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Improving Dal as a workplace

Results from Dal's Quality of Work Life survey

- June 15, 2015

The full survey report. (Ryan McNutt photo)
The full survey report. (Ryan McNutt photo)

Dalhousie’s faculty and staff take pride in their work and believe their contributions are valued. But they also have concerns about workload, stress and opportunities for career advancement.

Those are just a few quick snapshots from the 2015 edition of Dalhousie’s employee survey, the results of which were released this week. Every two years, the university asks faculty and staff about their work: their view of their jobs, their workload, their relationships and the university as a workplace more generally.

This year marks the fourth incarnation of the survey — but if you’re familiar with past surveys, the results may look a bit different this time around.

For one, the survey has a new name: the Quality of Work Life Survey, which reflects its broader focus. While a number of questions were repeated from the previous survey, many were new and focused on employees’ physical, mental and emotional health.

Read more: Quality of Work Life Survey report (w/ full report and summary — requires Dal login)

Katherine Frank, assistant vice-president Human Resources, says the new approach provides more information to both leaders and employees about the opportunities and challenges towards building healthy workplaces on campus.

“We all have a role to play in creating workplaces in which people feel supported, successful and healthy in all respects of the word,” says Frank. “By taking a more holistic approach with this new survey, it offers our community a better understanding of the relationship between employees’ health and well-being and their engagement in the workplace — and how that relationship works in both directions.”

The survey, conducted by Howatt Associates in partnership with Morneau Shepell, was distributed to more than 3,700 faculty and staff (50 per cent FTE or greater) in April — including, for the first time, grant-paid employees and postdocs. It was also entirely anonymous, as no personally identifiable information was collected.

In total, 1,384 surveys were completed, with 29 per cent of the respondents identifying as faculty and 71 per cent identifying as staff. That’s a significant portion Dal’s employee community, but a lower response rate (37 per cent) than previous surveys. Frank says that drop in response rate is disappointing but not necessarily surprising.

“It was a new survey format, which took longer for participants to complete, and not everyone may have fully understood the thinking behind the new approach,” says Frank. “Our hope is that as we share and discuss the results with the Dal community, leaders and employees alike will see the value of the tool and how it can be used to help improve our workplaces.”

Examining the results


In questions that were also asked in the 2013 survey, some results remained very positive. For example: 87 per cent of employees say they take pride in and enjoy their work. As well, 84 per cent of employees say their work matters and 72 per cent believe their contributions are valued.

There are a few notable areas, though, where results declined from the previous survey. Fewer employees believe they have opportunities for career advancement (39 per cent) and many more employees are now undecided about whether Dalhousie handles harassment or discrimination complaints effectively (46 per cent) — a result that’s likely not surprising considering the debates surrounding the Dentistry Facebook incident in December.

Read more: Quality of Work Life Survey report (w/ full report and summary — requires Dal login)

The bulk of the survey’s results are focused on what’s called the “Total Health Index,” or “THI.” Each employee who completed the survey received a personalized THI assessment combining their scores across four different categories: stress, coping, engagement and health. The university then received aggregate scores for units/departments and the entire university, scored out of 1,000 — the lower the score, the better the result.

Compared to the survey’s benchmark — a survey through the Globe and Mail of 15,000 employees across the country — Dalhousie’s score of 482 is 5 per cent better than the national average. Nearly all of Dal employees fell into two categories: minimal concern (34 per cent) and moderate concern (62 per cent). These are reasonably aligned with the national benchmark, where upwards of 60 per cent of Canadian employees fell into moderate or higher concern categories. (Dalhousie, notably, had very few employees in the two areas of highest concern.)

So what, exactly, were the concerns raised by faculty and staff in the survey? Employees said they wanted more professional development, expressed feelings of unequal discipline and favouritism in some areas, were concerned about efficiency and effectiveness of admin operations, and want more support for employee health in general. Employees also wanted opportunities to improve their own abilities in a number of areas: stress management, physical and mental health, communication, and financial management.

Taking action on the results


This year marks the quickest turnaround for sharing the results with the Dal community; under the old survey model, the results wouldn’t be released until well into the fall. The speedier turnaround means Human Resources is only in its early days of assessing the data and considering next steps. Next month, it will be sharing breakdowns of results for individual faculties/departments with those units’ leaders.

That said, a few projects stemming from the results are already planned. To address organizational culture, Human Resources is planning to develop both a respectful workplace strategy and a mental health strategy, alongside continuing to improve leadership development. The survey data will also inform Dalhousie’s Strategic Initiative on Improving Effectiveness and Efficiency of Administrative Processes (part of the university’s Strategic Direction). Human Resources also plans to host more workshops on financial stability and to improve promotion of physical activity more generally.

“Those are just starting points: as with past surveys, we’ll be looking to leaders and their teams across the university for feedback on how we can take the results of this survey and continue to make improvements,” says Frank. “Ultimately, each and every one of us shares the responsibility for building a healthy, supportive workplace at Dalhousie.”

Interested in learning more about the survey results? Join Katherine Frank, assistant vice-president Human Resources, at an overview presentation this Thursday, June 18, 1-2 p.m. in Theatre B, Tupper Link, Carleton Campus. All faculty and staff are invited to attention. The presentation will be webcast for those who are unable to make it in person, and a subsequent session will be scheduled on the Agricultural Campus in July.


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