Across U.S., Schools Hope for Healthy, Happy Employees
Wellness programs are by no means a phenomenon exclusive to the health-conscious West Coast. Like the public schools in Monterey County, Calif., districts nationwide are supplementing their employees' salaries with health benefits that cover everything from chiropractic to nicotine patches.
School health experts estimate that 20 percent of the nation's school systems--rich and poor--are promoting healthful lifestyles for employees, whether through on-site workout facilities, nutrition classes, stress-management workshops, or injury-prevention seminars. Most districts enlist employees to help choose which services are provided. Some have documented cost savings, but many wellness efforts have limited life spans, cut short by budgetary pressures.
Following is a sampling of what districts offer:
- A popular employee benefit in one school in the 23,600-student Jefferson County district in Louisville, Ky., has been the "stress room.'' On occasion, a room is outfitted with candles, relaxing music, and a masseur who gives neck rubs, says Pam Whitlock, a health-promotion assistant for the district. The school system also sponsors a plethora of sports leagues, including volleyball, bowling, and golf. Employees also can take part in a summer institute with presenters on mental health.
- In the West Des Moines, Iowa, community district, staff members can attend free on-site exercise classes after work, take nutrition courses, and get blood pressure screenings. The district's annual stress-management workshop is also popular. One recent, two-hour "creative anger management'' class taught employees how to identify and rid themselves of rage in personal and professional relationships. "Most people are amazed at how much anger they have in their daily life, and these are techniques on how to manage it,'' says Stephanie Downs, the wellness supervisor for the 8,000-student district. While there's no overall assessment yet of the financial benefits of the wellness program, which cost the district $65,000 this year, "our school board realizes the benefits of the program,'' Downs says.
- In Grand Junction, Colo., one school is planning to add a new challenge to employees' usual walking regimen. Three hundred students and 55 staff members at Columbine Elementary School recently participated in a "heart walk,'' says Allen Russell, a teacher at the school. But next year, there will be a jump-rope team that lets teachers, custodians, cafeteria workers, and secretaries step lively after school. Russell says the staff's level of commitment to students is helped by the fact that the employees are fit. "People regularly do aerobics and ski, and it makes a tremendous difference in how we relate to the kids,'' he says.
- In Windsor, N.Y., administrators have instituted some low-cost wellness activities. In the five-school district, teachers, custodians, cafeteria workers, and students have been "walking to California.'' They don't literally trek across the United States, but they do march around the town, calculating the mileage it would take to reach the West Coast. The district is encouraging employees to be aerobically fit, says Oliver Blaise, the Windor schools superintendent, who says some schools also have weight rooms for employees. "If we had bags of money, we'd send them off to a spa. But that is antithetical to public policy,'' Blaise says. The district is also considering an employee-assistance program to help staff members overcome depression and drug and alcohol problems. In society in general, "we are willing to fix a truck to keep it going,'' Blaise says, "but there's still hesitancy to investing in a person who is having a rough time.''
- In the Vista school district in north San Diego County, Calif., school leaders have put a special emphasis on fitness and weight loss. On a volunteer basis, staff members pay $25 at the beginning of the school year to undergo a series of health assessments and receive a general statement on their physical well-being. During the year, the district holds seminars on how to lose weight and offers discounted health-club memberships. Employees who are considered to be chronically obese are offered weight counseling, according to Pete McHugh, the district's associate superintendent. At the end of the year, the participants have another physical, which tells them if they've made measurable progress in reducing their weight, lowering their blood pressure, or increasing their exercise regimen. If they take the test, they get their $25 back. --JESSICA PORTNER
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