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Why Schools Should do More to Improve Workplace Culture

Blog Post by Dr Helen Kelly, 24th September 2022

Research from around the world shows that staff working in schools have lower levels of wellbeing and higher levels of burnout than the general population. In my article Why Schools Should Take Teacher Burnout More Seriously I wrote about the impact of this on student outcomes and school effectiveness. Since the pandemic, schools have become increasingly aware of the importance of staff wellbeing and want to take steps to address it. They most commonly focus, however, on how staff can manage their own stress and build resilience. While this is useful, the research clearly shows that occupational burnout is a condition of the workplace and not of the individual. This means that stress management and resilience building, as isolated strategies, can have only limited impact. 

In recent months I have seen a sharp increase in schools wanting to focus on improving the quality of the workplace culture as a more effective way to maximise wellbeing. The importance of this slowly turning tide should not be underestimated. Studies from the UK show that more than half of educators feel the culture of their workplace has a negative impact on their wellbeing, while in my own 2021 research, only 20% of international school teachers said the culture of their school had a positive effect on their wellbeing. 

Studies from the UK show that more than half of educators feel the culture of their workplace has a negative impact on their wellbeing

In this series Improving Workplace Culture in Schools, I will be looking at the important role that workplace culture plays in staff wellbeing and school effectiveness and suggesting strategies that schools can implement to improve their culture. 

The Importance of Collegial Relationships

Most schools underestimate the importance of collegial relationships. Yet research shows that the nature of relationships among the adults has a significant influence on the school’s culture and quality. Poor workplace relationships have been shown to decrease motivation and creativity, reduce productivity and performance and lead to higher rates of staff turnover. Lack of community is also a major factor in the development of burnout for both teachers and school leaders. Positive collegial relationships, on the other hand, increase work engagement, job satisfaction, productivity, and staff retention. They also help buffer the impact of work-related stress, improve wellbeing, increase happiness, and protect individuals from burnout. 

In recent years, increasing emphasis has been placed on teacher collaboration, which is linked to improvements in professional growth. Collaboration has also been shown to help teachers cope with uncertainty, respond more effectively to change, and create a climate of risk-taking and continuous improvement, which benefits student outcomes and school quality. This kind of collaboration brings teachers out from the traditional isolation of their classrooms and provides more opportunities for collegial interaction, both positive and negative. Many schools fail to understand that a successful culture of collaboration can only be built on a foundation of strong and supportive relationships, however. A positive workplace culture is therefore essential in the 21st century school. 

Incivility at Work

Yet research shows that over the last two decades there has been a deterioration in the quality of workplace relationships. This is manifested in a two-fold increase in incidents of uncivil behaviour among colleagues at work. In the USA, difficult workplace relationships have been estimated to account for more than half of all work-related stress. In schools, studies show a growing number of staff reporting bullying, discrimination, and work-related interpersonal conflict.  

What is causing this increase in poor behaviour towards colleagues? The work of Christine Porath, foremost researcher in the field of workplace incivility has found stress and overload to the biggest contributors to unprofessional behaviour at work. So poor workplace relationships are causing growing levels of work-related stress, while stress is leading to behaviours that erode the quality of relationships at work. This is a vicious circle that needs to be broken if schools are to maximise staff wellbeing and organisational effectiveness. 

When I ask staff in workshops what they want from their collegial relationships, they always say the same things. They want to be acknowledged and greeted with a smile. Most importantly they want to be treated with respect, to be listened to and asked their opinion. They want colleagues to value their strengths and experience and show them appreciation. They also want to work in an environment where colleagues are polite and civil in their interactions. I have worked with very few schools where staff feel that these things happen most of the time. 

A Framework to Improve Workplace Culture

All schools can benefit from improvements to their workplace culture. Some may require tweaking to ensure that strong relationships can be maintained, and a positive culture can be sustained over time. For others, more serious work is needed that involves some or all of the following.

  • Auditing and benchmarking the workplace culture.
  • Setting goals to improve workplace culture based on the specific needs of each school.
  • Creating a sense of belonging through an inclusive culture based on shared values and purpose.
  • Building trust between leadership and staff.
  • Agreeing behavioural expectations for all staff and implementing restorative practices to address unprofessional behaviour.
  • Improving communication systems and communication skills.
  • Providing opportunities to understand and acknowledge each other’s strengths and show appreciation.
  • Evaluating the impact of interventions and tracking improvements in the workplace culture.

Over the coming weeks, I will look at each of these components and suggest practical steps that schools can take to improve their workplace culture. 

The Role of Stress

Before this work can begin, however, schools need to consider the role that stress plays in eroding the quality of collegial relations and take action to address it. While stronger workplace relationships will help reduce stress, work to improve the nature of these relationships will be less impactful where staff are working in a high-pressure environment of high-stakes accountability, competition, constant deadlines, staff shortages and long working hours. It will also be less impactful where there are issues of unaddressed student need, poor student behaviour, and where teaching staff feel unsupported in their classroom. Yes, positive collegial relationships can help buffer against the effects of stress, but stress can also significantly erode the quality of these relationships. Schools cannot hope to build a positive workplace culture without also dealing with issues of overload and poor support. The two things must go together.