The Resurgence of the Chief Wellness Officer

As the health and wellness of clinicians and healthcare staffs have suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, industry leaders have renewed calls for organizations to implement more thorough, progressive initiatives to support employee and physician well-being. One clear solution is the Chief Wellness Officer, an executive whose primary responsibility is to champion better conditions for physicians, nurses and employees in general. In the interview below, Linda Komnick, managing partner and practice leader, Physician Integration and Leadership, shares her thoughts on how the role is evolving and how organizations can best recruit these essential executives.

What’s behind the continued rise in health systems (and many other organizations) hiring Chief Wellness Officers and similar titles?

Komnick: There’s a real sense that clinicians and staff across the healthcare industry are exhausted, overly stressed and flat out tired. Statistics back this up – approximately half of all physicians and nurses are experiencing burnout. They’re losing sight of what inspired them to enter healthcare in the first place, such as a desire to make a difference is people’s lives. This results in staff leaving the field, lower patient experience metrics, and so forth. There is less joy in the workplace.

The need for CWOs was being discussed long before COVID-19. In 2017, the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) launched the Action Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being and Resilience, which issued recommendations for the creation of wellness officer roles in healthcare systems. Other leading organizations such as the AAMC and AMA have taken similar stances. In 2019, the Harvard Global Health Institute called for the appointment of an executive-level CWO at every major health care organization. COVID-19 only reinforces the need to effectively mitigate the factors contributing to healthcare provider burnout, as leaders from NAM and the ACGME articulated in 2020.

The Chief Wellness Officer is not a cure-all, but it can be a person who helps address perhaps the most critical issue in healthcare today – the health and wellness of physicians, nurses and other staff.

How is the Chief Wellness Officer role evolving, particularly in light of the pandemic?

Komnick: Despite the warnings of NAM and other organizations, the role of a Chief Wellness Officer wasn’t high on organizations’ priority lists prior to the pandemic, and therefore it wasn’t something they felt they had the resources to afford. That has changed. It is a resource priority now and executives – in healthcare and across other industries – see the connection between wellness, patient outcomes and an organization’s bottom line.

In addition, the concept of health and wellness has blossomed. Wellness within organizations used to mean a few classes here and there, plus maybe a health and wellness facility. The depth of these programs and the opportunities for staff and providers alike have been greatly enhanced. Ultimately, Chief Wellness Officers focus on creating a cultural transformation in the workplace through, for example, revised organizational strategies and addressing critical talent shortages at executive, professional and staff levels.

What types of physicians are hired as today’s Chief Wellness Officers? What kind of background is essential for the position?

Komnick: We see a range of physicians – from psychiatrists to family medicine practitioners – who come into the role, as well as nursing leaders on occasion. There isn’t one pipeline for CWOs because the position is new and evolving. Many CWOs rise organically from within their organizations because they have shown a passion for their colleagues’ wellness and workforce-related issues.

What is the typical reporting structure around the CWO role?

Komnick: It differs depending on the organization. Typically the position will report up to either the CHRO or Chief Medical Officer, though in some instances it will report up to the CEO. All of these models can be effective depending on the priorities of the position.

What’s the key for organizations to successfully recruit top candidates for a CWO?

Komnick: The conditions have to be right in the organization to meaningfully support the wellness officer and their responsibilities. You have to be able to show candidates that you have allocated the resources for the position to be successful, that it has authority (such as reporting directly to the CEO) and support from senior leadership.

Innovation is also critical. Candidates want to know that they’re coming into an organization that is at the forefront of health and wellness and wants to continue to transform its culture.

What’s the key to embedding wellness into the culture of an organization?

Komnick: This speaks to the innovation that I mentioned above. Some progressive ideas include embedding health and resiliency concepts into all staff training, conducting regular risk assessments of clinicians and staff, and of course creating a CWO position within an office of well-being. There have to be resources behind efforts and all initiatives must be sustained over time to be successful.