9 Reasons School Wellness Programs are a Smart School Strategy
Here’s a quick peek at the 9 reasons why school wellness programs are a smart wellness strategy
- Absenteeism Costs Schools More Than It Costs Other Worksites
- Schools Need to Watch Their Finances More Closely Than Other Worksites
- School Employees Are Like Family
- Schools Have Great Fitness and Healthy Eating Facilities
- Schools Do Great Wellness Training and Communication
- School-based Wellness Programs Have Great Leadership
- Wellness Takes on a Life of Its Own in Schools
- School Wellness Starts With Employees But Grows to Include Students and Communities
- Published Research Proves That School Wellness Programs Can Work
There are 3.7 million people who work in schools. Schools are the single largest employer in the United States. Even the federal government only has 2.7 million employed individuals. In many ways schools are just like any other workplace; they need access to wellness programs for many of the same reasons.
But schools, including universities, have some very special challenges and advantages that make them ideal locations to offer school wellness programs. Just like any other worksite, schools need help controlling employee health care costs and keeping employees healthy.
School employees represent an extremely diverse workforce with both ethnic and geographic diversity. You can find educators and school staff in every corner and county of the United States. Some school districts are relatively small with fewer than 50 employees while others can have tens of thousands of employees and serve over 1 million students. New York City has a school district with over 1 million students.
School employees require medical care just like any other employees and schools have to control healthcare costs. For the most part, school employees use about the same amount of healthcare as other employees. School employees also have average health risks. In the chart below we can see that the prevalence of obesity among those who work in the education system is about average.
Fortunately, those who work in education have much lower obesity prevalence than public administrators or even healthcare workers.
Individuals who work in schools have average health risks and healthcare costs – this fact alone is an excellent reason to offer school wellness programs. But there are even better reasons why schools are some of the best places to offer employee and staff wellness programs.
Based on the published scientific research and over three decades of workplace wellness experience, I have compiled a list of reasons why school wellness programs are a very smart business strategy.
9 Reasons School Wellness Programs are a Smart School Strategy
1. Absenteeism Costs Schools More Than It Costs Other Worksites
Surveys show that one in four teachers misses 10 or more school days per year. Schools have some of the highest rates of absenteeism of any workplace. Absenteeism is a direct cost to every employer.
Absenteeism is a more important problem in schools because when an employee is absent, a replacement or substitute has to be hired in their stead. Someone has to drive the buses and someone has to teach the classes.
Unlike other worksites when an employee is absent either the workload gets shared by the remaining employees or the work goes undone. But, not so in schools. Schools have to pay both the salary of the absent employee and the salary of the substitute or replacement.
The cost of having an absent employee in schools is often double the cost of absenteeism experienced in other worksites. This problem with absenteeism represents an excellent reason to have a school wellness program.
Recent surveys show the various reasons why employees are absent from work. As you can see in the graph below personal illness is the biggest single cause of employees missing work. This is followed by family needs, personal needs, entitlement mentality, and stress, in that order.
When you look at all of these reasons for absenteeism ask yourself which ones could be directly impacted by a wellness program? Personal illness can be caused by diseases or conditions that are 100% preventable with a healthy lifestyle. The same is true for the diseases and conditions of family members. Wellness programs can also reduce stress and wellness programs can greatly improve employee morale.
If you have employees who really like their work and who feel valued as a contributing employee, they will be less likely to be absent. On the flipside, employees who don’t like their work or their boss will find a reason to be absent from work. A good school wellness program can greatly reduce the entitlement mentality and thus reduce the prevalence of absenteeism.
Employee wellness for school employees has the ability to improve employee health and this can have an impact on whether or not individuals are absent from work.
2. Schools Need to Watch Their Finances More Closely Than Other Worksites
Most schools are just like other municipalities in that all of their operating money comes from taxes. Only about 10% of schools are private, and even some of those schools are funded with public tax dollars. All public schools are revenue consuming not revenue generating.
They fill a special role in society and provide vital services. Unlike other worksites, they are not in the business of making money, they are in the business of educating and expanding minds. Because schools rely entirely on public funding they do not take financial risks.
Most schools are very conservative with their accounting and budgeting processes. Unlike worksites, schools don’t heavily invest in untested or high risk projects. Unlike worksites, schools rarely face bankruptcy
Funding for schools is hard to come by. Typically the public must vote to issue school bonds or they depend upon state legislatures for continued funding. Because schools rely so heavily upon public funding they are very careful with the funds they do receive.
Careful accounting and budgeting are needed to make sure there are no disruptions in service and that they complete their mission of educating people. Schools are particularly interested in getting a positive ROI on their wellness investment. This also encourages them to only look at wellness vendors that offer a performance guarantee.
This is another reason why wellness programs in schools have such an advantage. Good school-based wellness programs can have a direct impact on employee related expenses such as lower rates of absenteeism, improved employee health and productivity, and lower medical costs.
3. School Employees Are Like Family
Even though a school district might have tens of thousands of employees, all school employees work at smaller, more manageable local schools and offices. In reality working for a school is very much like working for a small business. All of the employees know each other.
Wellness programs in small businesses have an advantage. They have greater participation and program engagement than larger companies.
Because schools are very much like small businesses, they are ideal locations for wellness programs. There is, however, a small disadvantage that is often seen in school-based wellness programs. Most schools and universities have two categories of employees faculty: professional employees and staff members. Participation in wellness programs varies between these two groups.
Typically staff is more likely to participate in a wellness program than faculty. Staff are more likely to engage in all of the programs and include their spouses or significant others.
Faculty and staff wellness programs work well because most of the employees work together on a daily basis. They are like family.
4. Schools Have Great Fitness and Healthy Eating Facilities
Traditional wellbeing programs are designed to help employees adopt and maintain healthy behaviours. If done correctly, school wellness programs can prevent chronic diseases. To do this school employees need regular physical activity, a healthy diet, and tobacco avoidance. These three healthy behaviours should be the core of most wellness programs.
Between 70 and 90% of all strokes, heart attacks, cancers, and type II diabetes are directly related to what we eat, whether or not we exercise, and whether or not we use tobacco. (see below)
It just so happens that schools already have access to a variety of facilities and tools needed to maintain a habit of regular physical activity and good nutrition. Every high school and junior high and many elementary schools have fitness facilities, gymnasiums, sport courts, outdoor and indoor tracks, exercise equipment, and weight training equipment. Even though these are used mostly by students, in most communities these facilities are also made available to school employees and sometimes the public.
Unlike most worksites, schools have ready-made fitness assets that can be used for employee wellness challenges, yoga classes, morning exercise classes, and holiday weight loss challenges.
Schools also have access to cafeterias and healthy options vending machines. Granted, it takes some work to get food services to prepare healthy meals, but in most cases it can be done. School employees often eat food from their schools.
Once the food service people are on board with your wellness program they will begin to offer many more healthy options. School wellness programs are outstanding places to create and support a health promoting environment.
If you work at a school that has a school employee wellness program, there should be lots of opportunities for physical activity and a healthy diet.
5. Schools Do Great Wellness Training and Communication
Schools are run by professional educators. These are people who make a living teaching concepts, ideas, and life skills. Students aren’t the only ones receiving an education at schools.
School well-being programs are really nothing more than educational programs geared towards health. An effective school wellness program can make wellness training and healthy living and integrated part of all the other communications that they do.
Schools with effective wellness programs almost always offer wellness related training as part of their mandatory school meetings. I have personally taken part in many mandatory school district trainings where the focus of the meeting was wellness.
This does take a commitment from district leadership, but if they’re serious about helping employees improve health and lowering employee related healthcare costs these meetings are scheduled.
Some schools will have a dedicated section of the district newsletter or online communications that focuses on current wellness topics and challenges. These are also great ways to communicate team-based competitions between different schools.
6. School-based Wellness Programs Have Great Leadership
School wellness programs for staff and faculty are successful when support for the program starts at the superintendent’s office. Every worksite has HR professionals, benefits committees, and its ministers.
But schools have even more support for wellness. Schools have physical education teachers, nutrition experts, nurses, health educators, and food service experts.
Today’s physical activity instructors are not just throwing out playground balls, they are receiving outstanding training on how to have a healthy lifestyle. Universities and colleges that train PE teachers have modified their curriculum to include wellness and lifestyle management.
They realise that physical education in schools is most effective when students form lifelong habits of fitness. The same physical education instructors should be part of every wellness committee and should be identified as school wellness champions.
When combined with the nutrition teachers, health teachers, and nurses, schools have a very strong wellness support staff.
These individuals should be part of a schools wellness committee. They have great ideas and experience on how to make a wellness program fun and effective. In short, schools have the leadership and content expertise they need to create and administer great school wellness programs.
7. Wellness Takes on a Life of Its Own in Schools
After a few months of participating in a school well-being program, school employees often start many of their own wellness activities. An effective school wellness program can create a sense of camaraderie between employees.
When combined with access to school fitness facilities and kitchens it’s almost natural for school wellness programs to start to see spontaneous wellness activities popping up at schools throughout the district.
Employees will participate in the wellness campaigns and challenges but will often want to do more. School employees have been known to organize healthy potluck lunches, before work and have to work exercise classes or walking clubs.
Some schools have special fitness classes like zumba or yoga specifically for other employees. In the summer months when school is out employees will often create hiking clubs. Obviously any employees at any worksite can put together their own health and fitness activities.
What makes schools so special is the access to fitness and nutrition facilities, close-knit working groups that are almost like family, and access to faculty and staff who are experts at exercise, fitness, unhealthy eating.
8. School Wellness Starts With Employees But Grows to Include Students and Communities
Once school employees begin to participate in school wellness programs, they start to desire to share their good health transformations with others, especially students and their communities. Students see school employees participating in wellness and start asking questions.
Teachers start to include more of the healthy living and healthy lifestyles information in their classes. Some schools have even started student-based wellness programs to complement the school wellness program that is offered to employees.
Instead of just including employees, individuals start to include others. Some schools support and promote local fun runs or races. These are shared with not just school employees but also students and members of the community. Some schools have started school-based farmers markets.
What starts as an effort within the school district to improve employee health and reduce healthcare costs transforms into a community effort to help both students and their families live healthier lives.
9. Published Research Proves That School Wellness Programs Can Work
Researchers have published a serious of research articles showing the impact of a school wellness program. There is more research published on this school wellness program at Boise school district than perhaps any other wellness program in existence. When done right, these programs can improve health behaviours, reduce elevated health risks, dramatically control healthcare costs, and improve productivity.
After 12 and 24 months, dramatic improvements were seen in those employees who had previously reported low levels of baseline exercise, fruit and vegetable consumption, days of restful sleep, and high levels of tobacco and alcohol use.
In 2016 a school wellness program was awarded the C Everett Koop award as America’s most effective wellness program through WellSteps.
Article by Dr. Steven Aldana, CEO of WellSteps.