This article is written by Dr Marg Rogers, Lecturer in Early Childhood at UNE, based on her research with Associate Professor Laura Doan (Thompson Rivers University, Canada) and Professor Fabio Dovigo (Aarhus University, Denmark).
Burnout is rife in the early childhood sector, with educators saying burnout, administrative overload and overwork are the reason they want to leave early. Alarmingly, up to 73% of educators say they wish to leave the sector in the next 5 years. Our educators are swimming against a fast-moving tide.
Why is burnout such an issue in our essential workers? While the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly increased stress for educators, it has only made the tide run faster. A 2021 transnational survey exploring educators’ work is shedding some light on these challenges with responses from 50 Australian educators.
Gender related challenges and the managerial system were found to cause educator burnout. An educator highlighted this by saying she had ‘been dealing with burnout from the job. (I am) losing enjoyment as we are dealing with so many regulations and behaviour issues’.
Gender plays a major role in educators’ work and lives in four main areas: intersectionality, pay, status and invisibility.
1- Intersectionality (overlapping marginalisation and discrimination)
Females make up 91% of the workforce, meaning they experience the many challenges of female dominated professions (e.g. pay, status, and invisibility). Most females carry a heavier burden in their own lives from caring responsibilities, managing their household and the mental load required.
This increases their stress levels. One educator said ‘the pay and hours make life with a family difficult to juggle and the stress and requirements detract from the joy of working with children’.
Educators’ pay rate is based on the notion of undervalued work that was traditionally the role of females. Many educators in the survey commented on their wages, with one calling it ‘unfair pay’.
Despite the low status of educators, women are socialised to be compliant from childhood so tend not to speak out. When they do, their work is undervalued and ridiculed.
Some say the sector needs to be professionalised to create better quality education and care as a pathway to the higher pay and status that school teachers (rightly) enjoy.
However, school teachers are paid more with the same qualification because it was traditionally a male occupation. Importantly, they were paid reasonably before managerialism was a feature in schools. In this study, one educator called for ‘respect as a professional’ from the authorities.
Educators work is largely unrecognised in mainstream media and government documents. For example, in educators curriculum and accompanying educator handbook, educators are asked to recognise the knowledge and strengths of parents, and identify and work with the interests and strengths of children. However, none of the 200 plus pages in these documents mention the strengths of educators.
ACECQA’s newly announced ‘Early Childhood Education and Care Workforce Strategy’ addresses a few of these gendered issues, however, whether stakeholders carry through is another matter. It does not seem to address the root cause of educator burnout, administrative overload and overwork caused by the elephant in the room, managerialism.
In a managerial system, workers are not trusted to understand or do their work. Authorities write excruciatingly detailed lists of what the worker needs to do, then appoints many managers and administrators to ensure compliance.
Authorities say this is necessary to improve quality and because nobody can argue with ‘quality’, it goes unquestioned. But only the authorities’ ideas of quality are considered important.
Due to this constant quality mantra, some workers take on some of these ideals. However, contrary to quality, workers find themselves spending large chunks of time proving their compliance to these detailed lists rather than actually doing their job.
Workers are therefore being micromanaged most of the time. This is either by the systems put in place by the authorities, or supervisors trying to enforce these systems.
This study revealed 63% of educators felt micromanaged by their supervisors in the last week, while over 78% felt micromanaged by government requirements and documents which make up these managerial systems.
Table 1: Educators reports on micromanagement by supervisors
Table 2: Educators reports on feeling micromanaged by the managerial system
Managerialism is now rife in education in Western nations. The early childhood sector in Australia has also followed suit and have The Australian Education & Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) which is responsible for these detailed documents in the form of curricula, frameworks and standards. Often these are so complex, even longer guides and handbooks are required.
Compliance to these documents is left to state and territory authorities. Educators need to prove their compliance during accreditation (Assessment and Rating). This occurs every 3 years for services that pass, but more often for services who do not.
To make the idea more attractive to services, and even create a marketing tool, an ‘exceeding’ rating is promoted as the gold standard of quality. Enrolments and happy parents are assured if educators meet this prized goal.
An educator in this study commented ‘the (accreditation) documents require a room full of law professors to decipher. Basically, if you are able to employ a few corporate lawyers to sit and write all the policies and guidelines for each individual centre to make sure you tick all the boxes, you will get a piece of paper to say your centre has an excellent rating’.
Quality versus administrative overload
Managerialism was first introduced for businesses, such as factories, because they were producing products that needed to be essentially the same each time it was sold. However, educating young children is quite different.
Quality education and care comes from spending time with young children to engage in high quality interactions. This will look very different with each child, family and service within their unique community and environment.
This study revealed quality actually went down in 10% of services during accreditation and only 5% said it improved. Time with children is needed for quality interactions, but 38% reported a decrease in time spent with children during accreditation and 16% reported a sharp decrease. Educators said:
- ‘at times children suffered’
- ‘(we were) often engaged in putting together documents, adding to portfolios or completing self-assessment forms whilst on the floor with children’
- ‘everyone scrambles to make sure they have every piece of documentation up to date’
- (educators were) ‘trying to complete excessive amounts of checklists’
- (time with children was) ‘minimal. Lots of on the floor time was spent completing paperwork’
- ‘never enough (time) as we have our heads in our iPads documenting and photographing, therefore “missing” the moment’
Some educators said they worked exceptionally hard to maintain the quality during accreditation. In other words, they put in extra effort to protect the children from the effects of the managerial system that is supposed to improve quality. This exhausting swim against the micromanaged tide is not sustainable.
One commented ‘we worked hard to overcome any negative effect on care of children’. Another explained ‘I have to employ 2 extra staff members per day to ensure that the children are well cared for as most of the staff are documenting’. However, not all services have the ability or willingness to do that.
Overwork and unpaid hours
Workers are kept very busy in micromanaged systems. During accreditation, 50% of educators reported unpaid overtime, which is alarming given their low pay.
Educators reported working during lunchbreaks, taking work home with them, and even getting their spouses to help. ‘Every day I look for jobs. I enjoy what I do but I get tired’ said one educator, highlighting the unsustainability of the workload.
Managerial systems also affect staff morale. During accreditation, 66% of educators reported a decline in morale, with 46% reporting a sharp decrease. They reported ‘stress and small fights occurred’ and ‘staff felt criticised and undervalued by management’, demonstrating the affect on the service.
Educators ideas for a way forward
In 2014, the Australian Government Productivity Commission recommended ‘reducing the regulatory burdens on services and enabling providers to offer a broader range of quality ECEC options’. Clearly, more needs to be done to reduce educator burnout.
Figure 1: Factors contributing to early childhood educator burnout
Despite the factors leading to burnout, educators had many ideas for a positive way forward from the current crisis situation. One said the government should:
- ‘respect and understand the individualism of each service, and how we guide children’s learning in different ways. There is no “one size fits all” for centres. Every centre is unique and has different families and educators, so it is very frustrating being guided by the same process for every centre’.
Our children, families and educators deserve real reform to ensure our systems are smart, not a recipe for burnout.