Leading by Example – How School Employees Can Create a Culture of Wellness

teachers eating lunch

When students see educators choose healthy foods and promoting active lifestyles, they are more likely to participate in similar health-promoting behaviors. These behaviors don’t have to be extreme to make a big impact. For example, staff can walk or bike to school, lead physical activity breaks, visit the school salad bar, drink water, and eat healthy options in the cafeteria. According to Thriving Schools, a Kaiser Permanente school wellness effort, one effective strategy to improve student health is to create strong staff wellness programs. Implementing successful employee wellness initiatives can reduce stress, boost morale, and create a healthier population overall. It’s no secret that students look to teachers as role models. 

One of the most important steps to create successful wellness programs is to create high engagement and participation.  To assist schools in creating effective wellness programs, Kaiser Permanente developed a webinar series – highlighting best practices and featuring national experts.

Kaiser Permanente’s Tips for developing a successful employee wellness plan include: 

Conduct an interest survey/health assessment to understand what’s most important.     

  • When creating your survey, consider the scale of your audience. Is it the school? The entire district? The population you are trying to reach may affect your approach or focus areas.
  • Make sure you can offer or follow through on the topics you ask about, at least to some extent. For example, while it may not be plausible to install a state-of-the-art employee fitness center on school premises, simply starting a lunchtime walking club could be an effective solution for staff members looking to be more physically active throughout the day.

Determine what health issues matter to employees. 

  • By utilizing staff feedback and addressing what’s most important to them, you create an environment that is positive, encouraging, and validating. When employees or colleagues feel like their voices are heard, they will be more committed, enthusiastic, and willing to participate.

Keep it simple. 

  • Although dramatic, long-term goals are exciting to think about, it’s important to start small and celebrate “mini victories” one step at a time. For example, early goals could include:
    • “By December 2015, gather interest data on at least 20% of school employee population”     
    • “By June 2016, communicate existing wellness offerings to all employees at least four times”

          It’s important to remember that goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, and timely.

Use the information to develop a plan.  

  • Decide how you will engage staff members in the program. It is extremely helpful to have school leaders who are supportive of the anticipated changes; their endorsement can be instrumental in successful implementation. You can also form a wellness committee for interested staff members and appoint those who are most passionate as wellness “champions.” 
  • Once you develop your wellness team, utilize their passion and the multitude of free online resources available to you to create a plan that works for your community. The School Wellness Champion Start Up Kit features step-by-step guidelines to help you:
    • Start a walking group
    • Start a salad club with co-workers
    • Create moments in the workday to pause for appreciation
    • Lead a short exercise break
    • Transform unused space into a break room
    • Pass a resolution to support healthy food at your union meetings

By taking these steps, adults assume the leading role to foster a culture of health where healthier behaviors are not only talked about but practiced. This culture will increase the likelihood of being adopted by students, parents and the greater community at large. (Prev Chronic Dis 2015;12:150020. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5888/pcd12.150020)


Nicholas Drzal, RD, MPH, Michigan Department of Education

Heather Hodson, Cornell University