The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to poorer health conditions and more stressful working conditions among school staff—both of which are linked to staff absenteeism, higher turnover, and lower productivity. Because these challenges can take a significant financial toll, schools and districts may incur substantial costs if adverse working conditions and school employee wellness continue to be overlooked. Comprehensive supports to promote staff wellness and create supportive working environments—e.g., by balancing staff wellness efforts against the demands of daily work—can reduce teacher burnout and improve retention. Such investments can deliver staffing-related savings, bolster school finances, and improve schoolwide well-being.
While the widespread fear that the pandemic would lead to a mass attrition of classroom teachers after the 2020-2021 school year has yet to materialize, pre-existing teacher shortages—coupled with the sharp increase in teachers considering leaving their position during the pandemic—continue to be worrisome. Teacher turnover and shortages can contribute to increased financial human resource costs and a reduction in the quality of education, both of which adversely impact academic outcomes. Schools pay a high cost to replace school staff, and especially to replace classroom teachers. These costs include direct and indirect personnel costs related to recruitment, hiring, and training. Estimates of the cost to hire a new teacher range from $9,000 per teacher for rural districts to $21,000 for urban districts.
Pre-pandemic, the cost of teacher absenteeism was already high, at an estimated $4 billion per year nationally. Currently, school districts across the country are dealing with a shortage of substitute teachers, school bus drivers, and food service staff. Unlike in some workplaces, the responsibilities of most school staff—including bus drivers and food service staff—cannot be postponed when they call out sick. Particularly in the case of custodial staff and school nurses (and, in some schools, administrative staff who have taken on health care roles in the absence of school nurses), absenteeism poses serious barriers to the public health precautions that schools take to prevent the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19.
Implementing employee wellness efforts can save schools money through improvements to staff well-being, thereby reducing attrition and absenteeism. For example, one evaluation of a workplace health promotion program targeting health status in a moderate-sized school district estimated that, for every dollar spent on staff wellness programming, the district saved approximately $15.60. Other studies suggest that investing in the promotion of positive work experiences and establishing supportive workplace policies can reduce attrition and save districts money. Participation in employee wellness programs was associated with estimated medical and absenteeism cost reductions of $2 to $6 for every $1 spent on wellness programs. Another evaluation of a teacher mentoring program found that, for every dollar invested in the program, a city/state would see a return of $2.43.
The value of promoting staff wellness will, in practice, likely be greater than the estimated financial returns noted above. Students indirectly benefit from staff wellness, and these benefits are not fully captured in most cost-benefit analyses. School staff who demonstrate healthy behaviors can influence students to adopt similar healthy behaviors. Conversely, poor health conditions among school staff can negatively affect students’ academic outcomes and stress levels. The health of staff not only benefits schools by leading to higher staff productivity levels and lower absenteeism, but also by improving the conditions in which students learn and interact with school staff. In other words, healthier school staff likely leads to healthier students, and the benefits of employee wellness initiatives can spread throughout the whole school.
Given the potential return on investment from employee wellness initiatives—and as districts leverage federal pandemic recovery funds—state and local leaders should encourage comprehensive approaches to wellness that balance improvements to staff wellness against the personal and workplace demands that school employees experience.
This product is supported by cooperative agreement NU87PS004367-01-01 funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the oﬃcial views or endorsement of the CDC or the Department of Health and Human Services.
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