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The emotional toll taken by working in the early years, while not new, has come to prominence following the Early Years Alliance making a hot topic of it last year. Their survey found that one in four early years practitioners is considering leaving the profession due to stress.
In 2016, I carried out a small study in a local nursery about the use of empathy in the profession. When discussing advanced empathy (see box) in a focus group, one of the practitioners said, ‘Having this kind of intense emotional connection with children can be tiring and leads to compassion fatigue.’ This got me thinking. In a Nursery Worldarticle in 2013, Geoff Taggart describes compassion fatigue within the early years as arising from ‘the daily experience of alleviating the suffering and dependency of others’. Perhaps having a close emotional bond with the children we work with leads to self-sacrifice, rather than job satisfaction.
This seemed to be an area worthy of further research, so I decided to ask early years practitioners whether they felt stressed at work, why this might be, and what they needed to help them to manage the emotional impact of the work. In my role as senior lecturer and course leader at the University of Worcester, I was able to ask my students to answer a detailed survey of open questions, and this was followed up with a small focus group to discuss some of the resulting issues in more depth. A total of 54 early years practitioners took part.
A key finding was that 89 per cent of respondents said they often felt stressed at work. Emotional labour is clearly a factor. Many respondents used words like ‘exhausted’, ‘stressed’ and ‘drained’; for example, ‘I sometimes feel like I am drained after a full day of dealing with children’s emotions.’
Many people gave examples of their struggles to achieve a work/life balance: ‘If I’ve had to deal with a particularly difficult issue, I dwell on it, especially if a child is upset. Sometimes my “patience bucket” has been well and truly drained at work and this can make me short with my own children – not something to be proud of.’
Some aspects of the profession are particularly difficult to manage, and confidentiality regulations mean that, as we cannot share these experiences at home, we need the opportunity to do so at work: ‘Safeguarding really stresses me out. I do worry about children constantly and I can’t share the details with loved ones, so it’s very hard to offload and switch off.’
The professionalisation of the early years workforce, and the associated increase in inspection, surveillance and paperwork, has meant that many practitioners are having to take paperwork home to complete: ‘Most of us complete work at home; it’s hard to switch off with such a huge “to do” list, but I also feel guilty if I’m not working at home. I’d be better off working at Asda.’
Work appears to take over people’s lives and eat into their personal life: ‘As a manager, it’s difficult not to take work home; I have little “me” time. Everything becomes about work which is extremely unhealthy and significantly impacts on my emotional well-being.’
The changing landscape of early years has also meant that workers find themselves managing more diverse situations, with an increase in children with SEND in pre-schools and an increase in challenging behaviour and in families living with adversity: ‘Having many children presenting challenging behaviour and influenced by a challenging home life can cause a huge amount of fatigue and stress. As a practitioner, using large amounts of empathy on a daily basis can take its toll.’
Respondents talked about times they had supported children and families and how emotionally drained they felt afterwards. They described supporting children through bereavement, domestic abuse, separation and family break-ups.
Practitioners were asked about support available for them at work, and there is evidently great inconsistency in emotional support offered. There are settings which prioritise staff morale and provide excellent support, but there are also those whose support for staff is perfunctory and takes place by email: ‘Professionally there is little or no emotional support for workers and even less praise.’
In counselling and social work, emotional support takes the form of professional supervision, where people are encouraged to talk within a supportive relationship and reflect on the emotional impact of the work. The Statutory Framework for the EYFS states that practitioners should have supervision, but in practice this is inconsistent. The emotional impact of working with children and families is not highlighted in early years training, resulting in practitioners being unprepared for this aspect of the work: ‘I’ve not received any training on managing work-related stress or the emotional impact of working with vulnerable families. It’s important and more support should be available to practitioners and managers.’
Empathy is loosely defined as the ability to understand and reflect back the feelings of others. However, what someone says and what they mean are not always the same. Advanced empathy, a term used in counselling, is about this latter concept, which can be defined as a deeper, more intuitive awareness of another person’s experience. It refers to ‘the picking up and offering back unstated feelings recognised from body language or voice tone’, says author Gerard Egan.
Advanced empathy is more powerful than basic empathy: the other person may not be consciously aware of the true feelings which are being reflected back to them. It involves being aware of emotions that are deeply buried in the other person’s sub-conscious; feelings that may not be perceived by them or, with younger children, feelings that the child is not yet able to articulate. My research has identified many examples of advanced empathy being used within the nursery.
Ms Hodgkins’ journal article, based on the same findings, is available in the New Zealand International Research in Early Childhood Education Journal, 2019, 22 (1), pp46-58.
What does this mean for the sector?
1. There is a need for more structured and meaningful supervision of early years practitioners within the workplace, with opportunities to talk through their feelings and emotions and to reflect on these.
2. In the education of early years practitioners, there is a need for acknowledgement of the emotional impact of the profession, and instruction on developing resilience, coping skills and support mechanisms.