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Utilizing Chief Wellness Officers & Similar Leadership Roles To Oversee Workplace Mental Health

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

By Carrie Grogan | Principal, Mind Share Partners

Chief Wellness Officer For Mental Health At Work
Photo via Pexels by Andrea Piacquadio

We continue to see companies dedicating attention and resources to the mental health of their teams, and employees are taking notice. In Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Mental Health at Work Report in partnership with Qualtrics & ServiceNow, 61% of respondents felt that their company supports their mental health. But when implementing a workplace mental health strategy is added to the already full plate of responsibilities that leaders have, progress can be slow and disjointed, and the individuals taking on the burden can burn out under pressure.


More organizations are creating senior leadership positions primarily focusing on establishing and overseeing workplace mental health for their organization. These roles can take on any number of titles:

  • Global Mental Health Lead

  • Director of Workplace Mental Health

  • VP of Wellness

  • And, of course, Chief Wellness Officer among them.

The name may vary, but they each take on a singular focus—supporting employee mental health. In this article, we’ll provide an overview of the landscape of Chief Wellness Officer roles and key considerations and strategies to maximize their impact.


Structuring roles and responsibilities is an important component of an effective mental health strategy. Book a complimentary call with one of our expert Principals to discuss a customized approach for your organization.

 
 

Who Should “Own” an Organization's Workplace Mental Health Strategy?


Historically, mental health has been driven by a variety of stakeholders within an organization. Here are some of the most common stakeholders, along with each role's benefits and challenges.


1. HR and People Leaders


Most commonly, the responsibilities of creating and leading a workplace mental health strategy fall on HR and People leaders in organizations.

  • Benefits: HR typically owns mental health resources and benefits, measures of accountability, and employment policies.

  • Challenges: With HR leaders' responsibilities continuing to expand, it’s difficult to focus enough attention on each priority, including mental health. Many still do not have the background or training to create a mental health strategy beyond benefits.


2. Occupational Health and Safety Managers


In workplaces that traditionally have onsite occupational hazards, the role of workplace mental health may fall under the umbrella of an occupational health and safety manager.

  • Benefits: Within the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides guidance for employers on workplace stress, and individuals in these roles may draw broader connections to workplace factors.

  • Challenges: OSHA guidelines may not yet be equipped to inspect for hazardous levels of workplace stress, much less prepare these professionals with guidance on developing a proactive workplace mental health strategy focused on organizational culture.


3. Committees


We also see the committee approach taken when a department or individual may not have the bandwidth.

  • Benefits: These committees can be effective ways to gather specialized input and diverse perspectives, with the recognition that this work requires collaboration from leaders across departments throughout an organization.

  • Challenges: Committees can struggle to make lasting change and sustained effort with committee members with limited influence, competing priorities for their time, and diffusion of ownership and responsibility.


The Creation of the Chief Wellness Officer and Workplace Mental Health Focused Roles


Today, many organizations are turning to a role created solely to focus on workplace mental health and directly oversee and facilitate strategy. This is similar to the shift we’ve seen in DEI efforts led by a Chief Diversity Officer. To implement systematic shifts in culture and workplace practices, your company may benefit from this big-picture view by a dedicated leader.


“Developing and overseeing the execution of a strategy to address these challenges and working with other operational leaders to drive organizational change requires a correctly placed senior leader with appropriate authority and resources.” A well-designed mental health leadership role can indicate your commitment to employee mental health while investing in a streamlined approach.





Key Considerations When Hiring A Chief Wellness Officer (Or Similar Role)


1. The Skill Sets and Expertise Needed Are Not Streamlined


A dedicated leader for mental health will help your organization align workplace mental health strategy and success to core business goals. The qualifications and expertise needed can vary—you will find job postings seeking experience and educational backgrounds in public health, psychology, counseling, business administration, social work, change management, and other related fields. For leaders working in the healthcare industry, Stanford Medicine offers a Chief Wellness Officer course to cultivate the expertise needed.


Does a Chief Wellness Officer need to be a clinician?


Pam Corson, the Global Head of Mental Health at BlackRock, believes that her clinical experience has been vital in her role:


“I think there’s a lot of value in understanding how human behavior can impact organizational dynamics. Coming from a clinical background, I have seen first-hand a number of challenges that people face, which has given me a more nuanced understanding of how to assist people in navigating services. This type of subject matter expertise is crucial for truly knowing your employee populations and creating effective strategies.”

We know that mental health is the next frontier of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB)—both as a new category in and of itself and in how it intersects with our identities. The best senior mental health leader will think intersectionally about how experiences and strategies differ to create an equitable experience for all.


Dr. David Stark, the Chief Medical Officer of Morgan Stanley, holds a medical background but shares that while having an “MD” after his name carries weight when influencing others, ultimately, the most valuable aspect of his background is the practitioner mindset of “first do no harm, and seek to do good.” He believes that the most important skill for someone in a similar role is communication and the ability to navigate the corporate culture.


Clinical degrees and/or experience can equip a senior mental health officer with the expertise to lead a mental health strategy. That said, it may not always be necessary, and it’s also a tricky line to navigate. For example, many public health leaders do not have clinical backgrounds but are trained to lead and evaluate global strategy and policy efforts to support wellbeing. Conversely, clinical expertise equips practitioners to treat individuals, but organization-wide culture change may require different skill sets and perspectives. Even still, the wellness space has proliferated, and organizations must ensure leaders are qualified and their approach is grounded in evidence-based practices.


The skills needed to succeed in these roles are the balance of organizational change, relationship building, leading by influence, and identifying factors contributing to employee wellbeing.

So who do you hire?

Ultimately it will depend on the scope of your Chief Wellness Officer role, the nature of the workforce you are supporting, and other factors. We would recommend looking for candidates with the following:

  • Subject matter expertise in mental health, ideally workplace mental health (e.g., clinical mental health, public health, organizational psychology, or even a labor background)

  • An effective communicator, change manager, and influencer

  • Experience creating and implementing strategy with multiple stakeholders

  • Demonstrated commitment to DEIB principles

  • A systems-level perspective (i.e., going beyond individual intervention to solve workplace challenges at the root cause level)


2. Key Responsibilities for the Role Can Vary Based on Company Needs


Depending on the structure and organization of your company, a Chief Wellness Officer may hold many of these common responsibilities:

  • Develop a strategy and action plan for improving employee mental health and wellbeing.

  • Measure and report on employee wellbeing, burnout, and related engagement markers.

  • Assess and recommend employer-provided resources and benefits to support employee mental health.

  • Develop and/or coordinate training for managers and individual contributors on supporting workplace mental health for themselves and their teams.

  • Increase awareness among employees on available mental health resources and supports.

  • Provide visionary leadership to influence company leaders and create shared ownership of employee wellbeing.

  • Support emergency preparedness and crisis response efforts relating to individual employee mental health challenges and events impacting employee mental health.

  • Serve as a thought leader and content expert in mentally healthy workplace practices.

These individuals may potentially hold responsibility for wellness more broadly, including physical, family, and financial wellness programming. With a broad focus on company culture and organizational strategy, a senior mental health officer would likely not be responsible for personally providing mental health services to individual employees. However, an on-site clinician may be part of that organizational strategy.


3. Resourcing & Reporting Structure Is Vital to Sustainability and Impact


A dedicated role focused on employee mental health and wellbeing is a start, but what factors ensure their success?

Direct contact with leadership.

Structurally, where this role is positioned is important. As Pam Corson cautions, “Ultimately, someone in my role at any organization needs buy-in from the top. You need to have a seat at the table because you need to be able to influence and educate, to tell leaders what to be looking for, and what you recommend.” Ideally, this person will have a role in leadership meetings and be able to meaningfully influence the decision-making at an organizational leadership level.

Cross-functional ties.

With many collaborators being critical to success, access to key leaders who can connect the dots, facilitate partnership, and offer functional expertise will be essential. Of course, an alliance with HR and People leaders can provide avenues to discuss benefits, employee engagement, and an informed approach to performance management. Collaboration with learning and development teams can ensure training efforts roll out seamlessly with standing talent development efforts, like onboarding and manager training. And a close relationship with communications teams can help align messaging across the company and reach stakeholders both internally and externally.

DEIB partnerships.

Working in alliance with DEIB leaders can ensure an inclusive workplace mental health strategy that meets the needs of a diverse workforce. These key partners, including employee resource group leaders, can help to cross-promote and amplify efforts and build grassroots support from champions in the organization.

A team.

The organization of every company will be different, but ideally, this role is not working alone: “CWOs should be supported by a team commensurate with the size of the organization, the scope of their work, and the number of [employees] they serve.”


Dr. David Stark seems to agree:

“There may be a well-intentioned effort to create this role, but if they are functioning as an in-house consultant without a team, structure, or accountability, they won’t be successful.”

Resources.

We have learned a lot from the many cautionary tales of Chief Diversity Officers being set up for failure. And why? They aren’t provided with enough resources, lack executive support and funding, and often operate under the expectation that singular efforts (rather than sustained strategy) can transform cultures. Ultimately, creating a senior mental health leader role will be impactful if they have access to executive leaders, decision-making authority, and resources (i.e., people and budgets) to succeed.


4. Measuring Success Is Nuanced


As mental health roles are new in many organizations, senior mental health leaders are often responsible for establishing what success looks like. Some shared indicators of success are common in any strategic workplace mental health effort:

  • Employee mental health outcomes (e.g., rates of burnout, depression, anxiety, etc.)

  • Employee sentiments around…

    • Mental health (e.g., “I feel comfortable talking about mental health at work)

    • Organizational culture (e.g., “Leaders are advocates for mental health)

    • Work culture (e.g., “The work environment plays a positive/negative role on my mental health.”)

  • Employee engagement with resources (e.g., EAP usage, attendance at mental health events, etc.)

That said, there are a few things to consider around how these outcomes are a reflection of:

  • This leader’s competencies and influence

  • How this leader is resourced by the organization at large

  • External forces outside of the organization that impact mental health

It’s important to discern these factors when evaluating the effectiveness of such a role. Metrics indicating strategic progress and programmatic effectiveness are reasonable measurements for individual success, while individual employee wellbeing and professional satisfaction are not.


Think of this compared to another key executive role in an organization: The Chief Financial Officer (CFO). The CFO sets the financial strategy and operating budget of an organization. They are responsible for keeping leaders informed of progress on the strategy, identifying areas that may be off track, and for making suggestions to address these concerns. But they are not responsible for the organization's overall financial health—this is the responsibility of all leaders in the organization.


Similarly, improving levels of professional fulfillment and decreasing burnout is the responsibility of all leaders in the organization. Still, the senior mental health officer can provide a strategy and direction and measure progress on the overall effort. This progress can easily be determined through regular engagement surveys with just a few intentionally phrased questions to measure overall employee mental health.



HR Cannot Be the Sole Owner of Workplace Mental Health Strategies and Initiatives


We know that there is a lot to consider when developing a mental health strategy, and while HR can be a part of the solution, it should not be responsible for or seen as the entire solution. Workplace mental health needs to be viewed at the systemic level and requires prolonged attention and energy. Your organization may consider creating a senior mental health officer role to spearhead this work in partnership with other senior leaders, key collaborators, and content experts. Some of our most effective culture change work at Mind Share Partners has been thanks to the hard work and expertise of these senior mental health officers. When provided with resources, support, and access, they may be just what your organization needs to develop a mentally healthy work culture that sticks.



Article edited by:

Bernie Wong | Senior Manager of Insights & Principal, Mind Share Partners

Nina Tomaro | Marketing & Communications Lead, Mind Share Partners


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