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How to Foster Workplace Well-Being

Making employee mental health and well-being non-negotiable.

This Is Part One of a Three-Part Series

You would be hard-pressed to find a large organization without a chief financial officer or chief operating officer on the org chart, or a major health care system without a chief medical or chief quality officer. These executive leadership roles reflect organizational priorities that are non-negotiable.

As workplaces undergo profound shifts, accelerated by (but already underway prior to) the COVID-19 pandemic, another organizational priority is fast becoming non-negotiable: the well-being of employees. In the health care field, this organizational priority is increasingly being undertaken by the chief wellness officer (CWO) and their team. The CWO is responsible for measuring the well-being, as well as its drivers and barriers, of a given group of health care workers, disseminating the findings, and providing guidance for institutional leaders to implement changes based on the data. The goal is to optimize the work environment and enable workers to flourish.

The pandemic exposed and exacerbated mental health and well-being needs in almost every segment of society, such as families, schools, and, notably, the workplace. Nowhere were these needs more exposed than among health care workers, especially those on the front lines providing unprecedentedly stressful care during the greatest public health care crisis of our lifetimes.

Accelerating Trends Already in Motion

Even before the pandemic, health care workers were well known to experience challenges to their well-being, beginning as early as medical school. According to some estimates, more than half of clinicians reported suffering from burnout, a condition that not only affects the well-being, morale, and overall health of the workforce but also likely contributes to suboptimal care of patients. An article in the American Journal of Medicine has suggested that just as new physicians pledge the Hippocratic Oath they should also take an oath to self-care and well-being, including vows to develop habits that promote humility, balance personal and professional life, and “be attuned to the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs of the self and others.”

Four years ago, I joined a number of colleagues in writing “Making the Case for the Chief Wellness Officer in America’s Health Systems: A Call to Action” in Health Affairs on the importance of the executive leadership position and resources of the CWO office to combat physician stress and its ripple effect on patients, health care, and society. The article laid out a case for elevating employee well-being to the C-suite, establishing an executive-level position dedicated to creating systemic change so individuals can flourish. At the time, there was just a small handful of health systems with a CWO position.

We learned in the first pandemic wave that the presence of a chief wellness officer (or similar position) had a protective effect on the workforce during the crisis, which elevates our 2018 appeal for action into a clarion call. Early in the pandemic, organizations that already had a designated head of workforce well-being, such as a CWO, were able to pivot and provide support more quickly and effectively than those that didn’t. Organizations with wellness officers were already attuned to what forces and drivers influence morale or erode well-being, and were able to use or build on existing structures, data-gathering tools, and interventions to be agile and highly responsive to the crisis.

Building on Lessons Learned

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were mourning our losses and wondering when we were going to get back to our normal way of life. Now, more than two and a half years later, we know that where we are and where we are headed is not “back” at all, but forward to a new normal. One element of the current context is the society-wide “Great Resignation”—or, more accurately, the Great Reorganization. In the health care field, where we’re seeing the dramatic impact of exhaustion, unrelenting need, and staffing challenges, workplace upheaval has hit especially hard.

This has added even greater urgency to some of the questions we had begun to ask before the pandemic: What can organizations do to better support their employees in a challenging field? How do we retain our people in the health professions? How do we improve efficiency so that workers can spend more time on the elements of their job that they find most meaningful?

Crises create challenges that promote opportunity. As the pandemic shines an even brighter light on workplace well-being, my hope is that we will accelerate the proliferation of chief wellness officers, in health care organizations in particular but also as an example to other industries. In the near future, a chief wellness officer may well be as integral a part of any health care organization as a chief financial officer, chief medical officer, or chief quality officer. That is to say, non-negotiable.

This is the first in a three-part series addressing workplace well-being throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Part 2 chronicles the psychological toll of the pandemic’s early days on the workforce, particularly health care workers, and the support they needed from their workplaces. Part 3 discusses lessons learned and building a culture of well-being that enhances everyday work lives to serve as a bulwark in future crisis periods.

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