Bites and scratches drawing blood, hearing loss due to excessive noise and staff taking antidepressants to cope is the reality for the early childhood sector.
A new ChildForum report concluded that early childhood teaching can be high-risk work with staff suffering the likes of back injuries from handling children, others experiencing mental health problems and some reporting both.
Cambridge early childhood educator Louise Allen, 50, can vouch for that.
She got into early childhood care four years ago and has worked in a number of centres and a kindergarten. But after a “toxic” experience Allen has moved to home-based care.
One centre had 17 children in a very small room. Once a manager tested the noise and found the level was similar to a jet plane.
Back pain is a given. In Allen’s first job she cared for 1 to 2 year olds – which meant a lot of picking them up.
“I had to go to a chiropractor. My back went out every three months and I needed intense treatment on it. I haven’t had any issues since I’ve left.
“The chiropractor at the time said the life of person working with under 2s is seven years. That’s all they should manage.”
Allen explained that working with children can be stressful, but this is exacerbated when you don’t get the support you need. She wanted the sector to open their ears and listen to teachers more.
“If I had known how hard it was going to be and how bad the pay is there’s no way I would have gone into it. It’s not worth it.
“No one believes you, you’re just seen as a sh*t-stirrer. People learn to shut up and put up with it.
“We need a lot more transparency and be able to speak without being afraid of repercussion.”
Almost 50 per cent of teaching staff reported workplace harm last year. Staff aged under 25 were most at risk, with 70 per cent reporting harm of some form.
There are serious health and social ramifications to be considered from the findings, ChildForum chief executive Dr Sarah Alexander said.
“Health and safety risks to staff need to be better managed. Things such as excessive noise levels leading to hearing loss, staff not getting regular breaks and staff being overworked and unsupported should not be happening at any service.
“The cost, financially and emotionally to staff – the majority are women and many with young children of their own – of working in early childhood education, a profession that is also known for its low pay, can be significant.
“The sector is losing skilled teachers so something has to be done to look after staff better to keep these people in the sector,” Dr Alexander said.
The ChildForum Early Childhood National Network researchers surveyed 900 teachers, including 109 in supervisor positions, as part of the 2017 Early Childhood Education Employment Survey.
In an earlier survey at the end of 2014, 29 per cent of teaching staff and supervisors reported a work-related injury, physical or mental health problem. Alexander believed one reason for the increase could be more publicity around the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015.
Cartilage damage and torn ligaments in their wrist due to a fall, extreme stress, sleeplessness, migraines, severe back problems costing thousands in treatments and using alcohol as a coping mechanism were some of the experiences quoted from surveyed staff.
Comments about mental health problems were made almost as often as comments about injuries and physical problems. One employee reported crying often at work and feeling both physically and mentally drained. Another said they felt less like a teacher and more like a cleaner/babysitter and one female teacher went into premature labour owing to stress.
Alexander suggested that it was time to put “the care” back into early childhood education. She wanted to see the sector invest in staff education around injury prevention.
“Caring for those who care for children has to become a priority.
“It can be really difficult for staff and add to the stress of trying to give a proper service to children when they are feeling undervalued, unsupported and unappreciated around health and safety at work.”
The research recommended training from health and safety experts, reducing, removing or controlling hazards and giving staff equipment that will help prevent injury – for example steps for children so staff don’t have to lift them on and off changing tables.
“There are a lot of physical issues and psychosocial issues. Psychosocial issues are usually a result of not having a cohesive environment to work in.
“There needs to be a lot more investment into staff and looking at injury-prevention, making them safer, more supported and more valued in the workplace.”