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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 5, March 2007

On being well: Building community in the workplace

by Julia Johnson

In the world of business, with labour shortage and the demand for skilled workers in every sector throughout the province, the crucial question is how to attract and keep qualified employees. The December 2006 issue of the BC Business magazine attempts to address this concern with a feature on the best companies to work for in BC. Generally, the employers of these "best companies" demonstrated that they were as serious about people as they were about profit when they created workplace wellness programs, which resulted in contented workers who were loyal, motivated, and enthusiastic. The employees, however, found their worksite desirable because of the friendly working atmosphere and the positive way in which people related to each other at work.

In the field of education, the issue of a healthy workplace is paramount particularly with the many layers of stress that confront teachers daily as they interact with a diverse student population. As a BCTF Pro-D associate responsible for facilitating wellness workshops in schools throughout the province, my observation is that teachers desire a workplace where a sense of community prevails. This becomes evident to all when stories are shared revealing behaviours that create a toxic workplace as expressed by one participant at a secondary school; "I just want someone to respond when I walk down the hall and say, Hi!"

Each day we enter our workplace burdened not only by the demands of our teaching assignment (new curriculum, insufficient resources, accountability expectations, integration issues, coping with students with emotional and drug issues, etc.) but burdened also by the demands of our personal and family life. No one is exempt from these stressors. For many of us the workplace becomes a place to survive. "If I can just get through today, I will be all right!" "I’m fine as long as I can shut my door and just concentrate on teaching" are statements I have frequently heard.

All of us want to do our work to the best of our ability and we want to be happy doing it; otherwise work becomes drudgery and stressful. The world of business acknowledges this in their belief that "a happy worker is a productive worker" and in the direction they take in implementing business practices, "Now more than ever, keeping staff happy is a crucial part of doing business." (p. 59)

Not to implement strategies for community building in the workplace produces a toxic work environment that is easy to recognize—people are frequently absent, there is little or no school wide socializing, small or exclusive circles of friendships are prevalent, new staff members find it hard to fit in, there is an established seating pattern in the staff room at recess and lunch, change is met with resistance, laughter is scarce, little effort is made to connect with others during the day, and people work long hours in isolation.

Today, the concept of building community in the workplace has its roots in the world of business, but historically community building occurred in the neighbourhood, community hall, and church. In our pluralistic, diverse, technologically advanced, and global society people no longer gather at these places for the purpose of community building. As a result, the opportunity to feel connected in a way that nurtures our sense of belonging is in short supply.

Scott Peck in The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace defines community "as a group that has learned to transcend its individual differences." (p. 62) A school workplace abounds in individual differences, which can become fodder for conversations regarding our colleagues if not checked—conversations where judgments and criticisms are made and unfavourable opinions are expressed. Peck suggests, "...in genuine community there are no sides. It is not always easy but by the time [a group reaches] community the members have learned how to give up cliques and factions. They have learned how to listen to each other and how not to reject each other." (p. 71) When the workplace is where we spend 60% of our waking hours, we would be wise to create an atmosphere of workplace wellness that supports community building so we can all survive with a little more ease, grace, and workplace health.

Julia Johnson, a retired learning resource teacher in Quesnel, is a BCTF PD wellness associate and a member of the Teacher Newsmagazine Advisory Board. livingjewels@shaw.ca (250-747-3650)


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