Case Study: Enya’s Educator Mental Health Audit
Enya’s Childcare & Forest School, is a leader in reflective practice, establishing its own pedagogy to allow for ongoing reflection and analysis in every part of their practice. Of course, this concept will not be entirely new to practitioners who are used to implementing and documenting CoEL through reflective practice, but what is inspiring is that Enya’s made a conscious decision to further embed reflective practice into the workplace, specifically with regards to staff wellbeing. With what seems like a simple but vital step to improve awareness and communication around staff mental health and emotional wellbeing, they introduced a new element to their daily routine - the Mental Health Check In. Read more below on what brought this simple but effective change about, and how it has made a difference to the team.
The team is one made up of like-minded and passionate individuals, known as “aunties” and “uncles”. Every day they have a Daily Environment checklist to run through and a quick pow-wow to check numbers, any communications and planning for the day ahead.
While long hours and busy personal lives leave little time for socialising outside work, the team considered themselves tight-knit and made the effort to look out for one another. However, upon returning to work after the first big lockdown in 2020, cracks began to surface.
The close knit team all had their own challenges and worries, understandably compounded by the pandemic, and instead of checking in with each other or practicing the same patience they’d have with the preschoolers, individuals began to act and react differently.
Some had uncharacteristically short fuses while others were intensely emotional or purposely distant. With everyone adjusting to post-lockdown-mid-pandemic life and the added stress that brought, it was tricky for them to deal with each others’ moments of poor mental health with their usual understanding and empathy.
They would greet each other and ask ‘how are you this morning?’ but the questions and responses, while kind, were superficial. With emotions bottled, personal pressures mounting and professional practice beginning to suffer, it was clear they needed more support for mental and emotional health.
The Solution An intervention was not the way to go; people weren’t talking to each other, but they were making it clear they weren’t comfortable discussing their mental health at work. This is so often the case for those dealing with poor mental health; societal, cultural and emotional barriers feed into a fear of letting people know we need help. The social stigma of poor mental health that existed for so long still remains (subconsciously) in the workplace. People are afraid they will be perceived as a complainer, as inadequate or incapable, and they adopt the ‘shut up and put up’ approach so many mistakenly believe is required of them in the workplace.
Enya considered this and decided what her team needed was a tool that would allow them to self-evaluate, identify where they are, and be frank about it without having to have an uncomfortable conversation. With that, the Mental Health Check-In was born.
How It Works
Keeping it uncomplicated was key.
In a nod to the social media era, there’s a list of five mental health “statuses”. These are ‘I’m Great’, ‘I’m Okay’. ‘I’m Meh’, ‘I’m Struggling’ and ‘Please Help, I’m In A Dark Place’.
It was explained that the idea wasn’t to name and shame those who were struggling, but to encourage empathy, understanding and patience. If someone snaps at someone else, rather than immediately go on the defensive and enter conflict, you might check to see where they’ve checked in - then ask them if they’re ok, or let them off for a short response, at the very least.
Each morning, the team sign their initials in the box next to the status that best describes where they are. The status can change in the course of the day, but they need to check in at least once.
Immediately, the conflicts reduced and conversations replaced them. When writing their own statuses, the team would see colleagues who identified as struggling; they’d check in with them, ask if they could help and let them know they weren’t alone. Some people identified issues at work, others opened up about dealing with loss or family pressures at home. And everyone began to feel supported, validated and safe to feel. This translated to a happier, more cohesive team and a better practice all round.
Management keeps a log of the daily check ins, so they can identify patterns and if an individual checks into the lower three statuses for a prolonged period, it identifies that there might be something they need more support with. This has allowed for better communication between management and the team, where there would sometimes be a barrier.
Why It Works
There is beauty in simplicity, and the quick, quiet action of checking themselves in can serve as a way to ground the individual before the day starts. Even better, the team is once again truly supportive and understanding of each other, taking the time to ask how their colleagues are doing with sincerity (already sort of knowing the answer).
Encouraging open and honest communication is vital to ensuring a team that works well together. They are more engaged with their work, better able to put their personal feelings aside to fully focus on the children, and they are more confident in themselves. This is, of course, good for the individual and good for the team.
Equally, a team who feels content and understood is good for the business. By investing time in your team’s mental health, you improve retention and reduce the time and money needed for regular recruitment.
Investing in the person means you can invest in the professional; if they are happy at work, better able to deal with the pressures, that leaves room for growth. Whether that means more confident and better qualified practitioners or promoting from within, it is all positive.
The simple act of tracking the check-ins can also improve your management style, helping you to understand your team better and, if necessary, prepare the business for any potential challenges you identify (e.g. long term absence, reduced hours).
Mental health is one of the most impactful components of a person’s wellbeing. It is complex and powerful, affecting no two people the same. To overlook it would be both naive and damaging to the individual and the business.
From Enya’s experience alone, we would encourage you to invest some time into thinking what simple but effective measures you can put in place to support and improve your team’s mental health.
The timing is especially poignant, when you consider the extra strains put on your team of practitioners who showed up every morning, when the world was in lockdown; all while balancing their own home lives during a global pandemic. In fact, it was reported that 87% of practitioners felt the Early Years sector was undervalued in the pandemic, and ⅓ of those surveyed were unable to deal with the additional pressures (source: Nursery World)
Mental health has always been something that has a profound impact on Early Years practitioners and support staff, but more often than not, is overlooked as the sector focuses on the immediate challenges it faces.
Management faces increasing pressures relating to funding, financial stability, administration and paperwork; not to mention the threat of closure in a sector that loses up to 500 providers per month (EYA 2019).
Add to this a sense of responsibility for the personal pressures felt by individual staff members, who themselves cite income and overwhelming workloads as a cause for stress and poor mental health (source: Mind Matters 2018).
Sadly, these issues will have only been compounded and magnified since the sector and those working within it lived through the unprecedented pressures brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, its lockdowns, loss and fear.
That is why it is so important to embed good habits and practices that support your team’s wellbeing. Acknowledging the pressures they (and you) face gives you an opportunity to create a better culture with staff and sector longevity in mind.
A simple step like a morning mental health check in will hopefully encourage open and honest communication and a more understanding, supportive team. Individuals will feel empowered instead of judged when they have concerns or identify struggles that would otherwise go missed until it is too late.
Download your mental health check-in here and take time to speak to your team about how they are really feeling; open, honest and without reprimand. This is the time to reflect and rebuild in a positive and proactive way.