Healthy Business | Why You Need A Workforce Health Officer

25 Sep 2020

Healthy Business | Why You Need A Workforce Health Officer

Seven months into the pandemic—and with no real end in sight—two things are clear. First, if businesses want to survive, they will need to learn how to succeed within a COVID-19 environment. Second, the health of employees—their insulation from contagious viruses both at work and at home—is now existentially linked to many companies’ ability to conduct business.

Odgers Berndtson Partners Maureen Ryan, Nick Brill, and Allen Reed have spent the last few months speaking with corporate executives, safety and medical officers, and COVID-response leaders about how companies can—and must—weave workforce health into the fabric of their operations, a process that will require elevating a new type of leader to the executive suite: The Chief Workforce Health Officer.

1. Workforce health is your business

Earlier this year, Dr. Raquel Bono, Washington State’s COVID-19 czar and a former CEO of the Defense Health Authority, held a meeting with Washington State’s top business leaders. What Dr. Bono told these CEOs—and later paraphrased to us—was that “healthcare systems and public health organizations are simply not equipped to stand up testing and contact tracing architecture on the scale that private industry will need in order to operate in the kind of open economy we enjoyed until early March. This means that corporate leaders need to move outside their traditional operational corridor and begin to think about how they can incorporate that architecture as part of their short-term bottom-line strategy.”

This same ethos seems to have driven Amazon—that bellwether of best practices—to stand up its own COVID labs, aiming to test its fulfillment center employees every two weeks. In doing so, Amazon was responding to two related business imperatives. The first was operational in nature: The company’s ability to store and ship packages to customers quite literally relies on the health of its fulfillment center employees. The second was about branding, corporate leadership, and consumer confidence: Customers need to feel that the packages arriving at their doors are uncontaminated by the coronavirus.

Whether they meant it or not, Amazon’s decision to monitor the health of its employees constitutes an important shift. With some exceptions—for instance schools and health centers—most businesses have traditionally considered the details of employee health outside their purview. They might offer insurance plans or even at-work health and wellness resources, but generally speaking businesses have not—for a variety of privacy and liability reasons—paid attention to who contracts the common cold, who seeks treatment for depression, who has diabetes. A sick day was a sick day—and that was that. But in a pandemic environment, this cannot always be the case. If one employee contracts COVID-19, it can mean dozens, hundreds, or even—look at Tyson Foods—thousands of employees contract it, which can bring a number of reputational, legal, and financial downsides for the business.

This is why Dr. Bono suggests that companies trying to align employee health with their operational processes should consider appointing a “Chief Workforce Health Officer who can support the CEO by designing and implementing a health and safety strategy that takes into account the health of employees, the company’s operational structure, and the company’s long-term profitability.”

We couldn’t agree more. We should also note that Tyson Foods, which has seen 7,000 COVID cases in its employee base, two-dozen deaths, a plant closure, and several wrongful death lawsuits, is hiring an executive-level health leader and two hundred nurses.

2. The Chief Workforce Health Officer

Part senior executive, part clinician, the CWHO has a broader set of mandates than corporate roles like the Chief Medical Officer, Chief Wellness Officer, or Chief Safety, Health and Environment Officer, which typically have focuses ranging from employee health benefits, good health practices, keeping the workforce safe from the flu, or ensuring safety in the workplace. Though tasked with integrating these collective functions, the Chief Workforce Health Officer is also responsible for hardwiring health—both COVID-related preventive measures and, going forward, health in general—into every facet of the company’s operations.

This means elevating and expanding health and safety services by bringing them into alignment with pandemic-related operational imperatives to drive the company’s financial goals. It also means ensuring regulatory compliance at the local, state, and federal levels, while advocating policy best practices that will continue to change as information as well as responses to the virus evolve.

In order for the role to be successful, the Chief Workforce Health Officer needs to have broad cross-functional authority, with the ability to implement health and safety measures across multiple siloes, even if that means changing established operational practices. Because of the scale of the pandemic challenge and its long-term implications to the financial success of a company, the Chief Workforce Health Officer must be a more senior position than an organization’s Chief Safety or Chief Medical Officer roles. The Chief Workforce Health Officer should report directly to the CEO. This mixture of executive positioning and cross-functional authority is necessary for the CWHO to accomplish his or her chief function: risk mitigation for workers, consumers, and the company as a whole. Organizations that include multiple medical and safety leader roles should streamline their reporting structures directly into the office of the CWHO.

3. Who fits the profile?

Most wellness and medical officers have been tucked into the HR function, with focus on managing occupational health issues or optimizing health plan expenditures..  A truly meaningful investment in employee health—one that acknowledges that ill-health (whether COVID-related or not) drives poor productivity, high health insurance and disability costs, and various other categories of legal and financial risk—requires interventions across every aspect of the business. For this reason, the Chief Workforce Health Officer has to be a strategic leader, with simple reporting lines to the CEO or COO, appropriate budget resources, and the authority to invest broadly in the infrastructure and systems of health and safety promotion. This role expansion changes the talent portrait significantly: The Chief Workforce Health Officer needs to be deeply attuned to operations, finance, R&D, sales, marketing, supply chain, and strategy. This new leader needs to be thinking about every aspect of the business.

What are the “mission critical” attributes for an ideal Chief Workforce Health Officer? A leader who embodies the combined expertise of Corporate Chief Medical, Wellness, and Safety Officers would be especially well positioned. Additionally, he or she should have a successful track record of managing the health and safety of a diverse population of patients as well as operational experience rolling out the management and provision of healthcare services to patients that reflect high standards for access to care, timeliness of test results, and consistent customer service. Risk mitigation and optimizing the safety of employees should also consistently be at the forefront of strategy in this role. In order to translate this care expertise into gains for their companies, CWHOs must also have an executive’s mind for business strategy, be able to think critically about the company’s human capital as a strategic asset, and have a creative sense of how you can leverage healthcare initiatives to influence P&L. Ideal candidates might also have an MBA or law degree along with their required medical degrees.

As the Chief Medical Officer of EY, Dr. Yele Aluko, told us, “Human capital is what drives most businesses. Chief Workforce Health Officers should take a longitudinal view of employee wellness as a key factor for the health of the business. This perspective should be informed by robust tools and processes for understanding the workforce’s baseline health status, providing tailored resources, identifying vulnerable individuals and groups while protecting privacy, and engaging employees with thoughtful education programs.”

4. The role will continue to evolve

Though COVID-19 has demonstrated the immediate need for workforce health considerations at the C-level, pandemic response is not the sole basis for the role. Compared to the world’s leading economies, the United States’ relative overall health has steadily decreased. Life expectancies are decreasing while healthcare costs continue to rise.  It’s estimated that presenteeism—employees showing up to work but being distracted by illness—costs U.S. companies hundreds of billions of dollars annually. Addressing these issues comes with financial and competitive advantages—and it’s also the right thing to do.

When we talked with IBM’s Chief Health Officer, Dr. Kyu Rhee, he emphasized that the role will continue to evolve as Chief Workforce Health Officers find new ways of using health gains to streamline operations, strengthen the brand, and maximize profitability. “This requires a good understanding of how the whole business fits together. Likewise, the Chief Workforce Health Officer must understand the business to ensure their public health and clinical interventions are aligned with the business needs. At a mature stage, this leader should report to the CEO and implement strategies across all dimensions of employee health.”

5. It’s not just about risk prevention—it’s about finding new opportunities

Appointing a Chief Workforce Health Officer has a number of benefits. Bringing reductions in overall employee healthcare costs, productivity unthreatened by workforce disruption, healthy and satisfied employees, and the brand-gains that come from having a lauded workplace environment are among them. Corporate America has a unique opportunity to drive economic recovery throughout the United States and the recruitment of a Chief Workforce Health Officer may well be the secret weapon to doing so. In our next piece in this series, we will share a more expanded discussion of this role for those organizations and leaders interested in proactive employee wellness initiatives.