‘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 well-being 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 well-being 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 can be 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 well-being in your workplace.
Karen Faux talks to trainer and consultant Kate Moxley who works with settings to help them bring out the unique talents of their staff. It is all about embarking on a journey to create sense of shared values and embedding a commitment to well-being in everyday practice.
Why do settings come to you for training and what support are they seeking?
Every setting and team I have worked with is completely different and unique and the challenges they are facing are personal to their individual setting. But what I have found is the same, is how they are all feeling.
They are all experiencing the same feelings of stress, pressure, loss of job satisfaction and being overwhelmed. This is often as a result of challenges that we face as a sector – financially, funding, children's specific requirements, Ofsted, paperwork, planning, observations, staffing – shortage of staff, staff sickness and absence, and maintaining ratios.
Managers and leaders carry the brunt of all of this. I am certain there is not a job role out there, that demands the multitude of responsibilities and characteristics that being a nursery manager requires!
Crucially factors around how effective and consistent the quality of leadership and management are will impact on staff happiness, harmony and their health and well-being.
What are the main challenges that are cited by staff?
Honestly – everything and anything! That is why effective performance and supervision is absolutely critical! Having that safe space to talk openly, honestly and professionally about their role and also receive feedback – such as things they are doing well, identifying skills, strengths and talents alongside areas of improvement – is key to their professional development and the quality of the setting.
Quite often it is the small things, the little niggles that are not spoken about that begin to fester and that can result in staff then beginning to collect ‘negative evidence’ as I call it!
One of the biggest challenges we face is time and this is an issue for both managers and staff. We all feel as if there is never enough hours in the day! By this I mean time for staff to do things they want to do or responsibilities that are required of them, such as the dreaded word paperwork! Although so many settings are now using software it can be more about observations, assessments, next steps and targets rather than actual paperwork itself.
For staff it is also time to play, tidy, clean, organise, go outside, complete activities and displays. For managers every single day is different but what their job description doesn't cover is dealing with disruptions, such as the phone ringing non-stop, the door bell going, parents arriving, leaving, doing show arounds, supporting unforeseen staffing and parent issues.
Ofsted is quite an obvious source of stress and worry for everyone. Throughout the consultation and the launch of the new Ofsted Education Inspection Framework 2019, (EIF) it has been very vocal about removing unnecessary paperwork or producing evidence specifically for it. Ofsted appears to be taking positive steps towards supporting the sector with its pressure of workload with the introduction of its myth busting articles and the work it is doing with local authorities, the Department for Education and the Early Years Alliance. However what isn't then helpful is the introduction of words such as ‘cultural capital’ in the EIF 2019. That alone has caused unnecessary pressure and strain on settings, as they have had to become familiar with such unnecessary language and terminology, relating to something they had already been doing for the children in their care, but couched within different wording.
What does your ‘Early Years Well-being Audit’ involve?
Well-being is now on everyone's radar due to the inclusion of staff well-being in the EIF 2019, which is really positive. On the downsisde lot of people view it as a tick list, or a one-off gesture, but to put it simply, well-being is how happy, healthy and comfortable we are; it is our everyday actions that contribute to our overall levels of well-being. Learning to think about our well-being in the workplace as being integral to our everyday practice and operation of our settings is key.
The ‘Well-being Audit’ is helpful to evaluate what you currently have in place to support staff well-being in the workplace. As despite the individual setting issues that arise, they will nearly always stem back to the same policies that are perhaps not in place or not quite embedded in practice. For example, if you have issues with staff relationships and the happiness and harmony of your team, or an area of development is professionalism, a Staff Code of Conduct is always necessary.
I always ask people to consider this. We bend over backwards so that children and families pick and choose to attend our settings and then we put even more effort into supporting them all through the settling process. We ensure we have met their every need and are nurturing and supporting children's emotional development. Do we do the same for our staff? I believe a Code of Conduct can be a good starting point to draw a line and say, who are we as a team?
I am also finding that managers are feeling under pressure to support more staff who are stating that they are experiencing mental health issues and, depending on their experience and knowledge, they can feel ill-equipped to deal with conversations and support them through this time. Managers are also facing the biggest challenge of all – they themselves are often under the most pressure – while trying to take care of their own well-being. This can result in managers burning out. Using an audit to reflect on and evaluate our attitude towards what work, life balance means to us as a manager, or how we value it as a team, is healthy and important.
It is important that there is a focus on personal development for every staff member
What tools do you use to measure health and well-being?
When I work with settings to overcome challenges and difficulties, I emphasise the importance of honesty and work carefully alongside individuals to develop trust and mutual respect. If it feels like a safe place for staff to share their thoughts, feelings and ideas, knowing they will be handled sensitively, then it helps to break down the barriers and defence mechanisms we can build to protect ourselves. In my experience everyone truly wants the best for the children in their care and there will always be a solution to any conflict. I always provide personal reflection diaries for managers and staff to complete – these are not shared with anyone else but are for their own private reflection. I have always found staff questionnaires can be very effective – as long as owners, managers and leaders are prepared to listen to the results. They also need to take on board what staff have to say and use the results to form a strategy to make the necessary adjustments and improvements. Planning on how they are to be introduced to staff along with aims, intended outcome and actions is all part of this process,. Well-being questionnaires should be carefully thought out and all questions developed sensitively and compassionately with the responses and results handled respectfully.
‘Staff questionnaires can be very effective – as long as owners, managers and leaders are prepared to listen to the results. They have to take on board what staff have to say and use the results to form a strategy’
Many settings can take measures to improve staff induction and support at the beginning of their employment. How well they are supported and mentored during this time is essential to the effectiveness of their ongoing performance and ongoing commitment to fulfilling their job description. The first impression sets the tone for their professional working relationship. How much value the manager places on taking the time to listen, their commitment to performance management, training and ongoing personal and professional development will all be factors affecting the staff member's disposition and professional conduct moving forward. It is a reciprocal process that starts with the manager as the role model – the staff member will take their cues from the manager, their mentor and staff they work alongside.
Moving forward, all staff should be involved with, and receive ongoing regular and performance management meetings, alongside annual appraisals and mid-term reviews. If done efficiently they are highly effective in driving improvement. Again, reviewing your performance management procedures is a good idea, for example, who does them? Has the person who completed them received any training or professional development on how to complete staff supervisions? Where are they carried out? Are they completed in a private space? Are staff supervisions really effective in enhancing staff performance? How often are they completed? Are actions recorded effectively? Is there a timeline for actions to be completed and by whom? Sadly, what surprised me in the early days, but is a recurring issue we must face as a sector, is that staff self-esteem and self-worth are worryingly low. I always refer back staff to Maslow's ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ – we all need the basics but to thrive and reach our full potential we need to think and feel positively about ourselves. Unfortunately, that seems to be something we have never been taught or learnt to do properly.
Staff rooms should be comfortable places to relax and chat
This means the individual recognising their unique skills, strengths and talents. I encourage settings to dedicate their time, energy and patience in team building, working on their sense of self and sense of team. All of the training we usually do is about the impact on the children and their professional development but our personal development is just as important. In order to take care of other people, you have to take care of yourself first!
Questionnaire feedback example:
Seventy eight per cent of staff felt the staff room was not a suitable space to enjoy their lunch breaks
To enhance the staff room so they are comfortable, relaxing and enjoyable spaces to spend time in away from the children
A whole team activity pauses for reflection on staff spaces. To identify staff ideas, thoughts and feelings on how to make improvements and adaptations to enhance the staff room-allowing staff to take ownership of the staff room project.
Staff will have a room that is a suitable space to relax, enjoy lunch and have restful breaks away from children
Staff interaction has improved, as more staff are using the space. There is more seating and space to cook and store food. Staff like the new noticeboard - ‘Well-being Wall’ and are taking turns to add photos, posters and information to it
How do you devise a plan of action for the setting?
These all come from the responses staff share through questionnaires and feedback – which includes suggestions and areas identified for improvement by managers and leaders. Ultimately, like the environment you create for children and families, you are looking to cultivate an ethos that allows staff health and well-being to flourish.
A ‘Well-being Strategy’ outlines the setting's commitment to staff well-being that creates:
- A sense of belonging
- A culture based on shared values and trust
- An environment where staff well-being is integrated into day-to-day practice
- An environment that recognises skills and encourages personal development
Action plans should be as simple as possible – remember we are wanting to simplify things, achieving more doing less! By using aims, action, intended outcomes and following up with actual outcomes shows accountability and paves the way for a clear plan to make positive changes.
As CEO of PurpleBee Learning, a practice-based online training platform for early years professionals, Linda Baston-Pitt is a passionate advocate for motivated, ambitious staff. She outlines how the skills which underpin these qualities can be taught and developed.
The well-being approach is about much more than the absence of mental illness or symptoms of disease. It is about excellence. For individuals this means they are flourishing, meeting their potential and reaching optimum health; in organisations it means they are innovating and reaching beyond compliance.
The leader of every early years setting plays an important role in sharing ideas and practical solutions about how to link health and well-being activities to learning areas within the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum. By building on a shared vision of health and well-being, staff can be more holistic in their approach and can be enabled to devise practical strategies to foster physical and psychological well-being for children and for colleagues.
Creating a healthy environment
Childcare providers who want to recruit and retain people will need to embrace well-being as a mode of working and educating. It is a critical element of best practice and is much more than a set of employment perks. In pursuit of the commitment to health and well-being in early education, leaders must manage their resources to best meet the needs of children and families, and to encourage rich play experiences across the whole curriculum. This includes the physical resources of the work setting as well as the knowledge and skills of their staff team. By creating a healthy, safe and positive environment, leaders will be able to bring to life a vision of health and well-being in their setting.
A crucial, but sometimes neglected, area is the environment in which we work. It affects how motivated we feel about our work, so creating a positive environment has a direct effect on staff motivation. You can't make someone motivated, but you can create the conditions for motivation to thrive.
What sort of ‘atmosphere’ is there in your work setting? Is it a welcoming environment for families, children and staff? The commitment to well-being should be evident in the way the environment is looked after – anything from new wall displays to looking at how people are wearing their clothes or uniform, and how they greet people as they come through the door. Staff should know that their well-being is a priority and every member of staff should have their own personal and professional development plan. Staff who model healthy behaviours are able to help children to establish good life habits.
Can we learn to live well?
Each one of us, as our lives unfold, experiences challenges and triumphs that test our physical, mental and social capacities. Imagine it as a see-saw where well-being is the balance point between an individual's personal resources and the external challenges they face.
Mealtimes are an enjoyable experience at The Old School House Nursery in Cambridgeshire
AT LEYF nurseries there is always laughter and a sense of fun
The good news is that these are teachable skills. We can provide opportunities that teach resilience; we can help children learn to value themselves and to care for others; and we can support children to be active and to eat well. We can also learn from children themselves by asking what they want: given the opportunity, even very young children are clear about what they enjoy and what makes them happy.
Running alongside the work with children, a holistic well-being approach also supports staff to develop their own physical, mental and social well-being.
Research suggests that flourishing and engagement go together, so if you want to attract and retain staff, your well-being strategy should create the conditions for people to flourish – ideally in the upper right quadrant of the Framework (see diagram). At the same time you also need to provide appropriate support for those who are on the ‘languishing’ side.
Wellbeing and Engagement Framework
Flourishing staff know their strengths, are self-aware and resilient. It's a virtuous circle: flourishing staff teams are linked to better outcomes for children, better career progression, recruitment and retention and a happier environment for everyone.
Key signs your setting is fostering well-being
We can all agree that well-being is a good thing. But what does it look like in practice and how can you foster it in your own setting?
- There's laughter and fun and a sense that this a place where good things happen
- Early years educators are able to explain how children are developing and learning through everyday activities and play
- People know their own strengths and value each other's strengths
- Children and staff feel happy and positive about coming into the setting
- Early years educators model healthy behaviours: in particular, they eat well and keep active, showing they value their own well-being as well as the well-being of young children
- Leaders ensure that good work life balance is in place for all staff – for example, manageable workload, flexible hours
- The setting has strong links with the community: there are strong networks with other professionals and leaders go out to build community partnership
- The environment is safe, supportive and promotes creative thinking
- Staff are encouraged to try out new ideas
- People are willing to experiment and try new things, knowing that if things don't go to plan that it's another learning opportunity.
- Early years educators are talking about how they are learning and developing every day as they work
- There's no blaming or shaming: instead a sense that ‘we're all in this together’