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The Chief Well-Being Officer: The C-Suite’s New Culture Warrior

May 11, 2021 Leadership
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By Sarah Fister Gale

If your company is concerned about the well-being of employees, it might be time to make room in your C-suite. 

Over the past few years, large organizations, including SAP and Deloitte along with universities and healthcare companies, have added chief well-being officers (CWOs) to their upper level ranks. As leaders grapple with the negative affects of COVID-19 on company culture and productivity, many others are wondering if a CWO could help them get back to normal. 

Well-Being Is Key to a High Performing Workforce

Prior to the pandemic, well-being wasn’t on a lot of executives’ radars, and even now there is skepticism, said Dr. Amit Sood, executive director and CEO at The Global Center for Resiliency and Well-being. “When we talk about stress or depression in the workforce, a lot of senior leaders still want to say ‘Buck up. We lived through hard times and we’re fine. You will be too.’”

But they are missing the point. Well-being is not about coddling employees. Rather, it's about enabling them to be more productive, engaged and innovative. “Stress and anxiety correlate to poor financial outcomes and higher rates of turnover and burnout,” Sood said. In other words, neglect well-being and business results suffer.

One study published by JAMA found that US workers with depression cost employers an estimated $44 billion per year in lost productivity time. And that study was conducted before the pandemic began. It’s likely that those numbers soared in 2020. Business leaders who want to reverse the trend need to pay attention to the well-being of their people.

“If you want to foster a culture of resiliency, well-being has to be part of that process,” Sood said. Hiring a CWO could be the way to achieve that goal. 

Related Article: How to Make Employee Mental Health a Priority

Look for a Health Leader With Business Experience

Since there are few CWOs in the marketplace today, companies who want to hire one will need to come up with their own job profile and expectations, said Steven MacGregor, founder of the Leadership Academy of Barcelona, and author of the book "Chief Well-being Officer & Sustaining Executive Performance."

He suggested looking for candidates with business experience and behavioral health training and who demonstrate a ‘servant leadership’ approach to business.

“You want someone who knows how to build people up, and who has a record of taking different jobs and functions,” MacGregor said. Because it’s a “hub role” in the organization, they need to be able to speak the language of the business and easily engage with leaders, managers and front line workers alike. 

Related Article: Employee Mental Health Rises to the Top of the Workforce Agenda

Tie Well-Being to Business Outcomes

Once on board, the CWO’s job should focus on creating a culture where people feel included, respected and supported so that they can deliver their best performance. The key is tying the CWO’s efforts to measurable business outcomes. MacGregor likens it to making the best use of financial assets.

“The CWO looks after human performance the same way a CFO looks after financial performance,” he said.

What that means specifically for each organization will depend on the cultural issues they face, said Brad Bongiovanni, well-being strategist and head of medical affairs and strategy for Med-IQ, a Baltimore, Md.-based provider of health education.

For some companies, the role is about creating a culture that will attract young workers who prefer companies that are making a positive social impact. For others, it might be tackling systemic bias and a culture that makes some employees feel disrespected, or managers who expect employees to be on 24/7.

Bongiovanni noted that many of the CWO’s tasks will overlap with the head of HR, chief learning officer or chief diversity officer, though they aren’t the same role. “The CWO should be responsible for the culture of the organization, and liaise with the C-suite to promote accountability for that culture change,” he said. 

To ensure the CWO’s efforts align with business, he recommended companies begin by linking well-being goals with the company’s 5-year strategic plan and identify what employees need to meet those business objectives. Whether they want to increase revenues, expand into new markets, develop new products or hire new talent, there is always a human component.

“Taking care of your human capital as part of the strategic plan makes good business sense," Bongiovanni said.

Related Article: One Year After the Pandemic, Our Workplaces Are at a Crossroads

Not for Everyone

A chief well-being officer can be a solution for companies struggling with culture issues or pandemic-related stress and anxiety. But not every company needs a CWO, at least not yet.

“There is a real danger of 'greenwashing' with this role,” MacGregor say. “A lot of people tack the title on to other titles as a way to signal that they care about their culture.” 

But the reality is, unless leaders acknowledge that well-being is tied to business performance and are willing to empower a CWO to make changes that reflect that belief, the role won’t add value to the business.

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