A Toolkit for School Systems to Advance Comprehensive School Employee Wellness

September 26, 2023


School system investments in employee wellness can reduce school system costs, foster positive working conditions, and improve outcomes for students. However, traditional approaches to wellness are often limited to physical and mental health and frequently focus exclusively on teachers, limiting the potential of school system investments to promote equitable and sustainable wellness for all school employees. By contrast, a comprehensive approach that centers employee voice and leverages school systems’ role in setting and enforcing policies and distributing resources has greater potential to achieve systemwide reductions in job stressors and increases in access to wellness resources for all employees, especially those with the greatest needs.

This toolkit organizes research-based information and practical tools in a user-friendly format that school systems can use to develop and implement a plan to advance the wellness of all school employees.

Defining school employee wellness

School employees encompass a diverse set of positions, including classroom teachers, paraprofessionals, principals, and school health professionals, as well as maintenance, food service, and transportation professionals. Regardless of position, school employee wellness is a multi-dimensional state of well-being that goes beyond mental and physical health to include factors such as meaningful work, a sense of belonging, positive relationships, and economic stability. At its core, employee wellness is driven by a sense of agency and empowerment: Efforts to improve wellness will be most effective when employees have a voice in deciding what happens to them at work and can access the skills and resources to act on those decisions.

Ensuring that all employees experience wellness at work

This toolkit reflects decades of research on health equity, which the CDC defines as “the state in which everyone has a fair and just opportunity to attain their highest level of health.” For many individuals, access to resources that promote well-being is unfairly restricted by systemic barriers, including systemic racism.

The CDC defines systemic racism as “the practices, policies, and laws that perpetuate racial/ethnic disparities, uphold, and privilege dominant groups, and serve to the cumulative detriment and harm of persons of color, keeping them in negative cycles of disadvantage while creating advantages for those in the dominant culture.”

Systemic barriers linked to identities include—but are not limited to—national origin, language, race, disability, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, veteran status, and family structure. This toolkit uses the term “marginalized identity” to refer to individuals whose access to wellness is limited based on one or more systemic barriers.

This toolkit often discusses equity in employee wellness alongside concepts like diversity, belonging, inclusion, and accessibility. Use the accordions below to see how this toolkit defines key terms. Most definitions are adapted from the CDC’s Health Equity Glossary, but our definition of equity is drawn from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

How to use this toolkit

This toolkit can help each school system advance school employee wellness from a different place based on their communities’ values and priorities, their past experiences, and their current capacity. The toolkit, informed by a research-based framework, supports a comprehensive, team-based approach to such efforts.

The toolkit summarizes key information on school systems’ role in promoting employee wellness, health equity, and data-driven decision making, with links to resources and tools to help planning teams develop and implement an action plan to advance wellness for all employees. Toolkit content is organized around two primary goals: build knowledge and take action.

  1. Build Knowledge introduces planning teams to a research-based framework for advancing school employee wellness. This section also highlights the unique role that school systems play in employee wellness and the need for them to focus on equity to meet the needs of the nation’s increasingly diverse school systems.
  2. Take Action outlines a research-based process that planning teams can use to apply concepts from the Build Knowledge section. This section links to practical tools to help teams at all stages of planning and implementation.

While this toolkit is built around a broadly applicable framework, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to advancing school employee wellness. Each school system has unique assets and challenges that will influence their work. For example, the amount of time teams spend engaging with the content in the Build Knowledge section will vary depending on previous experiences and current capacity. Likewise, tools in the Take Action section will be more relevant for some school systems than others. For example, some teams may use the information and tools as a roadmap while others may engage with a smaller set of tools to fill specific gaps in their capacity. Ultimately, the toolkit should be sufficiently flexible to support school systems at any stage of advancing school employee wellness.

Development of the toolkit

Development of this toolkit was funded by the CDC Division of Adolescent and School Health (CDC-DASH). An advisory group ensured that the toolkit would offer practical guidance and be relevant to the challenges and opportunities facing school systems. We are grateful to the following organizations for their invaluable contributions: American Association of School Administrators, American Public Health Association, American School Counselors Association, Alliance for a Healthier Generation, National Education Association, OEA Choice Trust, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education in the District of Columbia, and the Society for Public Health Education. An early version was reviewed by North Kingstown School Department in Rhode Island and Dickinson Independent School District in Texas, and by the Center City Public Charter School and Bridges Public Charter School in the District of Columbia.

Development of this toolkit was supported by cooperative agreement CDC-RFA-PS18-1807 with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The opinions, findings, and conclusions do not necessarily represent the views or official position of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.