The missing link in child care policy

In recent years, child care has returned as a hot topic in politics and policy. Both the current and former governments have tended to view child care as a means to a similar policy end – increasing productivity, yet neither have adequately considered the centrality of worker’s needs in developing policy solutions to ‘fix’ child care. In this post, Lara Corr (@corr_lara) explains why workers’ mental health and working conditions must be front and centre in child care policy and the ongoing risks associated with policy that promotes the worker exploitation through poor conditions.


Government investment in early childhood, including through the provision of high quality, accessible child care, delivers significant economic and social benefits, and critically, benefits children through positive every day experiences that affect their life chances. However, too often in policy conversations, the workforce is invisible beyond talk of professionalisation or upskilling. Two significant and incorrect assumptions underlie child care policy in Australia: Firstly, that these ‘nice ladies who love children’ are not impacted by their pay and conditions and secondly, that poor conditions have little impact on the quality of their work with children.

So what do we know about the impact of working conditions on workers’ wellbeing? Extensive international research tells us that financial and job insecurity, as well as high demands coupled with low control over work, and effort that outweighs rewards present serious risks to workers’ mental health across a wide variety of occupations. The evidence is such that we now know some poor working conditions predict the development of common mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Working conditions in the highly gendered profession of child care (over 98% of workers are women and care work is still largely carried out by women) are notoriously poor. Low incomes, high emotional and physical demands, inadequate respect and few prospects of promotion are commonplace. However, context specific research of the influence of child care working conditions on providers’ wellbeing is lacking and until recently, there was no research into Australian child care providers.

New Australian research has shown that working conditions and mental health are strongly connected in this workforce. This interaction carries significant risks for workforce stability and care quality, as well as for meeting the growing demand for workers in this essential sector. In a study out next week in the Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, Dr Corr and colleagues looked at the relationship between working conditions and worker mental health in home-based, regulated child care, known as family day care. Family day care providers operate formal child care from their own home, meeting all the regulations and requirements of centre-based care under government child care policy, practice guides and regulations.

In the only study of child care workers’ mental health in Australia, Corr et al surveyed 366 family day care workers across Victoria and Queensland (the sample make up mirrored that of the larger population of over 14,000 workers nationally). The findings revealed that though many workers reported low psychological distress and moderate mental wellbeing, 41.7 per cent indicated concerning levels of psychological distress. In addition, the research provides evidence of a range of working conditions that were problematic for workers and which were most influential in mental health status.

Job security and financial insecurity (due to ‘inadequate income to meet needs’ and not being paid by parents) were problems for upwards of 1 in 3 workers surveyed. Combining this data with earlier qualitative research with family day care workers, it is apparent that the undervaluing of child care work and workers was felt acutely and visible in the statistics of low perception of respect that was related to increased risk of moderate to severe psychological distress in workers. This survey occurred in 2012, at time when the COAG reform was seeking to professionalise child care and renamed those practitioners in direct contact with children as ‘educators’ seeking to emphasise the educational value of the work to boosting future human capital. Policy outcomes that could arguably increase the perceived value and respect for child care work and workers by Australian society.

The influence of child care policy on workers’ everyday working lives is diffuse and powerful. Policy and the resulting regulations, standards, practice guidelines, child care benefit payments and the mix of for-profit and not-for-profit providers shape the daily working conditions in child care. In particular, they influence the value attributed to child care work and to workers, the demands placed on workers, the effort they need to expend and the extrinsic rewards they received (income, respect and so on). Corr et al (2015) found that most family day care workers level of ‘effort’ and ‘rewards’ were unequal, that is, that they put in significantly more effort than was rewarded through income, respect or job security. Furthermore, most workers had very high ‘overcommittment’ (when work consumes your non-work time). Both overcommittment and the combination of an imbalanced effort to reward ratio had a strong, significant relationship to higher risk of moderate to severe psychological distress and lower mental wellbeing.

This cross-sectional study shows associations, rather than causation, but its findings are supported by an extensive body of literature across occupational health and public health that have found similar results in other workforces. What is clear, is that workers’ mental health and working conditions are inextricably linked and tied to children’s everyday experiences and outcomes. The poor pay and conditions of child care workers requires urgent redress, both from an equity and social justice perspective and to ensure that government policy objectives for child care can be met. Put simply, both Labor’s social investment agenda for child care, and the Coalition government’s key objective of increasing workforce participation will be compromised without remedying the problem of poor pay and conditions for the child care workforce. To do so, will require attention not only to changing current conditions, but to working with the structural factors that have brought them into being, particularly the gendered devaluation of care work.

Posted by corr_lara