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Field Trip: Employee Wellness Programs in K-12
Five years ago, Dr. Andy Koenigs was tasked with employee recruitment and retention at Emporia Public Schools in Kansas. Borrowing a strategy from the business world, he and his team launched an employee wellness program. Here’s how — and the impact it had on engagement, absences and district finances.
In our interview, Dr. Koenigs, the Associate Superintendent for Human Resources, talks to us about:
- The grassroots effort that got the ball rolling
- Details about their program, what it looks like and incentives for participation
- How they leveraged the program to get a $50,000 grant from their health insurance company
- A 30% drop in employee absences due to personal or family illness after beginning the wellness program
- What other K-12 leaders who are considering similar initiatives can learn from Emporia’s program
ANDY KOENIGS: Employee wellness is probably one of the fastest-growing benefits offered by companies, but I think schools have been lagging behind in offering those kinds of benefits. If you don’t invest in your people, they’re going to leave.
Welcome to Field Trip, the podcast for leaders in K12. Each episode, we bring you a story from a school system somewhere in the U.S. We talk with a school or district leader who is solving a particular problem in an interesting way, finding ways to innovate in their job, doing something amazing around data-driven decision-making, or just seeing fantastic results.
ANDY KOENIGS: We saw some return on investment. We did some end-of-the-year results and asked them how they felt about the program. We saw a 30% reduction in absenteeism due to personal illness.
And then, we ask them for the takeaway: what have they learned that could be useful to their colleagues in other places? From Frontline Education, this is Field Trip.
Well, we’re here today with Dr. Andy Koenigs, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources at Derby Public Schools in Kansas, but today we’re speaking with him about a program he instituted when he was in that same position at Emporia Public Schools, also in Kansas. Thank you for being with us today, Andy.
ANDY KOENIGS: Well, I’m glad to be here. Thanks for the opportunity.
Let’s go back to the beginning, we’re talking today about an employee wellness program that you began at Emporia Public Schools, why did you start with that initiative? Did you see a particular need there?
ANDY KOENIGS: We did. Really, when I arrived at Emporia about five years ago, the charge that was given to me as the Associate Superintendent for Human Resources was retention and recruitment. Emporia is a middle sized school district in the middle of east central Kansas. It’s not an easy place to recruit people, and so we started looking at, “What are some ways that we could engage employees, let people know that we care about them as employees?” And it kept coming back to things that really related well to a comprehensive wellness program, which Emporia, at the time, really had no such staff employee wellness programs. We did a lot for students but really we had nothing in place for staff and their well-being.
One of the other things that we were trying to look at, we had struggled in our district with some health insurance cost increases, so we were looking at, “What are some ways that we could at least decrease our healthcare costs, or at least manage them a little bit better?” And we were beginning to look at healthcare companies that were encouraging wellness with their employees. We know that a lot of businesses and corporations were doing employee wellness initiatives, but school districts, for the most part, we found that very few that had taken up this initiatives with employees, and it intrigued us to see if it actually would decrease our healthcare costs as well.
You’ve also sent some statistics to me from the American Journal of Health Promotion and, for the sake of our listeners, we’re looking at, in corporate America at the time, the study showed that there was an average return on investment of $3.48 for every dollar spent on healthcare costs. If you look at absenteeism, a return on investment of $5.82 for every dollar spent on healthcare costs. It sounds like it really made financial sense.
ANDY KOENIGS: It did. It’s hard sometimes to convince school leaders that spending money on employee wellness is worth the money, but when we showed them some of these numbers and the return on investment, I think what we felt like as if we had happier, healthier employees that were at work more often, had less sickness and illness, that it would really pay benefits.
Can you describe the wellness program at Emporia? What did it look like?
ANDY KOENIGS: Well, in the first stages of this, it was a very much a grassroots effort. We started with a committee of folks who were interested, mostly teachers, some classified folks, as well as bus drivers and food service personnel — people who wanted to get together to see if they could create this wellness program.
This committee met most of the year, looked at other programs, looked at other wellness programs. We couldn’t find very many in school districts so it was an interesting year. We had to look at mostly corporate America, but then we began asking ourselves, “What do our employees want in their own wellness program?” We did a comprehensive survey with all staff and said, “If we start wellness program, what should be the components? Would you participate? What would you find beneficial? What are some of those offerings that you would like to see?” We gathered that and we had a great response, and from that we developed an employee wellness program that really hit on health. It hit on physical activity, it hit on healthy eating habits. And then finally we got to some points of mental health. It’s not just our physical health, but our well-being, maybe even financial fitness and meditation.
So employees really wanted a well-rounded program, and so that’s what we try to work on and develop. We spent all that summer trying to make a program that matched the needs assessment that we did.
I believe you set up incentives for meeting certain requirements, incentives like what?
ANDY KOENIGS: Well, it was funny because most of the research that we did, employee wellness programs that they found energized their employees and engaged them were those that provided incentives for employees to participate. They were not mandatory, they were not “you will participate,” but they encouraged participation. So we decided to set up a three level set of incentives for employees. There was level one, two and three, and they had increasing levels of requirements.
What we really tried to do that first year was just gather data. In level one, it really was, “Will you agree to do a biometric screening if we pay for it, and will you agree to go online and complete a health risk assessment?” Those two pieces were vital for us to begin collecting data on our employees’ overall health. Of course, individual data, we would not collect and we weren’t going to get, but we were going to get group aggregate data.
Then, the final piece was, we wanted them to go to health fairs, we wanted to educate them. So our first level of incentive was very simple, you do those three things, and you’ll start out with something as simple as a T-shirt and a water bottle. After that, levels two and three, there were financial incentives, and they weren’t large — we were a school district, so we didn’t have a lot of money, of course, but we had some financial incentives in place. We also encouraged them with things like Fitbits, like fitness bands and devices.
The one thing that really turned out to be popular though, and it was in level two and in level three I believe, was what we called a wellness day. They could convert one of their personal days into a wellness day, so they actually were able to add some time off because they had met the requirements. That turned out to be very popular with our employees.
What were some of the benefits that you saw? What results did this wellness program yield?
ANDY KOENIGS: From the very beginning, when we rolled this out in the fall of 2015, at the very first back-to-school assembly, we had that committee have a sign-up table at our back-to-school assembly where all 1,000 employees showed up. We had no idea how many people would come sign up for this brand-new program. We had pretty good response to the survey, but we really had no idea. We were truly blown away when we had over 560 people sign up for the wellness program and said, “Hey, I agree to participate.” They got a quick little silicon band that said, “Yes, I’m a participant,” and then throughout the year we were just amazed and pleased with the number of people who participated in our challenges, who met those certain levels, those requirements. We had some benchmarks along the way for them to meet.
So in the end, out of the 567 employees who registered, 320 completed level one incentives, 230 completed level two, and we had 190 employees that completed every requirement of the program, which gave them certain incentives. But more than that, we saw some return on investments. We did some end of the year results and asked them how they felt about the program, but to me, one of the biggest things was, we saw a 30% reduction in absenteeism due to personal illness. It was very encouraging.
We had some success stories from employees that had lost 20 pounds, we had people that had gone off their blood pressure medication, people who had lowered their cholesterol, people who really felt they had lowered their levels of stress, we had some reports … I think our highest weight loss was 60 pounds. It was just incredible, some of the success stories. They were very open to share their success stories with us at the end of the year results. 63% exercised more regularly as a result of the program, 49% said they changed their eating habits. I was one of the big ones on the push for healthy eating, I taught a healthy eating class, it was full every month that we offered it, and 31% reported losing weight. We felt really good about those first two results.
You mentioned at the beginning of this interview that one of the reasons why you instituted this was for retention purposes. Did you hear from employees about how they felt about the program and whether it had an impact on their job satisfaction?
ANDY KOENIGS: Absolutely. What we asked them was the satisfaction rate on the program, and we received very high marks for the employee wellness program, but the other thing … What we heard was that they felt like we valued them as an employee, that we cared enough to care about their health, that we offered such a program.
The other thing that I thought came about from this, which was pretty amazing was, the district initially gave us $20,000 to roll out this new program, we easily spent the $20,000 on the incentives the first year. But because we were so successful the first year, actually, our health insurance company gave us a $50,000 grant the next year. For us, that was a true mark of success that we’ve found something that was successful. When employees found out that the health insurance had kicked in $50,000 for that year, I think they felt like, “Absolutely, we deserve this.” They felt really good about that.
Our retention rate numbers, we really only in it for two years, it was hard to track that, but we did see about a 2% reduction in turnover after year two.
It sounds like this was a significant success story, but did you hit any roadblocks as you were trying to get this rolling? What challenges did you face in starting the program?
ANDY KOENIGS: This was a do-it-yourself program and with that comes a lot of hard work and elbow grease, and if it had not been for our committee, who was amazing, and our wellness coordinator, Heather, and then another intern from the University, who I think by divine intervention showed up on our doorsteps the year that it started, those two folks really communicated out what the program was, what the requirements were. We communicated, communicated, communicated. I just don’t think you can over-communicate a new program. Sometimes we felt we were repeating ourselves, but that first year we really did have to explicitly continue to remind folks, “Here are the requirements, here’s what you need to do.” I think you need to have a lot of people in place, you need to have enough resources and support to do that, and some dedicated folks.
The other thing was that we had a rep from every building, and if we did not have a rep from each building, I’m not sure it would’ve been as successful, because they were the cheerleaders in each of those buildings to get employees excited about the program, let them know what’s going on for the month. I think that’s one of the keys to making that successful. You’ve just got to find people. We did beat the bushes to try to make sure we had a rep from every single building in our district. Those are the things of just finding those kinds of folks.
The last thing is just really coming up with the money to support this because, honestly, that first year, the response was so successful — we overspent our $20,000 budget, so we maybe underestimated the response. So making sure you have enough support financially to meet the demands.
To me, the last thing, and this is just something I’ve been very adamant about, that you should never mandate a wellness program. It should always be voluntary. If people feel forced to comply, I just don’t think their hearts are in it. We want to encourage and incentivize them to participate, but I would never require or even give a penalty for those that don’t. That just puts a bad taste in the organization’s mouth about what employee wellness is. I think we did encourage, encourage, encourage. It was just as successful in year two, and they have been doing wonderful things this year from what I understand in year three.
What gave you the idea to start a wellness program at Emporia? How did you spread that idea to get buy-in both from the administration as well as from the teachers and staff?
ANDY KOENIGS: Well, besides the recruitment and retention piece, I, myself, am a little bit of a wellness nut, and I think when I got to Emporia, I think some of my healthy eating habits and then just some of my lifestyle of trying to stay healthy and fit, some of the employees even in my own department said, “Wow, you take this very seriously.” So modeling good healthy habits and what I would call work-life balance. I think sometimes in education, it is very stressful, and for me, personally, just having some good balance in life and finding some time to exercise, to reduce that stress, to be more effective at work.
And so what was funny was the word spread that “Andy is a little bit on a health kick,” and so after about year three we talked about, “How can we encourage this with other employees? What are some things we could do?”
Really, it was just a group of us who thought maybe we need to look more into spreading this out amongst the entire district, and we thought that is a way that might energize and engage some employees and help reduce their stress.
We found an interesting article, it was from Gallup, that teachers’ jobs are the second most stressful profession in the world behind medical professionals like nurses and doctors. That really was startling to us. When we looked at our employees and asked them about their levels of stress in the assessment, it was true. Many of them felt stressed. So we felt this was one way to address that.
Corporate wellness programs are very common, we see them in a lot of companies, but we’re only just starting to see them get traction in K12. Why do you think many districts haven’t yet taken this step of implementing an employee wellness program of their own?
ANDY KOENIGS: I do not know. Frankly, that’s a little bit of a head scratcher for me. To me, it made sense since it is a stressful profession, but I think it goes back to [the fact that] schools don’t see themselves as businesses. Corporate America has provided employee wellness programs for actually quite a while, at least the last 10 years it’s been very popular. But I think schools have been lagging behind in offering those kinds of benefits, one, because it costs a little bit of money and, two, it requires someone to manage that, and staffing is usually at a premium in schools. We usually spend that on classroom teachers. But I really feel like, if we look at that return on investment, if you don’t invest in your people, they’re going to leave. If you don’t let people know that you care about them, they’re going to leave. Turnover and the teacher shortage right now, I think one of those solutions, it’s not the only solution, one of those solutions is to look at what are we doing for their physical and mental health?
Since you mentioned cost, I want to ask, when funding is tight where can school districts find the budget to create a program like this?
ANDY KOENIGS: Well, the first year we had to come up with the money ourselves. It took a lot of talking from me to convince our leadership and our highest level leaders that this investment is going to be worth it. If we look at the cost of turnover, this $20,000, which was our initial investment, would probably be more than made up with if we could save a few dollars on turnover. I think finding $20,000 in a million or couple million dollar budget is not that hard if you make it a priority. It’s always just a matter of priorities.
I do think there are some grants out there, and we did tap into a few mini grants that actually help support this. We even went out to the community and asked if they would help sponsor the Fitbits and we did. We received several large donations from companies in town and some of our benefits partners that helped support the Fitbits the first year. So we did run the program a little bit on a tight budget.
But then in year two, it was us reaching out to the health insurance companies, and what we did with that, and maybe we leveraged our wellness program with the health insurance companies, we decided to bid out our health insurance. When we bid that out with the RFP at a request for proposal, we said any proposal back must include a wellness stipend, and so we basically said, “Don’t bid on our insurance unless you’re willing to help support our wellness initiative.” So we used that as leverage. In the end, we came up with a company that was willing to support us for $50,000. We weren’t sure how much we were going to get, we were stunned with the $50,000 grant that we received from our health insurance company.
Do you find that supporting staff wellness also helps you support student well-being as well?
ANDY KOENIGS: Absolutely. It was so nice to see the tie-in and that the students noticed employees doing employee wellness. We purposely, when we would go award Fitbits … As soon as someone would earn a Fitbit, we would actually surprise them in their classroom and do that in front of the students and let the students know why that teacher had earned their Fitbit. And they were always so glad to get it, so we made it a big deal. It was like Publishers Clearinghouse. We go around and surprise employees when they would earn certain things. So we did publicize it. It was big beginning to be fairly big news in the community too, and then we started having employers asking how they could be a part of this.
I do believe at the end of year two, this was right after I had left Emporia to come to Derby, but they ended up by giving away what I would call some new grand prizes, and I think employers in town really came through with about four or five large prizes that they gave away in a grand prize drawing that they did in front of the entire employee group at their back-to-school this fall.
Earlier you mentioned that this program led to a reduction in absenteeism, in teacher absenteeism, can you talk a little bit more about that?
ANDY KOENIGS: We can look at absenteeism rates, and employees put in their own absences but they also have to put a reason, and so what we were able to tease out of that information was what were our absenteeism rates overall, and those were down. Our total absenteeism rates were down 16%. We could look at what our absentee rate was due to medical appointments, those were down 22%, and then absences due to personal illness or family illness were down 30%, so we really felt like we had healthier employees.
We also looked at our health risk assessment, both the first year and the second year, and we did see some improvements in our overall numbers about numbers of employees that were at high risk for serious medical conditions, our numbers as a group improved through the health risk assessment. Even our blood sugar levels as a group went down. Overall, we felt we moved the needle on a couple areas that were really important to us.
The wellness program included a push to encourage healthy eating, and drinking more water — aimed at reducing dependence on caffeine and sugary drinks. And that had an effect on teachers and students, too. They even began getting requests for water bottle fillers at the drinking fountains in their school buildings.
ANDY KOENIGS: We began to see, because teachers were carrying around water bottles, students began bringing water bottles to school and filling them up themselves. That was a nice benefit that we saw that students were modeling some of the things that the teachers were doing.
Andy said that the wellness program also helped with recruiting efforts at Emporia Public Schools. And the district added it as one of the Top 10 reasons to work there.
ANDY KOENIGS: I think it does ring a bell with millennials, I believe it resonates with them, they want programs like that. Most of them are very health conscious. They have found that that has been one of the selling points, because it is an added benefit, and honestly, since Emporia is one of the few districts that does an employee wellness program, they can set themselves apart from other districts.
What I find surprising, and we have found this through who participated, we were not surprised that the new teachers, the younger teachers wanted to participate in wellness. But the big surprise was probably those teachers that were most near retirement. They were probably our second-most engaged group and the most participants. We just scratched our heads about that at first, but then we really looked at it, those are employees that are beginning to have health concerns and health problems, they’re beginning to have problems maybe with blood sugars, they may be beginning to have problems with obesity, they may not be exercising as much. I think we saw much more participation by those that I would call the baby boomers, the nearing retirement group. It did make sense that those folks were the ones that were probably the most concerned about their health as they were getting ready to retire.
What advice would you have for people working in school systems across the country who might be thinking, “That sounds great. I’d love to start something like that in my district.” Where should they begin?
ANDY KOENIGS: The first step is to research other programs, see what you like, spend the time, take your time to look at all the options and then decide what fits best in your context. To me, what makes it go, though, is you have to truly believe, model, and be enthusiastic about the program yourself. You have to be the head cheerleader for the program, because if you are not visibly the leader or supporter of it, I just don’t think the employees feel that your heart’s going to be in it.
I think our entire employee wellness committee really did believe strongly in the program, and that really helped sell it to everybody else. So you have to be enthusiastic for them to get fired up about it as well. That would be my advice.
Dr. Andy Koenigs is Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources at Derby Public Schools in Kansas, and he’s been talking to us about the wellness program that he spearheaded when he was at Emporia Public Schools. Dr. Koenigs, thank you for speaking with us today.
ANDY KOENIGS: Well, it was a pleasure talking to you. I love always talking about wellness, and this was a great opportunity so thank you.
Did you enjoy this story? Was it helpful or give you food for thought? If so, don’t forget to subscribe to Field Trip. We release new stories every two weeks. You can find us on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, or anywhere else you get your podcasts. For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening.