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

And what do sicker teachers mean for the students?

National Journal
Marina Koren
Nov. 1, 2013, 8:07 a.m.

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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