Sharing the responsibility: mental health starts with occupational safety and awareness
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Sector.
Sitting at the centre of every individual educator is a yearning to connect, to relate and belong to a group. These elements are in essence the foundations to developing and growing a mentally healthy and professional working environment.
BeYou is on a steady roll out across Australia delivering a strong message about improving mental health outcomes for children and young people. Those who are leading and managing early childhood education and care (ECEC) services need to invest in, and attend to, this message because it directly relates to their educators.
Thinking of an investment in the mental health and wellbeing of educators as an investment in the asset of the educators themselves, and an investment in the ongoing success of the ECEC service comes with potential to improve the quality of the relationships between all stakeholders who access the service.
Can some direction be found for both approved providers and employees through a deeper analysis and investment in occupational health and safety techniques, specifically through provocations for professionals to manage the elements of mental health and wellbeing as they would any other occupationally related risk or hazard?
The collected evidence base acknowledges the important role ECEC services play in helping to achieve success in the BeYou campaign. 13 per cent of Australian 4-11 year old’s experience mental health conditions; 25 per cent of Australian children experience family violence; 23 per cent of Australian children have a parent or career with a mental illness; and, 13 per cent of Australian children live in a house with a parent who is a binge drinker.
The BeYou vision strives to transform Australia’s approach to mental health for children and young people in ECEC services and schools. Through supporting the skill development of educators and teachers, BeYou hopes that educators will be able to empower whole service approaches to improving mental health and wellbeing as a community.
The 2014 National Mental Health Commission identified that half of all adult mental health conditions had begun developing in individuals before the age of 15. However, whilst this data highlights the important role ECEC services play within the BeYou vision, this may be difficult to achieve on a practical level, with early childhood educators requiring support for their own fragmented habits and levels of personal wellbeing.
Many of the professional conversations that occur in social media groups around the barriers to achieving mentally healthy ECEC communities link to these elements of educator wellbeing and a review of the literature further emphasises this. In essence, approved providers are sometimes left questioning where the responsibility lies for ensuring early childhood educators are working to look after their own holistic health needs in equal balance to whole service approaches moving to improve educator wellbeing.
When does work-related stress become an issue for employers?
When examining the mental health issues that can arise for early learning educators, it is fair to say that teachers can experience stress on a daily basis. Stress becomes a health concern when it is reoccurring or ongoing at high levels, with stress sometimes being a precursor for anxiety.
In Australia, 41 per cent of teachers experience high levels of occupational stress. Contributing factors to teacher stress include:
- workplace bullying;
- lack of professional opportunities;
- adapting to a new curriculum; and,
- conflict with management.
The question then becomes, how does this occupational stress differ from the ordinary stress that is a natural part of the profession?
As a sector working with multiple stakeholders, whilst also striving for continuous improvement, some of the stress that evolves around an early learning environment is considered normal. This includes situations that are appropriate within the profession such as separation from families at drop-off times, irritability around feeding and sleeping routines, and learning how to operate as a member of a team.
However, the statistics are showing that there is an increasing amount of money being spent on compensation claims around work-related stress. This highlights the importance of developing policies and procedures that work to set the parameters for educators and approved providers to ensure the continued reduction of work-related stress as a health and safety risk requiring management that is not only fair but also articulates for all stakeholders where this sits within the management of pre-established mental health conditions.
Many of the guides supporting work-related psychological stress management are founded on an employer’s ability to embed systems that work to prevent harm, intervene early, and support recovery. With teachers sitting in the category of occupations most at risk of work-related mental health claims, approved providers need to consider the data as significant, and proactively implement actions that reduce the statistics and impact on individual businesses.
Practicalities and the National Quality Standard
The National Quality Standard (NQS), specifically element 4.1.1, identifies the role of the approved provider to ensure that the organisation of educators across the service is structured in a way that best meets the needs of the children and their learning. Consideration of educators and teachers can also be made in this regard, particularly given the data that demonstrates education professionals have a limited ability to manage occupational stress in healthy and appropriate ways.
Within this element is a suggestion that services reflect on increasing staffing ratios in an effort to boost the quality of practice provided by educators. However, the practicalities of hiring above minimum ratios sits in the realm of best practice and is not always an option for businesses to facilitate.
This means that the structuring of educators across a service needs to be strategic in an effort to ensure that suitably qualified and skilled educators are leading early learning environments, not just for the children but also the colleagues and families whom also access that space.
Going hand-in-hand with this reflection is an acknowledgment of the interconnectedness between quality area four and quality area seven of the NQS, giving guidance and standards in relation to leadership and management.
More specifically, asking how can leadership and staffing arrangements can be used to guide, model and mentor educators, providing input to support them in the management of the stress attributed to the occupation.
Approved providers are provoked to consider whether reductions in occurrence and cost of work-related stress can be achieved by appointing appropriately qualified or skilled educators across services equally. This proposition not often considered enough when examining the significant impact university trained early childhood teachers can potentially bring in infant age groups
Recruit or retrain?
With many years spent as a teacher in early childhood, I am very aware of the difficulties attributed to “leaving work at the gate”, and it comes as no surprise that this is often one of the inquiries that I now get as a consultant. In years past this element of health was viewed as something that you just needed to push though, because the work was still going to be the same the next day.
However what has become more evident is that teachers are choosing to forfeit their careers after only three years as a result of the in house stressors impacting them beyond the gates and for little reward.
For many approved providers the early departure of an early childhood teacher is something best avoided because the need for these professionals across Australia is only growing, with 422 early childhood teacher positions posted on LinkedIn alone. It is becoming more difficult to source and recruit professionals across the board, particularly individuals that meet a particular standard in the vision of quality and as a result it is ideal to build on the capacities of existing employees before outsourcing new recruits.
Living in a rural area, many conversations are held about the difficulties in managing the additional staffing requirements that has been preset by ACECQA with the roll out of the NQF. However, in 2020 these requirements for a second ECT or a ‘suitably qualified person’ will apply to all providers of long day care services and preschools/kindergartens when attendance hits 60 or more children.
What does it all mean?
The contemporary perspectives around mental health and wellbeing are noted as significant and are related to the stresses of working in the education profession. Approved providers will benefit from auditing and reviewing occupational health and safety requirements relating to work-related mental stress for educators. More specifically, providers are encouraged to build knowledge and capacity on where their duty of care sits in line with the provision of a safe and healthy working environment. In balance to this, ensuring that educators are equally aware of their duties as a worker.
The earlier approved providers invest in the prevention of work related mental health issues from a policy perspective, the sooner early learning professionals can embrace and reinvigorate the passion within their work with children.