– Dr Martin Combrinck.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, teachers and school employees have remained acutely focused on supporting their students and continuing to do their jobs at this time. In some cases, this may mean teaching, care-taking (whether for children or other loved ones), and continuing to work through the same challenges that anyone else is.

While resources related to mental health have been (rightfully) front and center for supporting students, parents, and others, less focus has been paid on maintaining the mental health of the educators who are also trying to find balance in the new way of living and remote teaching. It is important that teachers take the time to prioritise their own mental health and wellbeing, for their benefit and that of the whole school community. Mental health and wellbeing activities for teachers should be ongoing and holistic.

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.

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.

Individuals who work in schools have average health risks and healthcare costs – this fact alone is an excellent reason to offer school wellness programs. Recent surveys show the various reasons why employees are absent from work. It shows that, 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.

Based on the published scientific research here are 7 reasons why school wellness programs are a very smart business strategy:

1.            Absenteeism costs schools more than it costs other worksites
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.

2.            Schools need to watch their finances more closely than other worksites
Most schools are very conservative with their accounting and budgeting processes. Unlike worksites, schools don’t heavily invest in untested or high risk projects. 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 educational province might have many employees, 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. 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. 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 and may have fitness facilities, gymnasiums, sport courts, outdoor and indoor tracks, exercise equipment, etc.

5.            School-based wellness programs have great leadership
School wellness programs for staff and faculty are successful when support for the program starts from the top. Every worksite has HR professionals, benefits committees, and its board. But schools have even more support for wellness. Schools have physical education teachers, nutrition experts, nurses, health educators, and food service experts.

These individuals should be part of a schools wellness committee. In short, schools have the leadership and content expertise they need to create and administer great school wellness programs.

6.            School wellness starts with employees but grows to include students
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.

7.            Published research proves that school wellness programs can work

There are numerous published research articles showing the impact of a well-designed and maintained school wellness program like WellSteps. When done right, a wellness program can improve healthy behaviours, reduce elevated health risks, dramatically control healthcare costs, and improve productivity. After 12 and 24 months, dramatic improvements can be 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.

What does an effective school-based well-being program look like?
WellSteps is a worksite wellness solution that incorporates innovative, research-based wellness programs into your workplace. WellSteps works with all employers large and small and the programs helps employees adopt and maintain healthy behaviours. This lowers health risks and reduces health care costs. They are the only wellness vendor with published science to prove their worksite wellness solutions work.

WellSteps is an award-wining wellness program and the leading provider of evidence-based, employee wellness solutions. This online wellness program is exclusively licensed in South Africa by Dr Martin Combrinck, the CEO of WellSteps in SA.

The successes of the WellSteps wellness program in schools and/or universities include the following:

1.            Personal health assessment (PHA): Before participating in the program, employees complete a self-reported Personal Health Assessment (PHA), after which they received individualised electronic feedback. Aggregate data is used in program design and evaluation and is collected every year.
2.            Behaviour change campaigns: Evidence-based campaigns help employees change behaviour. The different campaigns are tailored to the needs of the school and/or university.
3.            Incentives and rewards: This is an incentive management platform. Employees earn points and progress towards the benefit-based incentive when they complete program requirements such as the PHA, biometric screening, or campaign completion. The Rewards incentive platform automatically tracks, reports, and updates each employee’s incentive progress.
4.            My tracker: Regardless of the wearable device an employee may have, My Tracker automatically syncs all wearable devices and displays activity data in each employee’s dashboard. My Tracker also automatically uploads wearable data to the Rewards incentive platform. School employees who have wearable devices can automatically get credit for being active.
5.            Biometric Screening: Every year each employee completes a biometric screening. This could be done onsite or by any employee’s primary care provider. Use the app to image and upload the screening form. This is helpful in disease management.
6.            Screening Reminder: Using age and gender data from the PHA, each employee received emails and text messages reminding them to get their age and gender specific cancer screenings. Many district employees received incentive points when they completed the appropriate screenings.
7.            Wellness App: This allows employees to participate in all aspects of the WellSteps wellness program from the WellSteps mobile app.

The Way Forward Post Covid-19
How will the COVID-19 pandemic alter the future of teaching and learning? This is speculative and difficult to answer. As much as we would like the world to go back to normality, it is changing right before our eyes. We have crossed the rubicon of collective consciousness. Whether we realise it or not, there is no coming back, and that is precisely where the struggle is.

What we do know is that health and wellness is now of the outmost importance to employees and staff of schools and universities. A well designed successful wellness program like WellSteps will support help to build healthy, happy, and thriving cultures and we believe now more than ever in the impact a holistic wellness strategy can have on an organisation. We need to make the schools/universities whole again, starting with the human. It is time to prioritise the whole person and ensure we’re fulfilling their needs in all the areas of wellness.

There are ample reasons and benefits to support having a wellness program at every school. When done correctly, wellness programs give employees incentives, tools, social support, privacy, and strategies to adopt and maintain healthy behaviours. Those that do offer staff wellness programs will be rewarded with improved employee health, lower health care costs and greater work satisfaction. If the educators are healthy and well, the students will be healthy and well!

For more information, contact Dr Martin Combrinck at 072 2297 454 or www.sangawellness.com.

StellenboschNews.com reflects a diversity of views. The views in this piece are the view of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of StellenboschNews.com.