There are two things that people think they know about teachers. One is that they are dedicated to their profession, motivated by a sense of “mission” rather than money. The other is that they are overworked and suffer work-related stress. But are these things true? Just how dedicated are school employees to their jobs and do they suffer more in terms of stress and potential ‘burnout’?
There appear to be grounds for concern. Teachers are leaving the profession at alarming rates and those who remain report seemingly high levels of job-related stress. But are these stress levels any higher than those experienced by workers in other professions? And just how much do employees’ wellbeing and commitment matter for schools’ performance?
Studies of schools and school staff almost invariably focus solely on the schools sector so it is not possible to compare them with employees elsewhere in the economy. Our new study is, to our knowledge, the first to examine the wellbeing and commitment of school staff relative to “like” employees in other workplaces. And it is the first to find out whether school employees’ wellbeing and commitment matter for school performance. We do so with a nationally representative survey of workplaces with five or more employees, linked to a survey of their employees. In addition to being able to compare school and non-school employees this survey has a number of advantages compared to data used in previous studies.
First, we get to know quite a bit about how employees feel about their jobs and their employer. They are asked about satisfaction with eight aspects of their job; three elements of job-related anxiety (being tense, uneasy and worried); and three areas of organisational commitment (sharing values of the organisation; feeling proud to work for them; and feeling loyal). Second, the nature of the job is captured in detail. In addition to the occupational classification used to establish precisely which job the employee is undertaking, we know how much they are paid; how much control they have over five aspects of their jobs; the degree to which demands are placed on them (how hard their job requires them to work and how much time they have to perform their tasks); and the degree to which they receive managerial support in performing their tasks along six dimensions.
We also take account of their perceptions of their own job security. In addition to this information, the Human Resource Manager completing the face-to-face survey interview provides information on 48 human resource management (HRM) practices that may be available at the workplace, together with information on the composition of the workforce, and structural features of the workplace such as its ownership, age and size. As well as two large cross-sectional surveys, the study contains a workplace panel allowing us to track change in employees’ wellbeing and commitment to see how it relates to changes in workplace performance.
These data advantages, together with the analytical techniques we deploy, mean we can be fairly confident that the associations between employee wellbeing and commitment and working in schools are robust, as are the links between employee wellbeing and commitment and the performance of workplaces.
What do we find?
First, school employees are no more stressed about their work than other “like” employees. Quite the opposite in fact: compared to similar employees elsewhere they express greater job contentment. They also express greater job satisfaction. These differentials disappear when we condition on school employees’ occupations: when we do so there are no differences between the job-related anxiety and satisfaction expressed by school employees and “like” employees in other workplaces. It is teachers and teaching assistants who express greater satisfaction and job-related contentment than other employees, thus accounting for the school/non-school differential.
Second, we find organizational commitment levels are higher in schools than they are in other workplaces. Half of this differential is accounted for by the higher levels of organisational commitment expressed by teachers and teaching assistants compared to other employees, but half of it remains having accounted for occupational differences. This organisational commitment “premium” in schools is large and statistically significant.
Third, when we compare changes in employee wellbeing and contentment within schools over time, and see whether these are related to changes in schools’ performance, we find that what matters for school performance is employees’ organisational commitment. Improvements in job satisfaction and job contentment are not linked to changes in workplace performance. In contrast, increased commitment is associated with improvements in schools’ performance, measured in terms of their financial performance, labour productivity, and quality of service. It is also linked to lower staff quit rates. Improvements in organisational commitment do not bring about the same performance enhancements in non-schools, although non-schools do benefit from higher job satisfaction (which leads to improved financial performance) and higher job contentment (associated with improved perceptions of the climate of employment relations).
Fourth, aspects of the job and working environment that engender higher satisfaction and contentment are common across school and non-school employees: higher pay, greater job control, reduced job demands, and greater job security. All these factors also mattered for employees’ organisational commitment, with one exception: pay was linked to organisational commitment in non-schools, but not schools, confirming the limited value of pecuniary rewards for commitment in an environment where employees are mission-oriented.
By comparing school employees with “like” employees elsewhere the study challenges some preconceptions about what it is like to work in a school environment. School employees expressed greater job satisfaction and greater job contentment than “like” employees working elsewhere, a difference that is connected with working as a teacher or teaching assistant. Furthermore, school employees express greater organisational commitment to “like” employees working elsewhere, a difference which remains large and significant even when accounting for the occupations employees worked in. This commitment, when harnessed by schools, leads to improved performance and lower staff quit rates. The key to that commitment is high job quality, as it is in the non-schools sector.
The study – ‘Are Schools Different? Wellbeing and Commitment Among Staff in Schools and Elsewhere’ (IZA Discussion Paper No. 11456) by Alex Bryson (UCL), Lucy Stokes (NIESR) and David Wilkinson (UCL) – uses the Workplace Employment Relations Surveys for 2004 and 2011.
These are nationally representative surveys of workplaces with five or more employees containing information from both employees and the managers in the workplaces that employ them.
They contain 406 schools (226 primary, 129 secondary and 51 technical/vocational). The non-schools workplaces comprise 3,485 private sector workplaces and 1,084 public sector workplaces.
Panel analyses of changes in workplace performance are conducted on the subset of workplaces followed up between 2004 and 2011, which includes 87 schools.
Organisational commitment is measured by responses on the extent of agreement with the following statements: ‘I share many of the values of the organisation’, ‘I feel loyal to my organisation’, and ‘I am proud to tell people who I work for’.
Information is available on eight aspects of employees’ job satisfaction: pay, sense of achievement, scope for using initiative, influence over the job, training, job security, involvement in decisions and the work itself; and three aspects of job contentment: feeling… tense, uneasy, and worried.
Workplace performance is based on managerial responses to three questions: ‘Compared to other workplaces in the same industry how would you assess your workplace’s… financial performance, labour productivity, quality of product or service?’
Each is scored on a scale running from ‘a lot below average’ to ‘a lot above average’. The scales are collapsed into an additive (0,9) scale where 9 identifies the best performers.
Job quality is captured by employee wages as well as measures of job control (influence over tasks, pace of work and work organisation), job demands, employee perceptions of managerial support, and job security.
The researchers acknowledge the Nuffield Foundation for funding this study (grant number EDU/41926) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research as the originators of the Workplace Employee Relations Survey data, and the Data Archive at the University of Essex as the distributor of the data. All errors and omissions remain the sole responsibility of the authors.