Emotionally exhausted, physically worn – what researchers know about educator health

by Freya Lucas

February 22, 2021

Early childhood education and care (ECEC) educators experience rates of injury that are comparable with sectors that are more typically thought of as hazardous, and are battling with injury, exhaustion and burnout, new data collated by Charles Sturt University has shown. 

 

The data comes from the Early Childhood Educators’ Well-being Project (ECEWP), a series of research studies aiming to “generate high-quality, holistic evidence of educators’ well-being”. 

 

Researcher Dr Tamara Cumming recently walked through the findings with Women’s Agenda, outlining the researcher’s determination to take a holistic approach to examining wellbeing, and to ensuring that their project incorporates “first in the world stuff” in their efforts to find out as much as possible about the reality for educators.

 

With current ACECQA predictions noting that the ECEC sector will need 39,000 additional educators (including 9,000 teachers) in Australia by 2023 in order to keep up with demand, understanding the impact on the wellbeing of those already in the sector is essential for making it happen. 

 

To reach their findings, researchers worked with 73 educators from nine childhood services, operated by four different not-for-profit organisations across Australia. 

 

They asked participants to complete self-assessments, while also wearing ‘hexoskin vests’ during shifts, enabling the researchers to capture data on cardiorespiratory activities as well as how the body needs to move throughout the day and the effort involved. 

 

They compared their data to existing HILDA datasets and examined rates of injury through claims made to Australia’s largest compensation insurer, icare, among other things.

 

Injuries

 

When icare claims were analysed, the researchers found that the bulk (85 per cent) were mostly for physical injuries, while the remaining 15 per cent were grouped as “diseases and conditions”. Psychological injuries made up 6 per cent of the claims.

 

Of the physical injuries, the top three categories were body stressing injuries, falls (including trips and slips), and being hit by moving objects. 

 

Wellbeing

 

Emotionally, many of the educators spoken to felt compelled to “be nice no matter how I feel” on a daily or weekly basis, and many (60 per cent) felt the burden of “emotional exhaustion” at least once a month, with 20 per cent feeling exhausted weekly. 

 

On a physical wellbeing front, nearly half of the educators surveyed recorded less than 5,000 steps per day, with the bulk of the physical work of ECEC relating to bending to a child’s level or lifting children. In many services, educators had little opportunity to take a walk during their workday. 

 

Nutritionally, educators in some services were unable to make or purchase a healthy lunch at the service or nearby, or felt pressured into working through a lunch break. 

 

For those educators who work some distance from their services, early morning shifts were a challenge, waking as early as 4:30 am to ensure they arrived on time to make their shift. 

 

Perceptions of role

 

Over 80 per cent of educators felt they had the support of families in their care, as well as respect and esteem from others in the ECEC sector and their own families. 

 

When asked about the public at large however, only ten per cent of respondents felt that the broader community understood and respected the work of ECEC. 

 

“This is hard and complex work,” Dr Cumming said. “Then you have all of it coupled with the pay issue, and just how underpaid these educators are. You can add to that the perceived lack of recognition for the work they do from the general public.”

 

Despite these challenges, the survey uncovered a deep sense of work satisfaction from educators themselves, with 97 per cent believing they make a positive difference in children’s lives and nearly 80 per cent saying they experienced a sense of accomplishment when they reflected on their work. 

 

Future directions 

 

When asked about their future plans for the research, Dr Cumming said the team intends to use the work to lobby for change on getting the wellbeing or educators better considered in the National Quality Standard (NQS). 

 

The portion of the NQS which focuses on educator wellbeing “needs to be either enhanced, or new principles need to be added”. 

 

Much of it, she adds, could come down to supporting healthy workplaces cultures, including leadership, respect and paying more attention to what wellbeing means in different individual contexts.

 

“We believe our work has contributed, even in the past three years, to an awareness in the sector of it being OK to talk about educator’s wellbeing – and that it’s actually very important to do so,” she added. 

 

“Over the next three years, we’re expected to have a shortage of close to 10,000 people in this sector. The reason is because we keep churning people through. We are losing people. We need to address this.”  

 

To follow Dr Cumming’s research, please see here. For the original coverage of this piece, see here

PRINT