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Is It Time to Start Looking for a Chief Wellness Officer?

March 2022

After nearly two years of unrelenting stress facing a devastating and often divisive pandemic, doctors, nurses and other clinicians are physically and emotionally exhausted. And they are leaving healthcare in record numbers: According to The Atlantic, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the healthcare sector has lost nearly half a million workers since February 2020. This is creating unprecedented staffing and strategy challenges for today’s healthcare leaders. No longer are traditional remuneration, retention and recruitment approaches sufficient to meet the staffing and workforce crisis facing most healthcare organizations. Many are realizing that they must face head-on the burnout crisis and treat it as a strategic imperative for staff well-being, system strategy and patient care.

An important leadership approach to this issue has emerged through the appointment of a dedicated chief wellness officer (CWO) focused on developing and executing robust programs to improve the well-being of clinicians. The CWO role is not new, but the pandemic has amplified its value. A 2020 article in Academic Medicine noted that Stanford Medicine was the first large healthcare organization to incorporate a dedicated CWO starting in 2017; over the next three years, approximately 20 academic healthcare organizations created similar positions. As COVID-19 continues to pummel the healthcare workforce with predictably rising rates of clinician burnout and exodus, more systems are now more urgently exploring the need for CWOs. To fill this role, leadership teams must be clear on its scope and mandate, the capabilities effective CWOs need, and how they can work together with a new CWO to drive real impact across their workforce.

The CWO is charged with facilitating system-wide change to enable clinicians to practice in a culture that prioritizes and promotes their ongoing well-being. In a nutshell, they are tasked with creating a healthier environment for healers to practice medicine and care for patients. To do this, CWOs focus on support and well-being of clinical staff at the individual, unit and system level — operating as a complement to, but distinct from, the HR department.

CWOs come from a range of clinical backgrounds, mostly but not exclusively physician specialties. They can be internal or external candidates, though internal candidates need to understand how different this role is than others that have existed. To attract top candidates, provider organizations must demonstrate an ongoing sustained commitment, with a direct line to the most senior executives in the organization and an opportunity to think differently in order to have tremendous impact on the clinical workforce.

CWOs are often known as cultural champions with a reputation for effective listening, recruitment, mentorship, development and retention of their teams and units. Critical capabilities for these leaders include the ability to design and lead change in partnership with system leaders and medical staff, a collaborative and flexible leadership style, and the ability to really hear what the frontline clinicians are experiencing while translating that to other leaders.

The profile of the CWO

Key responsibilities:

  • Provides strategic vision for clinician well-being programs
  • Raises awareness on the impact of professional burnout for clinicians
  • Tracks and reports outcomes related to clinician well-being
  • Develops and implements effective evidence-based individual-level, group-level and system-wide interventions
  • Engages the clinical community on developing characteristics of organizational culture and practice efficiency that will improve the culture of well-being
  • Partners with HR on matters related to clinical leadership development, workforce planning, employee engagement, succession planning and compensation

Ideal experience:

  • Direct experience improving clinician well-being in a complex healthcare setting
  • Thought leader on the healthcare clinician well-being front
  • Track record of driving culture change in response to emerging challenges in healthcare delivery
  • Proven ability to mentor, coach and develop clinicians

Leadership capabilities:

  • Leading change
  • Collaborating and influencing
  • Building teams
  • Driving results

Creating the conditions for success

Empowered CWOs serve as strategists, leaders and change agents. While a clear benefit exists at a system level for these positions given the high costs of both physician turnover and ongoing burnout (Becker's Hospital Review reports that primary care physician turnover is linked to $979 million in excess healthcare costs), quantifying the effects of wellness interventions is key – effective CWOs are agile in building the metrics and buy-in for their new roles. Moreover, they must be innovative leaders with a method and a will to design, test and spread effective interventions, while letting go quickly of unsuccessful ones.

To ensure CWOs succeed, it’s important to elevate their role into the C-Suite, invest in this role and its services for the long term, and make sure they integrate with key HR, IT and recruiting capacities on a regular basis. Garnering support from the chief medical officer, chief nursing officer and chief human resources officer is also critical. Successful CWOs are visible — this cannot be perceived as a desk job — and their efforts cascade from the executive team down to the front lines. This sends a clear signal that maintaining the health of its healing workforces is as or more important than any other most critical part of the healthcare system.

Clinician burnout preceded COVID-19 but has become a mission-critical issue for leaders because of the pandemic. To combat workforce erosions, forward-thinking healthcare organizations are building a comprehensive wellness strategy led by an empowered, accountable CWO. We anticipate the continued growth and importance of this emerging leadership position, suggesting that organizations wishing to stay on the cutting edge of clinical care provision need a healthy workforce to do so.