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Head Start’s Women Employees Report More Physical, Mental-Health Problems

And what do sicker teachers mean for the students?


(Sarah Gilbert/Flickr)

For American children enrolled in Head Start programs, the risks of falling behind academically, as well as poor emotional and physical well-being, are well-known. The nationwide federal organization relies on more than 200,000 employees to work with low-income families to help minimize those risks as kids approach elementary school. But what if some of these staffers themselves are in poor physical or mental health?

Women working in Head Start programs report higher than expected levels of physical and mental-health problems, new research shows, compared with other American women with the same social and demographic characteristics. Their health issues can affect their work, which runs the risk of compromising outcomes for the children they oversee.


The female employees reported higher incidences of obesity, asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other physical ailments, according to the study published Thursday in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease. Twenty-four percent of the women surveyed experienced enough symptoms of depression to warrant a diagnosis, the researchers say. Twenty-eight percent said their physical or mental health was "not good" on most days at work, and 15 percent scored their overall health as "fair" or "poor."

Last year, the researchers conducted an anonymous, online survey of employees of 66 Head Start programs in Pennsylvania, of whom 2,122 were female managers, classroom teachers, and home-visit employees. About 86 percent were non-Hispanic white, 62 percent were married, and 60 percent had college degrees.

Their health issues, the researchers say, could be a result of the job. Working with young children, especially those from low-income backgrounds, can be emotionally demanding and slowly chip away at staffers' well-being.


But Head Start staffers are not unhealthy by virtue of being employed by the Head Start program—it's likely a combination of multiple factors. The response of one teacher in the study highlights this: "My job is why I'm stressed all the time and my personal health suffers. I chose a demanding job, but the pay is bare minimum and isn't enough to get by."

Historically, teaching is not high-paying work, and Head Start staffers make less than teachers at K-12 schools. Previous research has shown that obesity rates, as well as rates for other health issues, tend to be higher for low-income Americans.

"For the staff to function well in their work with children and families, they must be well," write the researchers, in what they say is the first-ever survey of the health of Head Start employees. "The stress experienced by staff could adversely affect their physical and mental health, which in turn could make it harder for staff to serve as models and meet the needs of children and families."

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