School health in action:
Staff wellness top 10
"It is our sincere intent to make the wellness of our staff a top priority."
These are the words of Kurt Sacher, Superintendent for Chinook's Edge School Division (CESD). For more than five years, his school authority has led the charge on staff health and wellness, creating a culture of health for all employees and empowering them to care for themselves and each other.
With sharp focus, CESD leaders have made staff health and wellness a way of life at schools across the Division. They've encouraged everyone to join them in creating a culture of caring, where all staff feel validated and supported in the work they do for students.
Let's take a look at ten key strategies that inspired this system-level shift.
1. Create a staff health and wellness steering committee
The Division has a dedicated committee to oversee staff health and wellness strategic planning, implementation, and evaluation. Its membership is inclusive and diverse, with representatives from all employee groups, senior leadership, and external partners. Committee members have a common vision for staff health and wellness: to educate, encourage, engage, embed, and empower.
2. Designate a staff health and wellness lead
CESD employs a dedicated Staff Health and Wellness Coordinator to lead efforts across the Division and support the work of the staff health and wellness steering committee. The Coordinator facilitates professional development sessions on mental health and other wellness topics, tailored for each unique audience. She also provides one-on-one counselling support for employees.
3. Harness the power of champions
All CESD schools have an official staff health and wellness champion or team—people who are passionate and enthusiastic about healthy schools and workplaces, and keen to lead activities at their school. Three times a year, champions come together for meetings hosted by the Division. They take part in facilitated discussions, share ideas and resources, and collaborate on action plans. These meetings are highly valued by CESD leaders—it's common to see superintendents offering words of welcome, leading activities, and sharing wisdom.
4. Create a digital presence
CESD has an internal webpage to promote, celebrate, and validate the role of staff health and wellness champions. It features staff health and wellness champion profiles, short stories of what motivates and inspires champions, with examples of what they're doing to make a difference in their schools. These profiles support communication, idea-sharing, and resource-sharing between champions, and between champions and other staff. The internal webpage also offers mental health information, resources, and a list of local mental health services.
5. Promote employee benefit programs
Staff health and wellness champions take a lead role in sharing information about CESD employee benefit programs and employee and family assistance programs. They use standard presentation slides, key messages, videos, and experiential learning activities to help staff at each school understand what's available and how to access it.
6. Build relationships with key partners
CESD works closely with trusted partners in workplace wellness, especially those with a focus on the education sector. The Division's staff wellness partners include Alberta Health Services, the Alberta School Employee Benefit Plan, the Alberta Teachers' Association, and other school authorities across the province. Over the years, partners have leveraged resources, guided evidence-based practices, and supported innovation.
7. Focus on social emotional wellbeing
CESD knows that social emotional skills matter for adults, just like they do for kids. The Division's student services team offers a range of supports to help staff understand and address social emotional wellness at school, including a Social Emotional Framework and Collaborative Response Model. Their approach equips staff to confidently respond to the social emotional needs of their students, while also building their own social emotional competence.
8. Encourage unplugging
Weekdays 'til 6 is CESD's shared philosophy to send non-emergency emails and texts before 6:00 p.m. on weekdays. It's not a policy, but an Division-wide approach to honor personal time and support healthy work-life balance. As a widely respected practice, it sets the tone for staff to disconnect from electronic communications each evening, and to focus on priorities like rest, family, fitness, and free time.
9. Create a culture of listening
CESD leaders strive to really listen to staff about their experiences, ideas, and perspectives on what it means to stay well at school. The Division hosts matters committees to purposefully learn from different employee groups about how they're doing, and the priorities or gaps they're noticing. These committees provide important communication pathways between CESD leaders and different staff groups. They make it easier for staff to raise their voices, and for leaders to listen, respond, and report back.
10. Shift culture norms
CESD leaders promote a focus on staff health and wellness at every meeting held across the Division. They suggest making staff health and wellness a standing agenda item, ensuring time and space for conversations. They also talk openly about their own mental wellness. By sharing their experiences and vulnerabilities, they demonstrate that talking about mental health can be a normal part of life at school.
Above all, higher-level support from CESD system leaders and decision-makers is transformative. Their unwavering support for staff health and wellness sets the tone across the Division and gets everyone thinking about schools as healthy workplaces. Higher-level support is an essential condition for school health, and a game-changer when it comes to shifting culture across a school authority.
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