Wellbeing in the early education sector has never had a greater focus. An army of consultants are preaching its importance. Governments, peak bodies and unions are funding professional development on it. Organisations are spruiking their approaches to it. It’s hard to go a day at the moment without an email selling it, or a social media post with a group of smiling young educators holding up their cupcakes from a benevolent CEO. Meditation practices are just as likely to be sold as a required part of an educator’s professional toolkit as an understanding of theoretical perspectives. Who do you have doing your yoga “incursions”?
Wellbeing, mindfulness, positive psychology – there are a lot of different terms for these kinds of practices. They’re very popular at the moment, dominating self-help bookshelves and social media. The corporate world was quick to jump on them. High-powered executives are just as likely to be talking about their “wellness routine” as their business development strategies.
In broad strokes of course, who can argue that this focus on “wellness” isn’t positive? As a society we’re trying to remove old-standing stigmas around mental health, creating spaces for openness about the challenges and anxieties we all face – and importantly, specific medical conditions that affect people through no fault of their own.
But the wellness push doesn’t overlap completely with mental health. Wellness and wellbeing, as it’s largely being marketed, is about individual responsibility for mental health. It’s a pathway to good mental health – a journey not the destination. The foundation of wellness (sometimes explicitly stated, sometimes not) is that individuals are entirely responsible their own mental health.
Many years ago, I remember sitting in a room with a CEO who explained to me that their philosophy was “choose your attitude”. No matter what challenges you faced, you were expected to choose to be happy at work – and of course, be more efficient and more productive as a useful by-product.
This CEO oversaw an organisation that work in mental health services for community members experiencing vulnerability due to a medical condition, inter-generational trauma and poverty. I wondered if they were told to “choose their attitude” as well?
Whose responsibility is wellbeing?
Practicing particular meditative techniques, eating particular foods, engaging in particular physical activity, thinking in particular structured ways – these are the tools for wellbeing. Do them (in our conveniently marketed and competitively priced package of courses), and you’ll crack the code to your own wellness.
But if that’s the case, it means that the opposite is also true. If you’re feeling anxious, stressed, under pressure, depressed – you’re responsible. You’re not meditating properly. You’re not centered. You’re not eating the right food. You’re not thinking right.
Undoubtedly, there is a personal element to positive mental health. Strategies such as meditation and yoga will certainly help some people at particular times in their lives. People should always find the things that work for them.
But there is also a lot that individuals are not responsible for. The issue with promoted, marketed and corporate wellness and wellbeing initiatives is how simple they make the world. Just making a few different choices, and “choosing happiness”, is all it takes. The wider world of inequality, structural unfairness and inter-generational trauma isn’t a concern.
There is an inherent sense of privilege to these discussions. For those with the personal wealth, time and resources to invest in their own mental health, focusing on wellness and wellbeing may be beneficial.
For those without that privilege, in many cases they are being sold a lifestyle that is not unattainable. Spending more on the right tea isn’t a priority if you’re in a precarious economic position.
The wellbeing trap for educators
The fact that the wellbeing and wellness craze is sweeping the sector is fascinating, as those being sold these ideas are facing particular and specific inequalities.
Working as an early childhood educator is stressful, full stop. Supporting children’s learning and wellbeing requires emotional, physical and mental labour. Doing all that in the context of poor wages, inflexible shifts, low community recognition and important but demanding regulatory requirements is exceptionally difficult.
Let’s add to that the fact that 97% of the workforce is female, and are likely to have additional and unequal caring responsibilities before and after their shift. They’re likely to do more unpaid domestic work. They’re likely to have low superannuation balances.
Stories of burnout and turnover are embedded in the sector. Given the context I’ve described above, it’s not hard to see why. It’s not new, and it’s something that has been an advocacy focus for decades.
What is new is what educators are being told about these challenges. Intentionally or not, the message they’re hearing at the moment from many corners is: “It’s your fault you’re stressed. Take individual responsibility for your wellbeing.”
It’s hard not to describe that idea as insulting.
The context I described above isn’t in the control of an individual educator. They haven’t created the sexist and unfair system we’re all a part of. They didn’t create Australia’s broken early education system. They aren’t on the Fair Work Australia bench, setting wage rates. They don’t write the regulations.
Educators have every right to be stressed, to feel tired, to feel worried about their future financial security.
There are some outcomes here which I find extremely worrying. Pushing responsibility for wellness and wellbeing entirely onto individuals is at best unhelpful, and at worst damaging. How many educators have added to their own stress levels by being convinced that their wellbeing issues are their own fault? External factors clearly have a significant impact on individual’s wellbeing and mental health.
But another outcome is the suggestion that educators need to be trained to “cope” or “be resilient” to challenging situations. The implication is that the structural conditions can’t change, and that educators just need to be better at dealing with them. How is that message received by an educator who’s experienced trauma?
As an advocate for systemic structural change, I find this appalling. And I also wonder who this kind of thinking benefits?
The wellbeing market
Neoliberalism is the idea that society’s problems can best be solved by the free market, allowing entrepreneurial business to compete to sell us everything we need.
Wellness and wellbeing is no exception. You don’t have to search far these days to find a start-up, a consultant or a PD package that’s able to put a price on good mental health.
In many ways, the early education sector is a perfect market for products that claim to “fix” wellbeing. When you have a workforce that’s under the pressure that educators are feeling, with the lack of structural power that comes with low wages and poor conditions, anything that seems like a solution must seem miraculous.
It creates an industry where the real problems educators face can be transformed into problems for which there are products that can be bought as solutions (from yoga mats to breathing apps for phones to weekend retreats).
These products are marketed to a sector who don’t earn enough to afford them. It makes you start to wonder whose wellbeing is really being prioritised here – the customer or the seller?
Last year there was an “essential oils” craze that swept many early education centres. Stressed educators were convinced that these products were needed for their wellbeing, and then convinced to become part of the marketing as a way of making extra money.
Beyond the fact that it has all the hallmarks of a pyramid scheme, it highlights how vulnerable the early education sector is to this kind of thing. The problems facing educators are real, including around poor mental health. But when real solutions aren’t apparent, the market will always be happy to step in with “solutions” of their own.
But there may be broader benefits for companies as well. Convincing educators that the wider structural problems don’t exist, or that even if they do there’s nothing they can do about it, means that the sector workforce is less likely to band together demanding better wages and conditions. All things that might eat into company profits.
Gratitude is another word that’s been doing the rounds in the sector lately. A lot of people are suddenly very grateful for educators and the work they’re doing.
It’s particularly popular in the for-profit providers running multiple services that make up a significant portion of Australia’s early education sector.
Cupcakes are sent out, vouchers for yoga are provided. Social media posts are overflowing with praise. While the gratitude may be genuine, it’s also excellent marketing, with the generous organisations eager to ensure that it’s not just the educators who are seeing these thanks.
Cupcakes and vouchers may be welcome. Just because the gratitude is shared as marketing doesn’t mean the thanks isn’t genuine.
But it becomes harder to justify this kind of gratitude, when you consider the sustained advocacy of for-profit organisations against the very things that will have longer-term impacts on educator wellbeing.
For-profit organisations have consistently advocated against wage increases for educators.
For-profit organisations have consistently advocated against stronger educator:child ratios.
For-profit organisations have consistently advocated against stronger qualification requirements, and the (slightly) higher pay rates that come with them.
In that context, it’s tempting to view cupcakes and vouchers as pretty cynical offerings to educators.
They’re certainly a small price to pay for keeping educators focused on their own individual wellbeing, rather than fighting the broader forces in our society that ensure they remain in stressful jobs for little pay.
If organisations genuinely cared about the wellbeing of their employees, advocacy for structural change would be top of their agenda. That’s not what we see in Australia’s early education sector.
While the current status quo for early education creates pressures and stress for educators, for many it creates profit and economic opportunity. In that context, it’s not surprising to see leaders encourage wellbeing initiatives that focus on helping educators “cope” with their situation, rather than engaging with how we can advocate to change that situation.
The COVID-19 context
The sector’s treatment during COVID-19 has been particularly instructive. Services, educators and leaders were acutely at the mercy of forces beyond their control. The Federal Government announced new funding policies with three days’ notice. The Department of Education accepted or rejected applications for more support, taking as long as they liked, and usually not providing any reasons for rejections.
I can’t imagine that “looking inside” was much help to an educator who’d been stood down from their job. I doubt that leaders staying awake at night wondering how long they’d be able to keep opening their doors agreed that “I am in control of my reactions”.
When Australia’s early education sector – the most underpaid and female-dominated sector in the country – was announced as the first (and so far, only) people who’d lose the JobKeeper payment, I suspect that not that many people went “well, I guess I’ll breathe through this”.
The sector has probably never been through as acute a challenge as the current pandemic. It’s shone a light on the insanely complex funding system, and left services at real risk of closing down. It’s highlighted educators’ roles as frontline essential workers, but no Government has offered any change to their wages or conditions. While schools closed and children were sent home, early education services kept operating – unable to implement social distancing requirements and dealing with the very real possibility they could become sick.
It’s highlighted real divides between different work – and the huge differences in privilege that come with it. When COVID-19 flared up in April, I was able to work from home. Educators couldn’t. I had the privilege and resources to structure my life and work during that time. Educators didn’t.
It highlights the limits of gratitude and a narrow focus on individual wellbeing. While they may, for some people, play a part for a short time, they do nothing to address the wider issues that plague the sector and those who work in it.
What does wellbeing support really look like?
Let’s start with an important point of clarification. Wellbeing is important. Good mental health is critical. Under workplace health and safety legislation, employers actually have a legal responsibility for the wellbeing of their employees.
Individual strategies will work differently for different people. For many, essential oils or similar products may be an essential part of how they support their own wellbeing, the same way a good book and a cup of tea is a necessity for me!
The issue becomes when these methods are aggressively marketed to underpaid and undervalued educators, or are used to mask the systemic issues that keep them underpaid and undervalued.
So if we want to take supporting wellbeing for educators seriously, what can we do? It’s something I think about every day in my privileged role supporting early education centres here in Canberra. Here’s what I think at the moment.
We can start by calling out faux-wellbeing initiatives. If an organisation doesn’t support higher wages, better conditions and more support for educators, they don’t take wellbeing seriously. Full stop.
We can support research into the actual data around educator wellbeing and health. The Early Childhood Educator Wellbeing Project is collecting a range of data on educators and their experiences at work. This kind of research can help us plan for real support for educators into the future, and advocate for structural change.
We can invest in listening to and consulting with educators, genuinely, about their workplaces and how we can improve them.
We can acknowledge the limits of what we can do within the current system, and commit to advocacy to change that system. Educators know and see when the leaders they work with speak up for them and call for change. Educators also know and see when they don’t.
We have to do better than just providing educators with “coping strategies” for unfair and inequitable systems.
We can be clear that educators’ wellbeing is affected by any number of factors, and commit to taking that seriously. We can show educators that they’re not on their own, that it’s reasonable to be experiencing challenges, and that we all have a responsibility to help them with those challenges.
In short, let’s take educators seriously and advocate for structural changes to their work. Out with cupcakes and thank-you cards, in with wage increases, better funding for early education and professional recognition and respect.