I am HoD for a department with over 30 members.

  • The dept is socially inactive with only one or two social gatherings per academic year.
  • No politics or "serious personal issues" among members.
  • Just teaching while doing some research.

I got a green light from (very) top management to make them happier. But I really don't know how!

  • 37
    "one or two social gatherings per academic year": well, that's more than enough for many people like me ;-) Commented Sep 29, 2018 at 21:25
  • 59
    Money: salary increases show appreciation better than anything else. And, without that, anything else is just make-work pseudo-fun. Commented Sep 29, 2018 at 22:17
  • 15
    @paulgarrett I would say teaching reductions are also greatly appreciated.
    – Kimball
    Commented Sep 29, 2018 at 23:12
  • 28
    The question seems like a non sequitur. You say they have one or two social gatherings per academic year. They you say you want to make them happier. I don't see any relationship between these two things. (BTW, one or two is is more than my department has. We have zero, and nobody has ever suggested that that would be a problem.)
    – user1482
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 1:04
  • 4
    You're assumption that they are not already happy is based on what data?
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 15:27

15 Answers 15


It might be uncommon, but just ask them.

You could use a basic questionaire if you want to do it anonymously, or you could talk to everyone in person.

Just showing some activity does not help as long as you are having no idea about the needs and desires of your faculty members.

  • 9
    Unfortunately, this will only elicit ideas of a certain kind. You likely won't get replies that bring out negative issues that you may be overlooking.
    – Buffy
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 15:30
  • 5
    I would favor open questions and explicitly ask for things to improve. The situation described does not sound like it would need much out of the box thinking.
    – OBu
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 16:04
  • 4
    Open questions only work if you show them you know how to take negative response. One thing I look for is whether the management ever talks about past anecdotal experience of using a negative feedback to make positive improvements. A manager that is "open door" but have never had a positive experience out of a negative feedback means, IMO, they're completely incapable of handling negative feedback.
    – Nelson
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 2:35
  • 13
    "Hi All, I've got some extra funds from Them Above to spend on 'making the department happier', how should we spend it? All suggestions welcome! Kind Regards, Rowan"
    – Rowan
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 12:27
  • 3
    Google Form with the following questions: "What do you like about working in [department]?"; "Would you like to see more extracurricular social activities?"; "What aspects of [department] do you think need improvement?"; "If you could change one thing about [department], what would you change?". Knowing what people like ensures you don't inadvertently take that away, asking about the social activities gives them a way to ask for more (or let you know they're fine with what's in place), and then two questions asking what to improve, and how to improve the "worst" part.
    – Doktor J
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 17:17

It sounds like you already have a well-functioning department, without interpersonal problems, so be careful that any changes don't make it worse. Thus, I would suggest approaching the problem with caution, being careful that anything you add is not creating unintended consequences. Having said that, here are some suggestions (I am nowhere near HoD level, so take these as the advice of a novice):

Social occasions are okay, but don't expect them to affect happiness: Having two social occasions per year sounds about right to me. It is nice to have some socialisation at the workplace, during regular work hours, but too much can make it feel like a time-competitor with work you need to do, or you can simply run out of things to talk about. Unless the people in your department are actual friends, the social occasions are likely to consist of the kind of surface-level conversations you get among colleagues. Many employees prefer to allocate their social time to friends that they have had since earlier in their life, whom they are closer to.

Regardless of how good the social occasions are, I find that my own happiness in an academic department is barely affected by them. I feel happy when I am successful at work (e.g., good work productivity, outputs, etc.) and I feel unhappy when I am struggling (uncompleted work dragging on, etc.). Having a wine-mixer is not going to help in the latter case.

Implement a proper mentoring system: Some answers have suggested salary increases, but that would come with a major financial cost. Also, for researchers like me, who are below full-professor level, I think we mostly want to try to improve our performance and earn salary increases through the standard academic progression (e.g., progressing from assistant-prof to associate-prof, to full-prof). Bonus money is certainly nice, if it is available, but genuine long-term progression in performance, and subsequent promotion and salary increase based on merit, is much more rewarding.

In view of this, a helpful thing to do, if you haven't already got something like this, would be to establish a proper mentoring system to really genuinely help all your lower academics (anything below full-professor) with mentoring by the senior professors. Allocate time to have a senior mentor sit down for a sustained period of time with us and learn about our research work, make plans and career goals, help us with how to produce better quality research more productively, get competitive in grant applications, get citations and interest in our work, etc. Even just having a regular pep-talk with a senior colleague, checking on progress, is helpful.

Allocate time to skill-sharing (and count this as part of teaching load) Too often in academic departments, I find that you are mostly just in your own office, hacking through the wilderness on your own research projects and teaching. You are surrounded by people with amazing skills, but there is usually no systematic attempt (and no incentive) to spread these skills around. One teacher wins a teaching award while another is having trouble with teaching, but never shall the twain meet! One academic is a wizard on computer software used in discipline research while others find it bewildering, yet they never sit down to transfer this skill.

It would be wonderful if there was time allocated for academics to teach each other and spread their skills around. If you have any academics that are great teachers (e.g., teaching awards, etc.), give them a small amount of time-credit on their teaching to allow them to sit down with other academics (either one-on-one or in small groups) and pass on their best skills and advice. If you have any academics that are wizards on computational software used in the discipline, give them some time-credit to teach these skills to three or four other academics. If you have some quality teachers, give them some time-credit to assist other academics in improving their teaching.

Impose strict discipline in meetings: Academics are the worst people in the world at meetings. Compared to meetings in the corporate world, academic meetings are excruciating (and even the corporate world is pretty bad). Formal meetings should have an agenda, and should progress through the points in the agenda at a reasonable speed. No bull-sessions of rambling tangential discussion that take an hour (for something that could be done in ten minutes). If someone starts rambling on about a tangential issue, the meeting chair needs to interject and remind participants that people's time is valuable, and get the discussion back on track.

  • 22
    +1 for avoiding long rambling meetings. Academic meetings have too many people (are sometimes compulsory for people who have nothing to do with the points under discussion), are too long even according to the official schedule, and on top of this go overtime (nobody is willing to shut up the head of school or other senior professors). Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 0:42
  • See also: Bikeshedding. Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 10:58
  • 3
    +1 for reasonable suggestions that aren't just "leave them alone". A (voluntary) mentoring system especially seems good in a field where the expectation tends toward self-sufficiency.
    – mbrig
    Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 17:35
  • I liked all of your answer except "Allocate time to skill-sharing (and count this as part of teaching load)" which I think could indirectly create tensions in the department.
    – Virgo
    Commented Oct 4, 2018 at 0:39

For a professional, more important than a raise (they won't admit obviously) is the resources/tools to do a good job. Invest in things that will make them more productive, find the chores and try to minimize them. Example of chores that would make people happy if removed/reduced:

  1. long chain of approvals for simple requests
  2. slow computers
  3. too hot or too cold rooms
  4. outside noise
  5. printers not working / replacement of toner taking too long
  6. etc.

In short, everything that is not really important should not take time or interfere with what is important, so one of the more important jobs of a HoD is to remove the stones in the path of who is working.

  • 11
    Closely twinned with making sure the printers work consistently: making sure that all seminar-room projectors really are reliably plug-and-play.
    – E.P.
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 17:14
  • 5
    This. How much effort goes into getting to (and staying in) regions of space/time (incl. locally available tooling, your internal state, …) where you can actually get stuff done? How much can go into actual work? Minimize/maximize. Factors include path length*cost (also: waiting is moving!), # of place changes (how disconnected are the regions?), cost of staying there (i.e. moving through time w/o leaving the region). The worst sinks are hard to see (it's "just how things are"/"…have always been"), nix them for ridiculous savings. (And beware: greedy strategies get stuck in local optima.)
    – nobody
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 22:13

First, they won't always be happy, so don't set your expectations at that level. My suggestions will be simple.

Listen to them. Always. Assume that they know their own needs. Taking one or two of them out to lunch is a good way to learn things that concern them.

Advocate for them with the administration when necessary. This is most important in lean times when they occur and when conflicts arise.

Help them find the necessary resources to do their jobs well. This doesn't mean just money. Sometimes it is bringing in guests, for example. It might involve clerical or TA support. Lots of small things that add up.

Make it possible for them to visit other institutions to meet colleagues and give talks.

Make sure that your faculty evaluation system is sensible and fair. Make it possible for every member to succeed, mostly on their own terms, taking institutional needs into account. Not everyone needs to be the same.

Make sure that student complaints against faculty are handled in a sensible and fair (to everyone) manner.

If you have a bit of money available, consider setting up a fund to support faculty directed student research. If it goes anywhere, consider releasing faculty from courses to direct such research. That depends on a bit of scale, of course.

Find a place for a table and a coffee/tea pot where people can just talk. Best if it has a whiteboard adjacent to it. Make it accessible.

Help them stay healthy. Encourage some activity if they are too tied to their desks. Almost anything will do, even just walking. There are probably athletic facilities available to them.

Keep necessary meetings short. Distribute needed materials beforehand when possible.

  • 2
    +1 for keeping meetings short. Also, do not hold unnecessary meetings, do not make attendance compulsory, especially for those who do not need to be there. Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 0:44
  • 1
    My favoured answer. This is clearly an experienced lecturer talking.
    – Paul
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 11:03

Socially inactive does not mean unhappy. If the department has already obtained

No politics or "serious personal issues" among members.

Then you are doing pretty well. If the green light is to spend money on social activities, you do not want to rock the boat. Would your faculty want you to be the ultimate decider or would they want a committee. I would probably suggest handing off the responsibility, but only if you can find one or two faculty members who would take the lead.

  • 7
    "would they want a committee" - if there were no politics beforehand, this will surely introduce them. Party planning committees are rarely drama free, in any workplace... Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 13:06
  • "No politics"? Half of what you do in academia is some sort of politics...
    – einpoklum
    Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 17:50

The most important thing a HoD had do is to stand as a firewall between the faculty/school administration and the academics. Fight their fights for them, preferably without them even knowing you are having to do it. Don't act as the administrations mouth piece in the department.

Provide good admin support - everyone moans about how much is spent on bad admin, but good admin is a god-send.

Don't be mean with peoples request. You don't need to buy everyone a shiney new computer, but if someone comes to you and says they can't do their work because their PC is too old, get them a new one. It costs very little compared to the budgets of most departments.

As for social events: I agree with others - ask people what they want. One idea that I think works well is we have a 20 minute "Cake morning" one a month, where the HoD buys everyone cake, and reads a list of achievements of everyone in the dept. Its quick, cheap and entirely optional, and we get to feel good about what we do.

  • 1
    Personally, I would go with the free cake offer, but if I had to sit through listening to "a list of achievements of everyone in the dept" I'll pass on the cake offer and do some work instead. And if attendance is compulsory, expect me to find some legitimate way to be off-site every time this happens!
    – alephzero
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 21:46
  • 1
    It's not compulsory, that would definitely be counter productive. However personally I found it worth 5 minutes of my time to congratulate colleagues when they get a paper or a grant, or a student when they pass their viva. Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 6:41

Buy a really good coffee machine. From my experience, lots of academics run on caffeine. Buying a good machine will help them in their work. Bonus: put it in a "coffee area" with nice chairs and a view, and allocate someone (maybe a rota, maybe someone whose workload is light in the admin office, maybe yourself!) to clean the macj=hine and make a big pot of coffee at 11 every day. Tell everyone this will happen and invite them to come to the coffee area at 11, drink a brew, and chat or read papers, or even have a journal club if people are too shy to chat socially. Meeting peers once a week to discuss new papers helps everyone get to know each other as well as keep abreast of the latest research in other areas.


Being a faculty member myself, I feel there are a few things that I would love to see from my HOD. Those things are: 1. Have 1:1 conversation sessions. Ask them about the problems they are facing, discuss the solutions which could be implemented & show compassion. 2. Appreciate them for their achievements. 3. Listen to them and facilitate them as much as possible.

Practice these and your faculty will be happy :)


Have means of recognising (and sharing) good practice, and saying "thank you". This. This. And more this. The basis of this suggestion is outside of academia and is consistently the single thing (well, two things) that come up frequently across a range of work environments.

As a specific example of reward and recognition, it can be something simple like small postcards with a department-specific design on one side and space to write a "thank you" or recognition of success/hard-work message on the reverse.

If a copy (photo/scan/email) is also CC'd to that person's manager then it is all the more appreciated. Said manager can then (optionally) collate them together and share success/thank-yous more widely. This element comes with the caveat of needing to be extremely careful to NOT turn it into a competition - instead it must truly (and sincerely) be a celebration of success/gratitude.

The importance of such notes being hand-written cannot be understated here either. In the age of instant communication to vast audiences at the click of a button, knowing that somebody has taken the time to physically write a note is all the more meaningful and much more likely to be retained - either due to sentimental value, or as CPD/PDR fodder.

Other, more involved, examples which require more substantial/permanent working-practice changes can include buddying/mentoring schemes and skill-share workshops and similar forums to share best practice but Ben's answer deals with those effectively enough.

Finally, please do not "force" social interactions as a means of "improving happiness". Forced social interactions and particular events are great when they work well and there is significant buy-in, but can easily (accidentally) alienate those who either have no personal interest in or distaste of the activity (e.g. games sessions, meals at the pub, evening activities).

  • I think the crux of this answer is helpful, but it doesn't seem to take into account that the faculty don't really have a manager, except maybe the chair who is asking this question. And I am not sure if such notes would have a place in a "permanent file," although perhaps they can be used as memory aides to help write T&P materials.
    – Dawn
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 16:50

There are a lot of good answers here, so I won't rehash their points, just add one: Maintaining good mental health is a key factor to people's happiness, and this is best addressed on the day-to-day level. There are a few small everyday things people can do to keep things at a good level, like taking regular breaks, interacting socially, and having a good work-life balance.

The sort of social interaction I'm referring to doesn't mean holding social events, it just means giving people the opportunity to interact with others in a non-work context. Humans are naturally social creatures so we need to have regular social contact to maintain good mental health. Something small every day is far better than something big a few times a year. This can be as simple as having a break room where people can eat their lunch or have coffee together in comfort, and just sit and chat with people while doing so. Furnish it with a microwave, fridge, coffee/tea facilities and some couches or similar, and situate it away from work areas if possible, that way noise from one doesn't disturb the other. Perhaps bring in a packet of sweet biscuits or muffins every now and then for afternoon tea, at least until people get into the habit of taking a tea break at that time of day. By encouraging people to regularly use it for their breaks you will increase social interaction, improve workplace relationships, and help ensure people get enough breaks into their day. When people take small but regular breaks it both breaks up the monotony of the day, and also improves concentration. Work smarter, not harder. Academics are notorious for working through lunch breaks, and just eating their lunch at their desk, so encouraging a healthier alternative will be beneficial for everyone.

Encourage people to have clearly distinguished work time vs play time. Little things like answering emails outside of work hours blurs the lines and prevents them from 'switching off' in their down time, and leads to elevated levels of stress.

Discourage unhealthy workplace attitudes that suggest working unreasonably long hours, or being too busy to take proper breaks, or not getting enough sleep, or working in the evenings or weekends or during holidays, is somehow 'normal', or 'just part of the job', or a mark of success.

Encourage people to set realistic goals and timelines, and learn how to say no.

That's all I can think of for now. There's probably lots of other good options though, so for further reading I suggest you look into subjects such as mental health and well-being in the workplace, and general tips to improve work-life balance and stress.

  • 1
    Why the downvote? These are good suggestions.
    – Terrabits
    Commented Oct 4, 2018 at 23:05

A small suggestion picking up on the social activity side:

Instead of thinking about whole-group social activities, facilitate gatherings in relevant smaller groups that allow people to spend time with people they need/want to interact with to be more productive in their work. For example, my current (maths) department has a weekly lunch for women-and-non-binary-people; we bring our own lunch, but coffee and cake are provided.


A working definition of happiness is lacking. It could be anything between a child-like thrill and a profound harmony with the universal history and expanse. Further, the experience of happiness might be intermittent, ephemeral, variable, patchy, and still rewarding in the face of its elusiveness.

For inspiration, ask the staff what they lack, assess if you can provide them with it within reason; ask them what they have too much of, and assess if you can relieve it. For such assessments you may refer to people having a science-based take on happiness such as https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/. This Greater Good Science Center at UC Barkley even offers MOOCs on this topic like The Science of Happiness at Work, hosted by edX.


In addition to your approach, adopt the principle: Best Toilets Ever

Ensure that it is your staff that have the best bathrooms - comfortably more than fit for a VIP.

You will honor them by doing so.

Seriously, go all out. Create a shining example, a stark contrast to all others. Ruthlessly pursue an immaculate and luxurious bathroom experience for your staff.

At a low level, you will be indicating to them that they are thought of, catered for, their presence is recognized and respected. They are appreciable and desired and you care...

Soft classical music coupled with velvety-soft quilted toilet tissue? Aloe vera infused a step too far? Not for your staff.

An abundance of sanitary products, vases of fresh flowers, paintings of scenic landscapes awash with warm colors.

Plasma screen with NFL at the urinals. Heated toilet seats. A framed photo of Tyrion Lannister holding a crossbow in one of the cubicles.

Whatever your actual approach will be towards faculty happiness, pampering them in this one area is sure to enhance results.

  • 3
    +1 excellent answer. I might add green-tea-scented candles, an authentic Persian rug (100% silk), rose petals sprinkled everywhere. Some of my best breakthrough ideas come while pooping 💩.
    – user93132
    Commented Oct 6, 2018 at 1:04
  • This is s nice idea, but a HoD in a department would rarely have any control over university infrastructure, even in the building housing their department. If the toilets are badly designed, or have bad amenities, it is unlikely that HoD will have much power to change that. Toilet re-furb would usually be a larger infrastructure issue for the central administration of the university.
    – Ben
    Commented Oct 19, 2019 at 12:39

Increase all of their salaries 💸

Free donuts on Monday mornings 🍩

Pizza Fridays 🍕

Ice cream socials 🍦

Subsidized housing, if possible 🏡

  • 12
    I agree. The best way to make them happier: give them more money and less work. Now all you have to do is convince the upper administration of that. Unfortunately, this type of forum is not kind to joke answers.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Sep 29, 2018 at 21:09
  • 1
    If I can do all these, I will do them for myself first and then resign from HoD. I can do the donuts thing.
    – seteropere
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 5:44
  • 1
    Absolutely correct... but upper administration is, I'd wager, looking for ways to trick people into being happier at very low cost. Certificates, plaques, sandwiches, a few glasses of wine... Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 23:50
  • 3
    Flagging this as NAA since it is not an honest attempt to answer the question.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 6:27
  • 1
    I think double the salary is not possible. Donuts, pizza and ice cream are easy to do, will make them much happier? I doubt it. Some universities in Asia do provide subsidized housing. Otherwise, given the high housing price there, nobody would go there. I don't think it's common in Western world. Would you consider editing your answer? I am going to skip the review of Low Quality Post for now.
    – Nobody
    Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 7:30

In psychology, metrics about psychological states like happiness are seldom assessed as a single question. The reason is that people's response to a simple question like "Are you happy?" is greatly influenced by many factors that might be unrelated to the particular goals of the person asking the question. So a survey might ask a variety of questions and then "happiness" is a composite of the answers from eight of the twenty questions.

How do you define happiness and how is current department behavior unhappy? How will you measure success, or report success to administration?

You can also look at the task as an attempt to correct problems or as an opportunity to augment things that are already good. So why would anyone ever work in your department?

  • I find this comes across as a rant more than a practical answer, maybe take another look at it?
    – Rowan
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 12:22
  • Rowan, thank you for your comment. Is it any better? Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 14:38
  • @TimothyEbert Your language is better now, but you still haven't addressed the question. Remember that the OP is a senior academic, so is able to see the ambiguity in their language themselves, but the terminology is communicating the point sufficiently for a significant number of people here, judged by upvotes on other answers.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 14:48
  • The top voted answer is basically "ask them". If the senior academic needs to be reminded of this simple approach are you sure they will understand the inherent problems? The easiest solution is to accept the funds, and declare victory. The burden of proof is up to others. However a person who goes this route might not ask this sort of question. Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 16:42

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