Women working in Head Start and Early Head Start programs reported having higher levels of both physical and mental health problems than women of similar backgrounds but different professions, according to a new report from researchers at Temple University.
The report analyzed data from a web-based survey asking Head Start employees in Pennsylvania about six physical health conditions (obesity, asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes or pre-diabetes, severe headaches or migraines and lower back pain) as well as their health-related quality of life. Among the 2,122 female respondents, all six health conditions were between 19 percent and 35 percent more common than among women in the general population. Additionally, 24 percent of the workers surveyed suffered from "significant depressive symptoms," which would be enough to diagnose them with depression.
Head Start is a federal program created in 1965 that promotes school readiness and provides preschool services to low-income children under the age of 5.
"Those working in Head Start have been entrusted with the development and education of some of the nation's most vulnerable and disadvantaged children," said lead researcher Robert Whitaker, in a statement. "The adults providing these services deserve a compassionate response to their health problems, which may be due in part to the stressful nature of their important jobs. Addressing the health of the staff may improve outcomes for children in Head Start."
The report also found that the number of female Head Start employees who reported their health as "fair or poor" was almost three times more common than among the national sample. And when researchers restricted the national sample to only include those with an annual household income below $50,000 (the upper salary range for Head Start employees in Pennsylvania) the results were not different.
But Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association, says these findings are likely not unique to the Head Start programs.
"Head Start employees are tremendously dedicated to providing the highest quality early learning opportunities to America's most vulnerable children, who may be experiencing poverty, hunger, community violence, and other stresses in their young lives," Vinci said in a statement to U.S. News. "It is not surprising these devoted Head Start professionals at times find themselves faced with enormous challenges that can affect their physical and mental health."
Additionally, Vinci says financial troubles stemming from sequester budget cuts and the government shutdown have also likely increased uncertainty about the future of the programs, adding to the stress staff feel.
Due to the sequester, across-the-board funding reductions that took effect in March, Head Start lost $427 million in funding, which resulted in more than 57,000 children losing their slots in the program.
"There is a national need for resources to support physical and mental health among early learning practitioners," Vinci said.
The researchers suggest using different approaches to improving staff wellness, such as professional development and staff training models to help reduce stress.
"In Head Start and Early Head Start, as well as in other early childhood care and education programs, staff are the necessary link between program content and children's outcomes," the report says. "More investments may be required to support the health and well-being of those adults to whom the public entrusts children's development and learning outside the home."