3 Ways to Help Staff Feel Valued and Heard
Good benefits and a healthy work-life balance are important for employee retention, but toward the end of my 18-year career working in Student Affairs supervising teams that supported student wellness, academic success, and career development, these perks were not enough to counteract the pervasive lack of feeling valued that I experienced from my employer. In addition, I was connected to colleagues in social media spaces that were discussing these same feelings, which validated how I felt and forced me to reflect on what I needed in a workplace to feel purpose, self-worth, and enjoyment.
What factors could contribute to a decrease in an employee’s feeling of self-worth? Based on my experience, the following are tips on how to help staff feel valued:
1. Acknowledge and celebrate employee contributions
According to the CUPA-HR 2022 Higher Education Employee Retention Survey, 25% of respondents do not feel that their institution recognizes their contributions. In higher education, there is an inherent focus on academic staff achievement due to scholarship opportunities and requirements. Professional staff’s contribution to student retention and success is often overlooked. We are often invisible labor, because we may not be applying for grants, researching, or publishing. However, our contributions are just as important and vital to the success of the university.
One way to celebrate staff contributions could include creating a culture that acknowledges areas that are running well and not just areas that need improvement. Each year we review climate surveys and focus on areas that need improvement without celebrating the work done by staff to improve previously weak areas or even areas that continue to run well. In addition, time may not be used to review what is working well to inform how to improve other areas. Taking time to congratulate colleagues and debrief what was done to improve services begins to nurture a culture that celebrates staff achievement.
2. Set employees up for success through clear communications, goal setting, and progress check-ins
In a recent study on employee turnover in higher ed, “[deans] and human resource personnel stated the importance of communication among their coworkers is essential for maintaining employee satisfaction and reducing employee turnover.” Also, “[w]hen management effectively communicates the expectations of employees, they often feel motivated, which can assist in increasing productivity within an organization.”
In addition, the study found that open communication between all levels within an organization increases trust between all employees, which increases staff morale and their sense of value. Organizations that hold town halls, leadership “office hours” for staff to discuss concerns, and supervisors that consistently meet one on one with staff are more likely to retain employees because these are all opportunities for employees to ask questions about the expectations and goals of their work as well as the institution’s goals and strategic plans.
3. Include employees in the decision-making and planning process
Involving employees in planning and decision-making bolsters engagement. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, “Engaged employees are satisfied with their jobs, enjoy their work and the organization, believe that their job is important, take pride in their company, and believe that their employer values their contributions. One study found that highly engaged employees were five times less likely to quit than employees who were not engaged.”
During the uncertain and constantly changing time of the early pandemic, staff were asked to be flexible with changing priorities and quick project turnarounds in order to keep colleges and universities open. Often, decisions were made without input from my team or other areas with more experience than the leadership making decisions. We were also asked to complete deliverables on short timelines or we would receive communication that the request had changed, eventually leading my team and me to burnout.
Early on, my team and I were open to this style of leadership because we wanted the school to remain open as well as provide excellent services for students, however as the pandemic continued and workplaces evolved, this leadership style did not. As a result, my team and I became fatigued with the constantly changing priorities and the lack of communication related to the rationale for these requests. To efficiently meet the institution’s needs and understand leadership’s rationale for projects, my team and I wanted to be part of the conversation making these decisions.
This quote from a National Association of Colleges and Employers piece resonated with me: “To see a long-term future in the field, staff members want and need reminders of whom they are putting in so much effort to impact; why their work matters to their supervisor(s), department, division, and institution; and how their own values align with the core values of the institution.”
I continue to believe in the power that education has to change people’s lives for the better. However, the future of higher education is uncertain and I hope institutions are able to address employees’ concerns quickly enough so they are able to retain a quality workforce that can help education evolve.
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About the Author: Kathryn Ward, AMFT, is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist who worked in Student Affairs creating wellness, academic success, and career development programs for 18 years before transitioning to the mental health industry. Kathryn is passionate about creating spaces and opportunities where people can improve their quality of life.