Advice & News

May 13, 2024

What Does It Take for University Staff to Thrive?


In the midst of debate over whether university staff can be just as productive working remotely as being on campus in person, an underlying question remains unanswered: What does it take for university staff to thrive in their roles?

Emerging from the pandemic, universities are facing enrollment and financial challenges that have led to significant reductions in staff, increasing the burden of supporting student success. Yet if staff aren't thriving, it's hard for them to help students thrive - and staff play a pivotal role in student success.

What It Means to Thrive

Positive psychology is a field that studies human flourishing and the conditions that support it. Our research team has applied psychologist Martin Seligman's definition of flourishing to the university setting, using The Staff Thriving Quotient as a valid and reliable measure of the degree to which university staff feel meaningfully engaged, energized, productive, and supported in their role.

We have studied over 2,000 university staff across 25 colleges and universities to discover not only what it means to thrive, but what it takes to thrive. Using a sequential explanatory mixed methods approach, we administered the Staff Thriving Quotient and conducted confirmatory factor analysis to validate the definition and measurement of staff thriving, then used structural equation modeling to test the fit of a predictive model that was able to explain 83% of the variation in staff thriving.

Once we established the significant predictors of thriving, we interviewed staff who scored in the top and bottom quartile of thriving to understand more deeply what quantitative results had indicated were vital to thriving. We discovered clear distinctions in the experiences of staff who were thriving at their institutions and those who were not.

Thriving staff are meaningfully engaged in their role. They enjoy coming to work, feel that their job is a good fit for their interests and abilities, are energized by their role, feel they can do what they love much of the time, and experience positive emotions when they are at work.

Staff who are thriving have a sense of accomplishment in their role, believing that what they do makes a difference in students' lives and that they are able to apply their strengths to address challenges they face at work. They are involved in healthy relationships with their co-workers, feeling valued and supported, and experience a sense of belonging. Finally, thriving staff enjoy a positive sense of well-being as they can maintain a healthy work/life balance and are not often overwhelmed by the demands of the job.

What It Takes to Thrive

When university leaders are aware of the key aspects of the campus environment that enable staff to thrive, they are then able to create environments that not only benefit staff, but the students they serve. Here are the top four things that help university staff thrive, according to our predictive model:

1. A Campus Culture of Trust

The single largest predictor of university staff thriving is the degree to which staff feel there is a culture of trust on their campus. A culture of trust is reciprocal: staff perceive administrators and university leaders to be competent and trustworthy, but also feel trusted and supported by them. When there is a strong culture of trust, staff know what is happening on campus and perceive that their opinions matter. They also believe that institutional leaders act with integrity and are committed to their well-being. In this type of culture, faculty, staff, and administrators regularly engage to support student success.

2. An Equitable Environment

Along with a culture of trust, what is vital to staff thriving is the extent to which people are treated equitably and diverse perspectives are valued on campus. When the university has a strong commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion that is embodied by its leaders and connected to its mission, staff are motivated by the vision, perceive their own values as aligned with the institution's, and feel proud to work there. Together, these elements create an environment that enables staff to thrive.

3. A Supervisor Who Cares

A Gallup study reports that half of all employees surveyed had left a job at some point in their careers because of their supervisor's negative effects on their well-being. The authors famously concluded: "People leave managers, not companies." Although we would assert that the worst managers are also likely to be employed by companies that are not exactly great, our research focuses instead on the positive value of a caring supervisor. When a supervisor takes the time to notice and affirm a staff member who is doing a good job, university staff are likely to thrive in their role.

4. Job Security

It may seem obvious that staff who are not sure whether they will have a job next year are less likely to thrive, but feeling secure in one's role is more than just knowing one's job status. Job security also encompasses how university leaders make decisions and how they communicate the outcomes of their decisions. When institutional leaders are transparent, inclusive, and intentional about their decision-making processes, it helps staff trust the quality of the decision and feel a sense of security that they will be cared for, regardless of the outcome.

Thriving When Your Institution is Not

What if you are a staff member who is not thriving? What can you do if the environment isn't supportive, or you don't have a supervisor who cares about you?

Christine Porath, Cristina Gibson, and Gretchen Spreitzer have some advice that was confirmed in our interviews with thriving staff: (1) engage in self-care, through mindfulness, planned breaks, and connections with non-work activities; (2) nurture healthy relationships with co-workers by respecting and listening to them, supporting or mentoring them, and finding ways to have fun together; and (3) build community, either at work or outside of work through professional organizations, neighborhood communities, or even online. We believe it is the responsibility of university leadership to create thriving environments, but the actions of individual staff can go a long way toward creating a campus where everyone can thrive.

For more on the debate about working from home, read Justin Zackal's "3 (False) Claims About Remote Work," published by HigherEdJobs in December 2023.

Disclaimer: HigherEdJobs encourages free discourse and expression of issues while striving for accurate presentation to our audience. A guest opinion serves as an avenue to address and explore important topics, for authors to impart their expertise to our higher education audience and to challenge readers to consider points of view that could be outside of their comfort zone. The viewpoints, beliefs, or opinions expressed in the above piece are those of the author(s) and don't imply endorsement by HigherEdJobs.

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