Burnout – what can ECEC teams learn from this startup business’s COVID-19 response?

by Freya Lucas

September 02, 2020

2020 will be a memorable year for lots of reasons. Perhaps the most enduring symbol, however, and the one which left many people shaking their heads, was the moment when toilet paper became a rare commodity. Almost overnight, people began scrambling to improvise, adapt and overcome the challenges of empty shelves, and toilet paper quickly went from being a hush hush topic to one which was widely discussed and fretted over. 

 

Who Gives a Crap (WGAC), an Australian toilet paper startup whose business model includes donating 50 per cent of their profits to help build toilets and improve sanitation in the developing world, were one of the frontline responders to the crisis, quickly stepping in to fill the supply gap, but burning out their team as a result.

 

What can the WGAC lessons and solutions teach the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector, as educators across the country, but particularly in Victoria, battle feelings of mental, physical and emotional fatigue from the COVID-19 pandemic? 

 

“People need a moment”

WGAC acknowledged the challenges of 2020 so far, gifting all employees an extra five days paid leave, to help them recover from the first six months of 2020, and take care of their mental health.

 

“2020 has been really hard,” a statement shared by the group noted. 

 

“People everywhere are struggling with remote work, no work, lack of childcare, stress, fear, grief and all other things that come with living in such extraordinary circumstances. Our team is no different.” 

 

“As a company, we take mental health seriously. We want to make sure that our team has time to take care of themselves and their families,” WGAC said, outlining that for the next two weeks, the team will be running at 50 per cent capacity. 

 

Half the team will be given annual leave (dubbed by co-founder Simon Griffiths as ‘no week’) while the other half will have ‘slow week’ with all regular meetings cancelled, freeing the team up to focus on whatever priorities they deem most important. 

 

The two teams will then swap around, creating a two week ‘recharge’ window. 

 

Recognising the impact of growth

While 2020 has been a boom year for WGAC, with a 1,000 per cent sales boost in March, at the height of the shortages, and with a 750 per cent increase in profits for the 2019/20 financial year, half of which (over $5 million) was donated to charity, the growth has come at a cost. 

 

“It was really exhilarating and fun and exciting, but that can also take a mental toll,” Mr Griffith told SmartCompany.

 

He spoke candidly about the work ethic of his team, who all “dug really deep” to step up to the challenges posed by the sudden uptick in business, not having taken any time off, for fear of leaving their colleagues in the lurch.

 

This relentlessness, coupled with facing stresses external to work as a result of the pandemic, has taken a toll on the team. 

 

WGAC offers employees access to an employee assistance program, which offers coaching, therapy and mental health support.

 

When Mr Griffiths noticed that more and more people had been using the platform over the past few months, leaving activities or courses unfinished, he saw “a big red flag”. 

 

Subtle signs of burnout

It was this “flag” which sounded a warning in his mind – people are too exhausted to make use of the support system they were being offered. 

 

As such, the only solution which he could see was to step in and offer an additional break, to recognise the efforts made, and to provide space for people to recover. 

 

In supporting the team, SmartCompany noted, WGAC is also creating space for future benefits and an increase in productivity. Mr Griffiths supported this thinking, saying there are still goals WGAC wants to achieve by the end of 2020, “and burnout will not be conducive to that”.

 

Leaving space for creativity 

While there was a need to evolve and adapt in response to the challenges brought by COVID-19, continuing at breakneck speed for the remainder of the year isn’t conducive to a happy working environment, and may also impede the growth of the business as a whole, Mr Griffiths said. 

 

Space needs to exist for the team to reflect and ensure they are working on the highest-impact tasks within their role, and becoming refocused for the remainder of 2020, and into 2021. 

 

Learnings for ECEC 

With evidence showing that COVID-19 has had a strong impact on ECEC educators’ emotional wellbeing, and on those tasked with leading and managing ECEC teams and ensuring the financial viability of their services, some may argue that more needs to be done to support the sector both in the immediate and medium term. 

 

Educators have expressed their feeling that ECEC was devalued in the COVID-19 response in comparison to their peers in school based settings, and with workforce challenges persisting across the sector, employers in this space should perhaps pay close attention to measures, such as those implemented by WGAC, being taken in the world beyond ECEC to safeguard the welfare and wellbeing of employees. 

 

This story was crafted in part using materials produced by Stephanie Palmer-Derrien for SmartCompany. To access Stephanie’s work, please see here

 

For more information on WGAC’s business model, see here

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