Emotional exhaustion among kindergarten workers

Fuzzy roles. Fuzzy expectations. Too many responsibilities, too little time. This is why childcare workers sometimes feel drained of energy.



Researcher Mette Løvgren conducted a survey of 2500 employees of 588 Norwegian kindergartens in an effort to discover something that few other kindergarten researchers have seen earlier.

When Løvgren began this study, her hypothesis was that kindergarten teachers get emotionally exhausted at work more often than assistants because they have more work and more demanding responsibilities.

Somewhat surprisingly, she found that not to be true. Kindergarten teachers are not emotionally drained by their jobs more often than assistants. When individuals with managerial responsibility in kindergartens get emotionally exhausted, it is not usually because they have responsibility for human resources.

Parental contact, on the other hand, is an important factor.

Sickness and sick leave

Statistics on sickness and sick leave indicate that childcare workers may be in vulnerable positions because their rate of sick leave is among the highest in the Norwegian workforce.

International studies have concluded that kindergarten employees who quit or plan to quit their jobs are far more emotionally exhausted than colleagues who plan to continue. If kindergarten employees fall ill, it is bound to affect other staff. It may even have an impact on the children.

Emotional exhaustion

Emotional exhaustion does not lend itself to a precise diagnosis. Symptoms of emotional exhaustion may include feeling detached, cynical and irritable, with little tolerance for stress. In more serious cases, emotional exhaustion can lead to burn-out and depression.

Three important aspects

These three aspects are important in the day-to-day work of a kindergarten employee:

  • Do you play a clearly-defined role at work?
  • What is expected of you?
  • Do you enjoy the support of colleagues?

In keeping with findings from earlier studies, Mette Løvgren found that Norwegian kindergarten employees who know what is expected of them and who feel supported by their colleagues are the ones who enjoy their work the most and are least susceptible to emotional exhaustion.

Exhausted from contact with parents

In an average Norwegian kindergarten, a kindergarten teacher spends about 60 per cent of the working day with the children, and a little less than 40 per cent on other tasks. Assistants spend more than 80 per cent of their working hours with the children.

Løvgren did not find that personnel issues or other administrative tasks make teachers more emotionally exhausted, as she had expected. In other words, something else had to be adversely affecting them.

‘What I found is that contact with parents can be more emotionally exhausting for kindergarten employees.

I find that surprising. Kindergarten teachers are, of course, trained to deal with parents. They are also trained to teach children. They should have both the knowledge and the tools they need to address the tasks as well as the challenges they entail.’

What is it about contact with parents?

The researchers posits that there may be something special about having contact with parents that causes emotional exhaustion in some employees.

Children and their parents are all users of kindergarten services. Employees may feel as though parents are constantly evaluating them.

‘That does not necessarily mean that parents are critical or difficult, but the fact that parents are users, can nevertheless be a demanding aspect of working in a kindergarten.

‘When we see that parental contact contributes to emotional exhaustion among employees, we have to wonder whether there are too few resources available for this important aspect of the job’, remarks Løvgren.

She suggests that kindergarten managers address this topic with the employees, and that they work together to find solutions for dealing with situations or periods in which the employees find parental contact demanding.