April 22, 2021

The Evolving Role of the Chief Wellness Officer in the Management of Crises by Health Care Systems: Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic

Kirk J. Brower, M.D., the Medical School's Chief Wellness Officer, and eight other CWOs, published an essay in NEJM Catalyst -- a website run by NEJM but aimed at sharing essays about innovation rather than research findings

Workplace stress, burnout, and well-being among health care workers have in recent years become increasingly recognized as pressing needs. Now, as the pandemic reveals vulnerabilities that are having wide and deep impacts on health care organizations and their human and financial resources, the need for a more structured approach to wellness is apparent.


Even before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, clinician burnout was a recognized occupational syndrome and a driver of suboptimal patient care. National calls for system-level interventions to improve clinician well-being led some health care organizations (HCOs) to appoint a Chief Wellness Officer (CWO). By incorporating CWOs into the emergency command structure, these HCOs were equipped to identify and address health care worker needs throughout the pandemic. CWOs learned important lessons regarding how HCOs can best address workforce well-being in the midst of a crisis. Key CWO contributions include identifying evolving sources of worker anxiety, deploying support resources, participating in operational decision-making, and assessing the impact of fluid pandemic protocols on clinician well-being. As HCOs seek to promote posttraumatic growth, attention to the well-being of the workforce should be incorporated into emergency management protocols with the goal of sustaining a resilient health care workforce.

Years before the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, clinician burnout was recognized as a highly prevalent occupational syndrome that contributes to suboptimal patient care and costly turnover within the health care workforce.1,2 In response, the National Academy of Medicine and other professional societies have called for system-level interventions to promote clinician well-being.3 To facilitate successful execution, leading health care organizations (HCOs) have appointed a Chief Wellness Officer (CWO). Distinct from other wellness leaders traditionally found within the realm of HR, CWOs have been tasked with one overriding concern: working to make health care staff well-being central to organizational culture and strategy.4-7 They do this by using their expertise to measure well-being across their organizations, identifying and advancing individual-level and systemwide interventions to promote workplace well-being, and partnering with other stakeholders to guide the development of such resources.

During the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States, it became clear that the well-being of the workforce was a critical concern. The CWOs at a number of institutions played an important role in understanding and addressing the concerns of the health care workforce.6,8,9 This article, authored by CWOs (or those in similar positions) from nine organizations, outlines the role of the CWO in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and, on the basis of lessons learned during the current pandemic, provides suggestions to help inform the management of future crises.

Read the entire essay here.

Also, read this "From The Editors" article: Working Beyond Health Care to Achieve Health -- The May 2021 issue of NEJM Catalyst Innovations in Care Delivery showcases health care organizations working beyond their walls to address the challenges of our times.