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Trend Watch: Rise of the Chief Wellness Officer

During the pandemic, many employers stepped up their support for employee health and well-being. Now, some leading-edge organizations are taking this commitment one step further by appointing Chief Well-being Officers. It’s a trend that’s only just emerging, but we wanted to dig into what this role is, who’s on the forefront, and how organizations might benefit from having one. Read on for details…

What is a Chief Well-Being Officer?

Chief Well-being or Wellness Officers (CWOs) work with the C-suite, managers, and employees to create and maintain a culture that puts employee well-being at its center. They seek to integrate the mental/emotional, social, physical, professional and even financial well-being of employees into the larger business strategy.1 A typical CWO job description requires training and qualifications in Human Resources, well-being, and/or employee engagement.

In practice, a CWO works hand in hand with HR and senior executives to evaluate and influence all of the programs that touch employees, including: health and welfare benefits; mental health support; career progression; leadership development and mentoring; inclusion and diversity; work-life integration; and employee engagement and belonging.

The CWO role is most prominent in the health care industry where it helps to combat clinician burnout and maintain employee well-being. Stanford Medicine was the first large health care organization to implement such a role in 2017, and over the next three years about 20 academic health care organizations followed suit.2 Since the pandemic, this role has become even more important as the health care industry grapples with rising burnout and quit rates.

Why is the CWO role gaining traction? And how could it benefit organizations?

Now we’re seeing the CWO role expand to organizations beyond health care, and it’s not a huge surprise. Our experience with the pandemic and declining mental health crystallized for many employers the importance of taking care of your team and the strong link between employee well-being and job performance, engagement, and retention—all of which impact business results. This also comes at a time when well-being programs have evolved beyond helping people with just physical health.

The CWO position shines a clear spotlight on employees and backs up an organization’s corporate value proposition to care for people. And, we know that when people feel supported, like they belong, and that their employer cares about them as a person, productivity and engagement increase. People are more creative, willing to take risks (which often leads to more innovation and stronger results), and have higher levels of psychological safety when they feel connected and engaged at work. So, having a dedicated well-being senior leader could be a real game-changer – influencing everything from diversity, recruitment efforts, candidate flow, employee retention, and ultimately business results.

Which kinds of organizations have committed to a CWO role?

According to Chris Rollins, a leadership coach who works with HR leaders, the trend of the CWO role is limited at this point, but one that is likely to increase. Rollins says, “There are not a ton of chief wellness officers yet, especially at smaller companies. But the trend [of chief wellness officers] is certainly bubbling up.”3

In addition to numerous health care organizations, our research turned up three consulting companies who have made the CWO role a priority as a way of improving wellness in the workplace:

  • First appointed in 2015, Deloitte’s CWO drives strategy and innovation around work-life, health, and wellness to empower people to be well so they can perform at their best in both their professional and personal lives.4 According to their CWO, this is critical because “if we don’t support employee well-being, we are sub-optimizing people’s potential. As a professional services organization, we are solving complex problems that require our people to show up as their best selves.” She also relates that being in the C-suite makes a statement that the firm takes this issue seriously.5
  • EY named a CWO in November 2021 as they were formulating their return-to-office strategy. At that time, the firm also created a dedicated team to focus on all aspects of employee well-being. Their CWO states: “You have to view wellbeing as a business imperative, it’s not a nice-to-do…It’s actually imperative for businesses to be focused on this right now.”6
  • Aon created a CWO position in 2022 in response to the toll the pandemic had taken on employee well-being. Their goals were addressing “all aspects of wellbeing for Aon’s 50,000 employees and helping the firm’s employer clients build wellbeing programs that tend to evolving employee needs.”7 Aon uses a data-driven strategy to measure how employees are doing and feeling emotionally and then point them to the best source of help.

At this point, it’s clear only organizations who have the resources and financial capacity to dedicate a senior role to well-being are appointing CWOs. Most small- to mid-size companies will continue to roll corporate well-being efforts into HR/benefits or a well-being committee. I’m curious to see how this role evolves, though, and how it might exist alongside the somewhat overlapping functions of HR, benefits, change management, and culture work. It will certainly be key for organizations who do create this role to ensure a focused, harmonized approach and singular message to employees about well-being.

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So, while this is a trend that’s still evolving, I take it as yet another positive sign that organizations are getting serious about well-being and improving culture in the workplace—and the benefits that come from valuing each person’s unique needs and supporting them in all aspects of their lives. And, it goes without saying, having a CWO role is a strong signal to current and future employees that well-being is an organizational priority. For guidance on making well-being a priority for your employees, visit our website or contact us at connect@webmd.net.

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