MEDICINE HAT PUBLIC School Division (MHPSD) is a medium-sized public-school jurisdiction in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Serving 850+ employees and 7,000 students, the division delivers inclusive education to 18 schools, all within the city limits. It is the division’s belief that fostering a culture of wellness will lead to increased staff engagement and positive student outcomes. In 2017, MHPSD Superintendent Mark Davidson requested that a wellness committee be created to support this work. Executive leadership and the Board of Trustees adopted “fostering a culture of wellness” as one of four universal division goals. Superintendent Mark Davidson explains:
“Our system has been very intentional in our focus on wellness as one of four ‘universal’ system goals. This decision flows from our understanding that all who form our learning community come to school, work, or their family relationships with individual needs in terms of health. Mental health has, for too long, been treated as if it was something to avoid discussing, or to be ashamed of. We, at Medicine Hat Public School Division, understand that proactive action to support the health of our community creates safer and healthier learning environments for all.”
Human Resources and Student Services collaborated to create the Be Well, Employee Wellness Program. Initially, the work was siloed into “staff” and “student” categories with assigned champions for each. Wellness Champions were assigned to staff wellbeing and Health Champions were assigned to student wellbeing. An employee engagement survey was sent out to all staff and received 416 responses, about a 50 percent response rate. The survey indicated that most respondents (71 percent) were not aware of any supports or resources offered by the division to assist in their health and wellbeing, and the majority (73 percent) had experienced significant work-related negative stress at some point in the previous six months. Just over half (55 percent) of respondents rated their wellbeing as “good” or “great” and ten percent identified as significantly struggling. When asked what employees would like to see as a support or resource from their employer, the top answers received were on-site or division-sponsored yoga and fitness classes, mindfulness and meditation resources, healthy sleep supports, and on-site influenza vaccination clinics.
The Be Well, Employee Wellness Committee created four pillars for the 2018–2019 school year with these categories as the focus. Wellness Champions were assigned an initiative to promote throughout a designated time frame during that school year (e.g. on-site influenza clinics were held September to November). In October 2018, I started with the division as the Health and Wellness Manager, Human Resources. As a registered nurse with a background in disability management and passion for positive health outcomes, I brought a different perspective to wellbeing in K–12 education. My role as the Health and Wellness Manager is to oversee the division’s employee wellness, disability management, and attendance support programs.
The division recognized that wellness was much more than yoga and meditation, though these can be important factors in maintaining personal wellness. Equally, if not more, important was identifying the cause of absenteeism and addressing how the division could support staff when they were unwell. As the Chair of the employee wellness committee, I support schools with connections to community resources, small amounts of designated wellness funding, and division-wide communications to promote initiatives. In addition to the wellness work, one of my first deliverables as the Health and Wellness Manager was the creation and implementation of an Attendance Support Program and Disability Management Program. The goal of these programs is to help employees who require accommodation(s) at work and to create sustainable plans for those who have high amounts of casual sick leave. Absenteeism for medical-related leaves had steadily risen between 2015 and 2018, with the number of workdays missed increasing by 52 percent in that time. Directly associated with that were rising financial costs to the division and increased workload for those remaining at work.
Disability Management is a proactive workplace process that allows employers to support employees with physical and mental health issues while they are at work; or, if they require a leave of absence, it also promotes an employee’s early and safe return to work, with a primary focus on minimizing the impact of injuries or illnesses on employees, employers, and society as a whole. The division recognized that, regardless of the cause of an employee illness or injury, facilitating a supportive and early return to work was essential for employees to sustain their working relationship and continue to provide quality, consistent services to students and families. In the first year of implementing these programs, the division saw an eight-and-a-half percent reduction in medical–related leaves, and numerous other employees received accommodations and supports, such as reduced work hours or a temporary change in work duties, to maintain their wellbeing and sustain regular employment. The 2019–2020 school year saw additional challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic; however, MHPSD staff demonstrated high levels of resilience, and absenteeism levels decreased by another ten percent including COVID-19 related leaves. Data from 2020–2022 is skewed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and cannot be considered reliable.
In May 2019, a follow-up employee engagement survey received 325 responses, about a 40 percent response rate. In this survey, 68 percent of respondents indicated they knew of the supports and resources available to them through the division; however, many expressed they were less familiar with the proactive health solutions available, such as nutritional coaching or stress management through the Employee and Family Assistance Program. The results also showed a 38 percent increase in the culture of wellness across the division; 87 percent of respondents felt the division placed a high value on wellness, compared to 63 percent in 2017.
However, when asked about feelings of negative stress, 37 percent of respondents stated they had missed work at least once in the previous 12 months due to work-related stress, and 48 percent of respondents stated they experienced stress or burnout to a point where they had considered quitting their job. The top–cited reasons for this were job demands and student behaviours, followed by struggles with work-life balance.
I met with the Associate Superintendent of Student Services, Tracy Hensel, and together we reviewed both the quantitative and qualitative data. We identified student behaviour as an indicator of staff wellness (and vice versa). Similarly, staff requests for professional development and training to assist in managing diverse and complex needs, also showed a relationship between staff wellness and student behaviours. It was a bit like the chicken or egg debate – what came first? Were student behaviour issues a cause or contributor to decreased staff wellness, or was decreased staff wellness a cause or contributor to student behaviour issues? Regardless, there is a direct relationship between employee wellness and student wellness. It was evident that the “one-size-fits-all” wellness committee approach was not working, and that the system could not separate “employee wellness” from “student wellness.”
The focus, we decided, should be on Comprehensive School Health; an internationally recognized framework to support the whole school community including staff, students, and families (Alberta Health Services, 2023), and individualized health and wellness planning for each school (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Comprehensive School Health Framework
Alberta Health Services. (2023). Process for building healthy school communities using the components of Comprehensive School Health. Government of Alberta.
Comprehensive School Health Teams (CHST) have been created at every work site. These teams consist of:
- a Health Champion (student focus)
- a Wellness Champion (staff focus)
- an Administrator or delegate
- a Family School Liaison Worker (Registered Social Workers in our system who help families navigate and connect to community supports)
- Success Coaches (employees provided through a partnership with Alberta Health Services to promote mental health capacity building)
- any other staff who wanted to join or who administrators identified were a necessary part of the team (school counsellors, educational assistants, etc.).
Teams meet every six weeks with discussions focused on their school-specific needs, and ideas or initiatives to promote health and wellbeing for all. Some of the initiatives align with division events such as anti-bullying awareness, mental health week, or Pride month, however, many initiatives are a direct response to themes or trends being noticed in the schools. These include such topics as staff connection and recognition ideas, student leadership and belonging initiatives, or connecting parent councils with school leaders or community professionals to discuss topics brought forth by families such as social media use, youth mental health, and nutrition. Administrators record and send their meeting minutes to the Health and Wellness Manager, and I review them to identify any additional resources or supports that could be offered from the division level.
In 2022, I partnered with a local School Health Promotion Facilitator from Alberta Health Services. Together we arranged meetings with each Comprehensive School Health Team to complete the Canadian Healthy School Standards (Canadian Healthy Schools Alliance, 2021) survey and obtain baseline school data. Executive leadership also attended these meetings to show support for this work. During these survey sessions, it was evident that every school had their own needs, cultures, and values, and the survey sparked excellent conversation between stakeholders. Once completed, survey results showed that 76 percent of MHPSD schools are “Mastering” the Healthy School Standards, 12 percent are “Accomplishing” and another 12 percent are “Developing.” Overall, Comprehensive School Health Teams felt that strong community partnerships are in place, staff are engaged in being wellness leaders, individual schools feel they have autonomy to make decisions pertinent to them, and all stakeholders understand the importance of a whole-school approach.
The process also identified areas for growth. These were:
- utilizing students as change makers
- providing more time for formal school wellness planning
- allowing staff further autonomy to choose the professional development learning opportunities they wish to engage in.
Looking forward, all schools will complete the Healthy School Standards survey each spring as part of their Comprehensive School Health planning. The division has also committed to review and implement a formal Psychological Health and Safety plan, with Executive Leadership, Comprehensive School Health Teams, and the Joint Health and Safety Committee being key stakeholders in pursuing this work.
MHPSD has intentionally invested time, human resources, and funding to foster a culture of wellness for all of its members. The creation of Comprehensive School Health Teams, onboarding of a Health and Wellness Manager, implementation of programs to address wellness, and collaborative partnerships with community groups are just a few ways in which they have chosen to support their wellness goal.
“Medicine Hat Public School Division is proud of the efforts we have made, and will continue to make, in support of the health of our learning community. While it is hard to disaggregate the impact of this work from all of the other steps we have taken, we are convinced that our efforts have had a positive impact on staff efficacy and student learning.” – Superintendent Mark Davidson, MHPSD
Fostering a culture of wellness requires more than creating a single wellness committee or providing staff with a wellness PD Day; it is a culmination of efforts from all stakeholders to create a safe and inclusive environment and to tackle the hard and uncomfortable tasks head on. The division’s wellness plan is fluid and constantly evolving to meet the needs of its communities. It is unknown what tomorrow will bring, but MHPSD will continue to be all-in to support the wellbeing of their staff, students, and community members.
*This is part of Well at Work’s Stories of Success Webinar Series, which profiles the many ways that school districts across Canada are fostering workplace wellbeing.
Alberta Health Services. (2022). The CSH framework. Government of Alberta. https://schools.healthiertogether.ca/en/learn/the-csh-framework
Canadian Healthy Schools Alliance. (2021). Canadian Healthy School Standards.
First published in Education Canada, September 2023