Why can't schools measure happiness?

Grainne Hallahan

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Grainne Hallahan looks at some of the problems schools face when trying to assess contentment levels among staff

The teacher sits in front of the online staff survey and ponders the question facing her on the screen.

“Are you happy at work?” 

She’s not sure. She’s happy, but is she happy enough? Maybe she’s just happy because it’s Week B and she’s got a double free period this afternoon.

What do we mean by happiness?

Happiness isn’t a particularly easy concept to measure. Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester, advises that talking about happiness isn’t particularly helpful.

“You can feel happy today, but sad tomorrow,” he says. “It’s not a very reliable measure – it’s too transitory as a concept.”

Instead, Cooper continues, we need to measure wellbeing using a different term: contentment.

“What we measure is contentment, that is wellbeing. And we need to understand what enhances our contentment and what depletes it.”

He says that by measuring the contentment of their staff, leaders will be able to get into the mechanics of what improves wellbeing in their schools.

How do you measure feelings?

In order to have some kind of accuracy in your staff wellbeing surveys, Cooper says, the important thing is to look at what the variables are.

“It’s a complex process but wellbeing is very measurable,” says Cooper. “When schools measure wellbeing among their staff, they should look at three areas: their teacher’s job satisfaction, physical health and mental wellbeing.

“Once you’ve got that, then you can look at the precursor factors: what are the sources causing a lack of wellbeing? This involves asking teachers about how they are managed, working hours, job clarity and so on. You want to find out what underpins the lack of wellbeing, and you want to find out what makes the difference between a good day at work and a bad day at work.

“It’s often because they don’t feel they have good work-life balance and they don’t feel valued.”

What to do with the data?

Once you know what's making your teachers unhappy, then surely you can easily solve it? Not always. Ceri Stokes, senior teacher at Kimbolton School in Cambridgeshire, believes schools need to keep in mind that not everyone finds happiness in the same things.

“We have to remember that we are dealing with adults, not children. ‘Forced relaxing’ is never going to work. We should always give staff the opportunity to opt in or out,” she explains.

“It’s a good idea for staff to instigate their own initiatives, like buddy boxes, staff cricket, staff social events. We let staff organise these and the senior leadership team may join in, but again this is up to the SLT.”

Take the judgement out of wellbeing

Including or excluding groups of people on the basis of our own pre-judgements as to what they will or won’t enjoy isn’t helpful, advises Stokes. Instead, she recommends we keep an open mind.

“We also have to remember that everyone’s life is different.

“Some parents want to leave as soon as they can to pick up their children, so staying behind after school to do yoga together is never going to be their top priority. However, some parents might want to use this as their own ‘me time’ and opt in. We cannot and should not judge people.”

Speaking truth to power

Stokes warns of a common problem when trying to gauge true feelings from your teachers: it’s not always easy to tell the truth to someone in a more powerful position than you.

You can ask teachers to tell you what is depleting their contentment levels, but will you get an honest answer?

“The problem of giving honest feedback isn’t just attached to someone in a senior post. It could be difficult if you’re being asked the opinion by someone who has been at the school longer or is older than you. Or someone that you respect, or even if it is someone you don’t respect,” explains Stokes.

“In order to elicit honest responses from staff, schools must ensure that they’re giving them the opportunity to speak without fear of judgement or repercussions.”

Getting honest feedback from your teachers can help you create a better teaching and learning environment. Find out how our Staff Pulse product can help put you in touch with your team.

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