By Deborah Lawson, General Secretary, Voice
‘Time to try the oxygen mask approach’
I know that early years professionals enjoy working with, educating and caring for young children, and even though it's hard work and financial rewards are limited, job satisfaction levels are generally high – or they have been. But is that changing and, if so, what is driving that change?
I know from Voice's annual stress survey that workplace stress has become a significant issue for early years professionals. We also know that it is other demands placed on staff, rather than working with children, that have a negative impact on their well-being.
Year after year, we see the same two issues causing the greatest stress to our members: ‘change’ – including the influence the employee has in deciding/implementing it and ‘demands’ – whether those placed on the employee are realistic to achieve in the timeframe and with the resources available.
The calls we receive from members also tell us of the demands made of them, and how they are so often having to do more in less time with fewer resources, increasing the amount of unpaid work outside the workplace. These demands are out of their control and often, but not always, driven by external factors, such as policy changes from government or Ofsted.
The Early Years Alliance's Minds Matter report found that 74 per cent of those surveyed described themselves as stressed as a result of their job. Paperwork and administration were the main causes.
Stress has an impact on recruitment and retention, but how can we break the cycle if the drivers are external? What can practitioners take control of to address stress?
‘Stress has an impact on recruitment, but how can we break the cycle if the drivers are external? What can practitioners take control of to address stress? The good news is that it is possible to make changes by being proactive.’
The good news is that it is possible to make changes by taking a proactive approach.
At a workplace level, employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress. Promoting positive staff wellbeing both demonstrates good employment practice and has business beneﬁts.
Being proactive makes for a healthier, happier, more engaged team, reduces sickness absence and workplace disputes, and improves retention levels and recruitment.
Early years professionals are well known for putting the needs of children ﬁrst, relegating their own needs to ‘when I have time’. The profession needs to adopt the oxygen mask approach. In case of emergency, ﬁt your own oxygen mask before, and in order to help, others.
This is not selﬁsh, because it enables you to take control – which is important when you feel out of control and unable to do your best. The oxygen mask approach empowers and is an important step in managing stress.
Employers and managers have a duty of care and need to be equipped to recognise the early signs of stress – but so do employees.
As with all health and safety matters, it is the duty of everyone in the workplace, but the legal responsibility to undertake a risk assessment is the employer’s. When stress is recognised and tackled as a workplace issue, it can lead to collective solutions and should lead to a whole workplace wellbeing strategy.
The ﬁrst step is to carry out a risk assessment to identify problems and what triggers them. Identiﬁcation leads to an action plan and the need for solutions. Collective solutions help ensure that all staﬀ engage in the process, have ownership of solutions and can be mutually supportive.
A whole team approach requires everyone to understand and recognise, in themselves and others, the symptoms of stress – including low energy, headaches, dry mouth, apathy, nausea, aches, pains and tense muscles, tearfulness, insomnia and frequent infections. We often only realise we’re stressed after feeling the physical signs.
By helping employees or colleagues to identify their triggers, consideration can be given to what can be changed to manage them.
If you are overwhelmed by paperwork, take time to plan the work, taking small steps to achieve long-term success. Finding time, even ten minutes, for yourself can be hard, but consider it your oxygen mask.
The working environment is important too. Research shows there are clear links between back, neck, shoulder, hip and knee pain and muscle aches – which we know are prevalent when working with young children – mental illness and sickness absence.
It is important that staff – not just the children – are provided with age-appropriate chairs and other equipment and are trained to think about sitting and standing postures and how to lift and carry both equipment and children safely – and are allowed rest breaks.
Support at work is important and there are resources that can help. No one size ﬁts all. What’s important is having a mechanism to manage and promote positive staff wellbeing in your workplace.