Working in early years has an immense impact on the lives of young children, and it can be a fulfilling and enjoyable career – but it can also be challenging. In November 2023, the Early Years Alliance published their Minds Still Matter report which found 81% of respondents said they were regularly stressed about a work-related issue.

A well-supported team of staff can improve effectiveness and job satisfaction, reduce absence, and strengthen employee retention. Positive practitioner wellbeing also supports positive personal, social, and emotional development in children.

So, what steps can we take to improve practitioner wellbeing?

As individuals

We all have mental health to take care of, just as we must all take care of our physical health. For a lot of us, this can sometimes be easier said than done, depending on the external factors at play. Most people will experience noteworthy events in their lives that may cause anxiety, sadness, and stress. However everyday stressors can also impact our mental wellbeing, such as demanding workloads, financial worries, busy personal lives, or a lack of routine.

It is important to remember to be proactive about maintaining positive health and wellbeing habits, rather than only considering our mental health as a priority when it starts to decline, or a problem arises. Education Support has a guide for the building blocks of good mental wellbeing, with tips on how to achieve good sleep and the importance of exercise and eating well. For a more in-depth analysis of the importance of practitioner wellbeing, Anna Freud has developed a free workbook for early years individuals and workplaces which frames the social and environmental factors that influence wellbeing, from interpersonal relationships to public policy. The workbook introduces ways of thinking about wellbeing within the context of the early years sector and offers reflection activities, and signposts to further resources.

In 2022, Foundation Years interviewed Sonia Mainstone-Cotton, an independent early years consultant who specialises in practitioner health and wellbeing. She suggested paying attention to your body as a signifier for how your mental health may be impacting you. How does it tell you when you are stressed? Tight shoulders? Headaches? Fast breathing? Take the time to tune into these warning signals to begin to release stress. Sonia advocates for having a pre-planned ‘menu of ideas’ suited to you, that you can choose from when you need to take some time for yourself.

Some examples for your menu include:

  • Spending 10 minutes outside: this can reduce heart rate, improve mood, and reduce anxiety
  • Doing something creative: cook something new, take up a new craft or listen to some of your favourite music
  • Exercise: start with an easy 10 minutes and build up as your confidence increases
  • Gratitude: notice and celebrate small victories and pleasures to reframe why you do what you do – keep a note in your phone to remind yourself when you need a boost!
  • A simple cup of tea and some mindful breathing to calm down and tune into how you are feeling.

Having a strong network around you can provide support and connection. This may be especially true for childminders, who often work alone. Help for Early Years Providers provides case studies of real settings’ approaches to practitioner wellbeing. In one, Karla Roberts, a childminder, said:

“Professional support is also necessary. As childminders we often work alone, so talking to others is the best thing we can do to prevent feeling isolated. Engaging via informal groups online creates a supportive environment within the sector and brings us together. This means we can discuss the stress of the role with someone who understands, as well as share best practice.”

Childminders can also contact their local authority to see what support they offer locally and can consider joining a childminder agency for additional support and networking opportunities.

Early Years in Mind is a free online learning network for early years practitioners. The network provides up-to-date advice and guidance on supporting the mental health of young children and their families and offers information on staff wellbeing in Early Years settings. Similarly, the Hub of Hope is a directory provided by Chasing the Stigma which signposts to local, regional, and national services offering support on a wide range of mental health-related topics.

Leaders and managers

In 2017, the Thriving at Work review of mental health and employers found that the human cost of poor mental health is coupled with a financial cost to employers – between £33 billion and £42 billion – due to lower productivity, sickness absences and staff turnover. Leaders and managers are therefore crucial to supporting the health and wellbeing of staff in their teams.

The first step is to assess how you are currently doing in this area. What are your current levels of stress? Are your setting leaders confident having difficult conversations? How is sickness absence managed and what support is in place for staff?

The Anna Freud Centre and Child Outcomes Research Consortium have created a wellbeing measurement tool for early years settings. This survey – created with input from over 1000 early years practitioners, a number of local authorities and the National Day Nurseries Association – identifies four key areas to look at when supporting staff, along with practical tips. It includes a survey that you can use to better understand your workplace and staff needs, and how to offer support.  Debbie Garvey, author of Little Brains Matter, talked to the NCB and Foundation Years for a series of Learn – Explore – Debate events focused on putting wellbeing at the heart of our early years practice. She suggests we can use what we already know about managing emotions, change, challenges, and stress with children, and use those soft skills in a transferable way. “We get this, we do this with children,” Debbie says, “Our brains react in very, very similar ways.”

Next, consider creating a wellbeing strategy for your team. Each workplace has its own circumstances and challenges, so each will understandably need a tailored approach. To get you started, Education Support has a template for a wellbeing plan and the National Day Nurseries Association has created a staff wellbeing policy template, which is available to download for free.

For some inspiration, Lucy Pottinger from Grass Roots Day Nursery explores how they support the emotional health and wellbeing of staff in this vodcast – including an appearance from nursery empathy dog, Frank!

Here are some key points for consideration when developing your wellbeing strategy:

  • Support staff as individuals
  • Focus on team relationships and encourage staff to reach out and connect with colleagues to promote a culture of support. Ensure staff feel they have protected time for this.
  • Recognise and celebrate the hard work and dedication of staff
  • Prioritise opportunities for progression and personal development
  • Build trust by modelling being open and honest, and help staff to incorporate more wellbeing activities into their working week
  • Gather staff views on what needs improving and nurture a culture of honest dialogue
  • Support reflective practice

Supporting the early years sector is a priority for this government, and early years practitioners deliver invaluable, high-quality provision to millions of children each day. They play a crucial role in enriching the lives of the children they care for and enable parents and carers to access the labour market. We hope the resources and information listed in this post will help you to prioritise your own wellbeing, and the wellbeing of those around you.