information to develop risk assessments and make the areas staff work in more comfortable for them.
Simple changes in the environment can make a big difference; for example, installing adult-sized chairs to sit and bottle-feed babies. It is surprising how many settings do not have any adult chairs in the room (often because managers are worried that staff will ‘sit there all day’), but by managing use of furniture effectively, and giving staff some credit in the first place, we can demonstrate that their health and well-being is a priority. Encouraging children to use steps up to the nappy-changing mat can help support practitioners from straining their backs.
Giving staff regular training on manual handling is a particularly effective way to address issues. This course used to feature a lot more in settings but seems to have fallen out of fashion. Pop it on the agenda of your next staff meeting.
Encourage physical health
Staff should be encouraged to be physically fitter: poor nutrition has an impact on injury levels, as well as wider implications for overall health. Childhood obesity levels are high and many members of staff are struggling with their weight and fitness. We are highly focused on supporting children to follow a healthy lifestyle, but managers and staff do not always practise what they preach. Some settings are completely on the ball with this: they offer staff healthy meals to eat with the children. One setting we work with holds monthly cookery workshops for staff, helping them to budget and cook healthily at home.
Exercise is also key. More settings are offering gym membership or regular exercise classes held in the nursery. This all contributes to staff feeling valued, happier and healthier. It is widely documented that poor health leads to increased absenteeism, and settings will suffer when staff are absent.
While working in settings over the past 15 to 20 years, I have seen a significant number of staff suffering from the physical strains of the job.
I remember one practitioner who started to struggle to get up from the floor when playing. She was clearly in pain as she would often hold her back, and it started taking a while for her to get fully moving again. This pain progressively worsened, yet she never complained. When discussing one day whether she was well enough to work, she stated that she had never spoken to her employer about her pain as she thought it was part and parcel of the job and that over time most people working with children would suffer wear and tear on their bodies. We told her that she shouldn’t be suffering.
As time elapsed her pain worsened, with trips to the doctors for painkillers and physiotherapy. Eventually she was booked in for an MRI scan, which showed significant degenerative wearing of the discs in her back. We met with the employer together to discuss the discomfort, which was recorded, and a risk was assessment drawn up. The employer took the illness very seriously, changing the furniture and ensuring the practitioner could sit comfortably when with the children. All staff were retrained in manual handling, and regular meetings are now held to discuss any additional support needed.
Although strategies are now in place, the practitioner will always have a physical ailment, which could have been prevented if the communication between her and the employer had started earlier.