Last reviewed 12 January 2022

Staff retention in Early Years is at breaking point. If increasing staff salaries or offering other incentives isn’t possible, what else could settings consider to retain existing staff? Rachel Dearnley explores some possible options.

The early years sector is currently facing a “staffing crisis”. Staff report feeling overworked, undervalued, underpaid and struggle to make ends meet. Wellbeing is low and the repercussions of Covid-19 are not yet fully realised (Anna Freud Centre, 2021). Staff morale has been at an all-time low throughout the pandemic, especially with the never-ending “new normal” to keep track of as well as new variants invading our confidence. Reflecting on the following points could make the difference to staff retention and recruitment.

Keep lines of communication open

Now more than ever it is important to have a supportive management team that listens to the voice of the employee. Creating an environment that values the well-being of all staff and ensures that they are kept informed is vital. Consider ways of implementing a daily or weekly 10-minute briefing with staff teams to acknowledge what’s working/not working, and what’s happening today/this week. Staff surveys can be helpful in establishing the level of morale within the team and finding ways to raise it. Leaders would do well to keep visible throughout the nursery, keeping a regular eye out for practitioners who are showing signs of stress/anxiety/low mood. Creating a culture of openness around stress and mental health plus providing opportunities to communicate regularly ensures practitioners feel they are listened to, well supported and valued.

Clear Vision and Values

Stress and anxiety can be caused when practitioners are unsure of their job role, the setting’s pedagogy and the day-to-day processes. Management need to be clear about the vision, values and uniqueness of the setting. Communicating this throughout the nursery so that every member of staff is clear about what they are trying to achieve day to day creates a sense of belonging and autonomy. Investing in setting-relevant staff training (in-house, virtual, reading) to upskill staff, along with good quality mentoring and coaching, will work towards keeping the vision visible and alive, giving staff a sense of purpose every day.

Empowering Staff

A common reason for job dissatisfaction is the perceived lack of value in the role of early years practitioner, not helped by the lack of funding from the government. There are talented, passionate and committed practitioners in the industry but many of them are at breaking point. Creating clear career paths can provide incentive to improve what they know and strive for career progression within your nursery, rather than seeking it elsewhere. Helping practitioners to build relationships with parents based on their professional expertise also helps them to feel more knowledgeable and valued.

Targets and pay reviews

Creating transparent policies on pay reviews and linking this with clear targets for job role expectations provides clarity for staff. Offering staff increased opportunities for training and learning specific skills benefits the nursery and practitioners. Investing wisely in practitioners and supporting them through the acquisition of professional qualifications, showing interest in their progress and achievements, reflects the respect and value leaders have for employees. Regular small gifts and rewards are thoughtful, but don’t necessarily make up for low pay. Consider saving the money for more meaningful things that have a greater impact.

Company culture and leadership

What is the leadership style in your nursery? Does it enable a spirit of collaboration, shared purpose and trust? Perhaps the opposite is true where leaders adopt a “command and control” style, being careful not to let any cracks in their competence and confidence show through. If trust from leaders isn’t present it can often mean that the team isn’t a team, but a group of individuals trying to work together in a culture of fear, making poor progress and lacking motivation. Consequently, the team may never reach its full potential.

Where leadership adjusts to team needs and builds relationships with team members, this promotes collaboration, shared purpose, and an atmosphere of trust. This kind of culture can increase innovation, creativity, collaboration, productivity and create a sense of belonging. Leaders who are not afraid of being their authentic self, who value the perspectives and opinions of others, enable employees to feel connected, respected and invested in the vision and values of the nursery.

Leadership is more than managing the tasks of the setting, it is about the complexities of relationships with staff, other stakeholders and the needs of the community they support (Campbell-Barr & Leeson 2016). Therefore, a one-style-only leadership approach may not be the answer. Finding the right balance between styles is dependant upon what leaders feel are the most appropriate in a given situation. It is beneficial to reflect on leadership styles and adopt and create an authentic style that suits a leader’s personality and strengths.

Campbell-Barr & Leeson strongly recommend that leaders (especially those new to the job role) seek mentors, or make links with colleagues from afar, to allow conversations to take place without conflict of interest. “Neglecting your own support as a leader renders your leadership potentially unsustainable; it’s not an indulgence.”

Staff Wellbeing

The Minds Matter 2018 survey reported that “25% of respondents were considering leaving the early years sector due to stress or mental health difficulties”. The most commonly cited symptoms were fatigue, loss of motivation, anxiety, and insomnia.

Four years on and we are still witnessing an exodus of disillusioned practitioners to other industries plus a dearth of prospective qualified and unqualified practitioners keen to join the early years sector. How can we look after the precious, unqualified and qualified, experienced staff that remain?

A recent report, Early years staff wellbeing: a resource for managers and teams, by the Anna Freud Centre (July 2021) surveyed 1458 nursery staff regarding their wellbeing. The report states: “The commitment (of staff) is unquestionable; their value to young children, families and their communities is profound. We need to repay this dedication by putting wellbeing at the heart of the workplace”. The survey found:

  • 47% of staff surveyed were unaware of a mental health or wellbeing policy in place; where this was the case staff stress levels were also found to be highest

  • staff reported that the pandemic had taken its toll on their mental health.

The report suggest four key areas which could make a difference to the wellbeing of staff.

  1. Supporting each other. Support from colleagues is valued. Showing an interest in each other, and being open and honest about difficult workplace experiences, is important for team performance, reflection and learning together.

  2. Supportive management. All staff, and managers have a role to play in promoting peer support. Managers determine the extent to which staff wellbeing is a priority, through policies, procedures and resources.

  3. The physical environment. Having access to an environment which promotes wellbeing and a safe space helps staff recover from stressful situations. Displays of health and wellbeing information and the option to join in with fun or social activities are important.

  4. Outside support. Staff value training opportunities, peer networks, and signposting to local services. Additional pressures such as cost of living and being in an undervalued profession also impact on wellbeing.

The report suggests that promoting wellbeing of staff can have knock-on benefits for settings such as a positive impact on children, increase in staff productivity, reduced absences from work, staff feeling valued and supported, and improved job satisfaction.


  • Communication between staff and management is important.

  • Management should ensure that goals are clear.

  • Create clear career paths to incentivise staff.

  • Create transparent pay review policies with clear targets.

  • Consider the leadership style in your setting.

  • Be aware of staff wellbeing.

Further reading

Early years staff wellbeing: a resource for managers and teams (Anna Freud Centre, July 2021)

Early years workers quit “underpaid and undervalued jobs” (BBC News, 2021)

Employee Retention: (Alberti, 2020)

Minds Matter Survey (Early Years Alliance, 2018)

Simon Sinek: Why good leaders make you feel safe

Leadership Part 1: Pick and mix (Nursery World, 2016)

Recruitment and retention in Early Years (Rebecca Fisk, Croner-i 2021)

Quality and Leadership in the Early Years: Research, Theory and Practice, Verity Campbell-Barr and Caroline Leeson (2016)