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July 01, 2007  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Enhancing Driver Health & Wellness

Wellness programs at school transportation departments signify a holistic approach to employee health, taking not only fitness and good nutrition into consideration, but also stress reduction and morale.

by Claire Atkinson, Assistant Editor


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Miami-Dade (Fla.) school bus drivers learn stress management techniques during a session hosted by the district's Parent Academy.

Miami-Dade (Fla.) school bus drivers learn stress management techniques during a session hosted by the district's Parent Academy.

Transportation directors point to high stress levels and weight control when asked about the top health concerns involved with being a bus driver. Many are addressing these issues, as well as working to create a more cohesive and supportive workplace, by developing wellness programs.

Such programs take many forms, from scheduling a lineup of informational seminars to allowing use of on-site gym facilities to forming a walking group, Weight Watchers club or informal sports team.

Unique health concerns
Physical fitness is particularly important for bus drivers in order to manage a bus evacuation or to assist children with special needs.

"We have a strong interest in making sure our workforce is capable enough to handle those manual dexterity kinds of things," says David L. Pace, director of transportation services for Virginia Beach (Va.) City Public Schools. "So we've implemented wellness programs that target those kind of issues — gaining strength, reducing weight and making drivers more agile."

Fitness may be neglected sometimes because these types of emergencies or needs for assistance don’t arise all that often for some drivers, and because it is difficult for people to integrate extra activity into their already busy work days.

Tim Purvis, transportation director at Poway (Calif.) Unified School District, points out that drivers are asked to perform the more rigorous physical activities of their job at less than optimal times of day. "I can track my worker's comp issues to being greater in the morning — when the body is tight — than in the afternoon," he says. "You're doing some of the most physical aspects of your job at that time in the morning, stooping and bending to pre-trip your bus, tying down wheelchairs if you're a special-ed driver, etc. That takes its toll on the body, month after month, year after year."

Additionally, the busy daily schedule sets up bad habits. "They rush in, in the middle of the day, they run for the snack machine," Purvis says. "It's just habit that sets in with all of us."

Stress is one of the more inscrutable obstacles to health, as it is difficult to measure and comes from a complex web of sources, especially in the workplace. Randy Mazie, director at the John Schee Transportation Center for Miami-Dade County (Fla.) Public Schools, says bus drivers face a great deal of stress on the road. "You find most of the drivers out there are rushing around and want to beat out or pass a school bus," he says. "So the bus drivers are constantly in conflict with themselves between driving safely, watching out for the next guy and controlling their own emotions. We’re all human, and they're doing the best that they can to not let the other person get the best of them."

Solutions may vary
The John Schee Transportation Center is one out of eight such centers for Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Because the district it serves is so large, Mazie says his department has been able to take advantage of school board resources to provide health programs for drivers.

One such resource is the district's Parent Academy, which offers workshops and special programs for parents and has begun reaching out to provide similar services for the district's faculty and staff. A recent workshop for bus drivers covered stress management and included a high-pressure, stress-inducing game.

"People talked about it — in fact, they still are," Mazie says. "It gave everyone the opportunity to talk about competition and how they deal with stress." The academy hosted the workshop in an off-site facility, giving drivers the opportunity to bond in a relaxed, non-work atmosphere while learning about sources of stress and how to relieve it.

At Virginia Beach City Public Schools, the wellness program is offered to all employees through the district's health and wellness department, which provides an extensive list of activities and programs, Pace says. The district also hosts a Wellness Day each year during which faculty and staff can participate in health screenings, a health fair, softball games and other activities.

Events and programs are publicized in a newsletter, and activities are low-cost or free to participants, so generally they get good attendance, Pace reports. "It doesn't take anything but their time, and they can reap a lot of benefits from it," he says.

Poway Unified School District provides its 130 drivers with personalized health resources that focus on the issues of weight loss and stress reduction. All drivers are eligible for benefits under the district's health plan, and Purvis says they receive notification of upcoming programs via e-mail or district mail or at their home addresses.

Poway also has a health and wellness office, and it works with the school district's health insurance provider to deliver programs and services that focus on health.

Among its benefits, the insurance company will provide employees access to personalized telephone sessions with weight-management or tobacco-cessation experts, customized meal plans and exercise routines, online health tools and trackers, and discounts on orders from health product retailers and gym memberships.

The insurer also provides speakers to present seminars during district-wide professional growth days or for the transportation department's monthly in-service for school bus drivers.

To complete Poway's holistic approach to employee health, the district has established a confidential Employee Assistance hotline to help staff access benefits to address mental health, family, marital or other sensitive issues.

Measurable benefits
Many employers are recognizing the economic and social value of workplace wellness programs. Not only do they reduce health insurance claims and sick days, but employees are happier and tend to feel more connected to their coworkers through participation in group activities. "You build on moral support from your peers," Purvis says.

"We have really taken a proactive approach to this," Pace says. "The more we can keep a healthy workforce, the more we can keep those [health insurance] premiums down that we have to pay in the future. It's been a win-win situation."

"I think there's an appreciation when a department steps up to the plate and provides programs like this," Mazie says. "I think overall it does help morale, but I think it's that we're providing them with services they might not have access to otherwise."

Available resources
Federal funding is available to help school districts establish health programs, according to Purvis. At Poway, the wellness program was developed using both district financial backing and a grant acquired through the school's wellness office from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That partnership strengthens the program's success, Purvis says.

"What I like about this and what I would say to other districts, small or large, is it's a coordinated effort, district-wide, that is living from year to year," he says. "In other words, it doesn't die its natural death when interest falls."

 


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