Biscuits at Break Time! Staff perks – what are they, and do they work?

Biscuits at break time, yoga at 3.30 in the main hall, wine at the end of term, and an annual wellbeing day. Schools, generally, do a lot to reward the work of their teachers and to give them a break. Rachel and I flippantly titled our blog ‘biscuits at break time’ at the dawn of this project in jest, feeling both appreciative of sugary treats that some of us might be lucky to consume at our workplaces, but also hinting with a sardonic twist that these perks are merely a band-aid on a bullet wound, so to speak, if your school culture doesn’t meet staff needs in other, more fundamental areas.

This blog post explores how schools, and other work places, use perks to help satisfy and reward their employees. We will discuss a variety of perks, yet as ever we must caveat that it, of course, misses out on many other examples of what schools are doing. Please let us know if you’d like to add to the discussion. We also caveat this by saying we support perks and little extras to get us through the day, but we want to look a bit deeper at the effect these can have in different school contexts.

The murky world of corporate perks

Every employee wants to be rewarded and embraces any perks that come their way. In the corporate world, with more cash to splash, employee perks are an obvious method of endearment between worker and company, and many take full advantage of their flexibility and budgets. A glance through Linked In throws up plenty of ‘employee engagement and benefits’ companies that advise and provide ‘solutions’ to businesses who want to offer the best perks to their staff. Without wishing to be cynical, these often appear superficial, a soundbite to put on a job advert when recruiting the best ‘talent’, rather than a serious attempt to empower and support staff for the long term.

We’ve read about law firms who offer free takeaway if you stay until 8pm, and free taxi home if you are grafting past 9pm, followed by some who even offer hotel-style rooms on their premises. These options seem more of a rouse to never leave work, rather than a perk itself! However, many firms are now offering more support for workers with children, providing flexible working hours, nurseries and childcare on site, and even assigning employees a ‘personal agent’ to help organise their lives while they are at work. More traditional options include vouchers for massages or exercise classes, or private healthcare access. The technology sector are particularly good at offering on-site activities to woo their employees, such as games rooms, free restaurants and cafés which often include the beer fridge being unlocked on a Friday, and general day time merriment and ‘creative rooms’.

I can feel the knuckles tightening of the teachers reading this.

Perks in schools

Obviously, the education sector has a few more constraints, both financially and logistically! So where do schools begin with trying to compete with the corporates in offering their staff genuinely rewarding, feel-good perks to stave off the teacher blues?

Flexible working and wellbeing days:

While schools can’t keep closing to give staff days off, there are some out there that offer staff a wellbeing day during the year. A day for you to go and relax, do something you love, or just to sort your life out! Phil Sales (@phil_sales) recently Tweeted a picture of a golden ticket that he gave out to staff in a Wonka wrapper which entitled them to a wellbeing day in the next 12 months, if booked in advance. What a lovely idea! Some schools open later following open evenings. Others, close the school on the first Monday of each December for ‘Christmas Shopping Day’, or for a similar occasion. I’ve seen some wonderful examples of Leadership Teams stepping in recently to provide a breakfast or lunch for the staff, such as Farnham Heath End, whose SLT cooked breakfast for staff to enjoy on the last day of term – well done to Stuart Maginnis and his team.

Picture from @phil_sales Twitter
Stuart Maginnis (@stuartmaginnis) at the far left, and his leadership team, serving breakfast to staff at Farnham Heath End

Gifts and material perks:

And then there are material perks: chocolate, biscuits, wine, and other gifts. These are an admirable attempt to acknowledge staff effort, and provide teachers with a valuable hit of sugar, caffeine, or merely goodwill – not to be underestimated. We’ve all arrived to the staff room or our pigeon hole and felt the warm fuzzy feeling as something sweet and tasty stares back at us, pulling us away from the haze of a 6-period day that culminated in *that* year 9 group. The question is, disregarding the cost for a moment, do they have the desired impact? We think that if a school has a healthy culture in terms of staff wellbeing and recognition, then these extras are a welcome addition to reward hard-working staff. If staff are already unhappy with the conditions of their workplace, then clearly these treats will have little impact.

Leisure opportunities, events and vouchers:

Some schools are lucky enough to have staff (quite often PE teachers, thanks guys!) who agree to run or facilitate sporting or recreational sessions, ranging from yoga, to football, to dancing or singing. These are usually excellent opportunities to blow off some steam, forget about the day, and to get to know your colleagues. We’ve had mixed responses from staff about the after-school activity, though. Some anticipate the sign-up lists with dread, while others feel the peer pressure of taking part when they’d rather use the time to complete work. Vouchers to go to discounted external classes or wellbeing activities are also a common offer, and we are certain that staff enjoy them and benefit from the downtime.

Do perks meet our needs?

In terms of perks, schools seem to be improving and making fairly active steps to reward or recognise staff. But we need to go back to the basic needs of people when we assess the impact of these perks. Let’s consider the needs model of primary, secondary, and tertiary. Linking back to our previous blog on Self Determination Theory, which I urge you to read and investigate further, we can gather that primary needs in a workplace environment could be competence, relatedness and autonomy: these encompass being challenged, supported, feeling a sense achievement, and working with some agency over your roles. Secondary needs might link to the things you need to do your job: the resources, the classroom, the books, etc. And finally, tertiary needs are the luxuries we desire once our primary and secondary needs are met. Ben Gibbs from the Relationships Foundation put this into context when we were discussing workplace perks with him; the chocolate, the extras we enjoy from time to time, serve for very little if our other, more pressing, needs aren’t met. So it’s not so much ‘do away with the perks’, but to make sure other needs are met first.

Concluding thoughts:

1.       The place to start: changing your culture as a school to one where staff are valued and recognised day-to-day through kind words, warm relationships and trust; it’s completely free and has no timetable implications!

2.       Perks are a fantastic way to motivate and recognise hardworking staff. Despite my slightly sceptical tone, perks can be creative, personal, fun, and help build inter-team relationships. But they are not the silver bullet, nor are they the basis or foundation of any wellbeing initiative or culture. They are tertiary.

3.       We are pleased that perks are becoming increasingly linked to giving staff more flexibility over their working lives; whether you have children or not, being offered a little extra to help with managing your time can only be a good thing. 

Thanks for reading.

Sam and Rachel

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