Are schools destined to be Sunderland till they die?

September 5, 2019 10:21 am
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I am in debt this week to an enlightening presentation which I make no apologies for highly plagiarising as I thinks its finding are so powerful. So, thanks to Sir Paul Litchfield OBE, Chair of What Works Wellbeing @whatworksWB for his excellent talk at the Wellbeing symposium hosted by Deloittes in London.

The main eyeopener for me was the exploding of myths in his opening sentences. He said that of course there was a place for yoga, dogs and smoothies in the workplace but that is not wellbeing. It is neither the solution nor even really part of the answer. Wellbeing is much more holistic and all-encompassing than that. I think the lessons for schools and profound and very interesting. It also resonated with our philosophy at EVC which was both encouraging and inspiring.

Paul’s first point was to contextualise the world we live in. We are in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution where digitalisation has come to rule our planet. The old giants of the financial and commercial world like Exxon, Total and Citi are now midgets compared to the new global powerhouses of Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft and Google. All are technology companies with enormous power and sway. Their domination of the world economy has seen the rise of political populism and loss of free market confidence.

This in turn has had a major impact on election results as political wellbeing has been so volatile. Opinion polls have been turned on their heads, and wellbeing in the sense of the level of satisfaction of the population is an increasing indicator of political health. It has been reported that negative wellbeing is x6 more powerful than positive wellbeing. The Brexit vote was interesting in so many ways, however, one of the key indicators was that an inequality of wellbeing was really prevalent in leave areas rather than remain.

Sir Paul then went onto make the powerful point that there are many indicators of wellbeing health income, education, physical health but the two which were the biggest sources of negative wellbeing were mental health and quality of work. A fantastic example was then shown of the Brexit vote from a key remaining area- Lambeth and a key leave area Sunderland. Although, the socio-economic patterns were similar the negative spread of wellbeing in Sunderland was much more negative than in Lambeth.

Further study of the Sunderland effect threw up that people were generally employed but unhappy in their work. Big companies like Nissan had small and all-powerful top management who tended to micro-manage, the middle management was disenfranchised and in a lot of cases almost non -existent. Support to the frontline was compromised, opportunities to advance were diminished and inequalities between the top and bottom grew, leading to a sense of anomie and poor wellbeing- the drone syndrome. To put that in a nutshell, not only in Sunderland but across the UK employment rates are close to an all-time high but productivity is flat lining.

To take that a stage further, people want more out of companies than just money. They want to be engaged and see their workplace as a force for good. Investors want sustainability, the wider public wants good corporate citizens and wellbeing in the widest and narrowest sense to be at the forefront of the agenda. The old certainties of “work” are changing. What is work? Where is work? What is a working day are now valid questions? Supply chains are global and service industries dominate, technology is both a creator and destroyer of worlds.

But, even if “work” is changing the value of work is not. It affects us in every way. Our physical and mental health are often intrinsically linked to our work. Security is provided, or not by work. The environment in which we work can have far reaching effects on us personally and society in general. Relationships both positive and negative are an essential part of what we understand to be work.  And if we take purpose out of work what are we left with?

However, if we are able to imagine an ideal workplace or dare, I say school would it not have these attributes?

  1. Relative levels of control over your role.
  2. The workplace and pay are generally fair
  3. Clarity of expectation.
  4. A sense of personal and organisational purpose.
  5. Supportive management.
  6. Variety
  7. Opportunities to develop skills
  8. Job security and career progression.
  9. Work/life balance
  10. A safe and pleasant work environment
  11. Positive relationships with colleagues

If the above criteria were applied and therefore wellbeing was at the forefront of the workplace agenda research has shown a 10% rise in worker productivity! This has the knock- on effect of improved service quality, customer loyalty, profitability and reduced staff turnover.

Sir Paul’s conclusion was that wellbeing needed to be at the heart of every organisation. Especially, in the longer term transformational and value creation phase where organisational and cultural change are needed. Wellbeing must be a key factor for strategic and leadership decision making. It is good for workers, good for organisations and good for society.

Without labouring the point if you transfer this approach to the education sector, we could see a revolution from crisis to confidence? Teachers instead of feeling that they are surrounded by uncertainty, crisis and stress could instead be more motivated, productive, engaged and purposeful. There is so much talent and goodwill in teaching that if we are not going to be Sunderland till we die, wellbeing has to be at the forefront of the education agenda. I think we are moving that way but there is a long way to go!