December 7, 2021

Should your next c-suite hire be a 'Chief Health Officer'?

The Omicron variant is making the pandemic recovery more complex, and candidates are actively seeking organisations that can show they truly care about wellbeing - our CEO Alex Sheppard looks at why your next senior leadership hire should be a ‘chief health officer’.

Originally published in Personnel Today 07/12/2021.

Getting through the pandemic has been an incredible challenge for organisations of all sizes, but it’s fair to say that smaller, more agile companies have found it easier to make operational adjustments than the juggernauts of the corporate world.

Life gets pretty complicated when you’re attempting to look after thousands of employees based across hundreds of locations, wading through health guidelines and restrictions that all differ from one location to the next.

As the scale of the global health emergency became clear, many large corporates opted to appoint senior health officers – usually experienced public or private sector clinicians – to help guide their Covid response strategies. Now, as the world slowly transitions towards a new phase of managing the virus, there’s a growing case for converting these emergency consultative roles into permanent C-suite positions.

Covid is unlikely to disappear.

The unquestionable success of the Covid vaccines in preventing severe illness and death has also led to confusion about why Covid restrictions in the workplace are still necessary.

Many businesses in the UK learned this lesson the hard way during the ‘pingdemic’, when an over-zealous Test-and-Trace system was able to wreak havoc across countless industries by instructing thousands of workers to self-isolate following close(ish) contact with Covid-positive people.

While the conditions governing Test-and-Trace were hastily tweaked to minimise the economic impacts, the situation demonstrated that even a low level of Covid transmission in the workplace could cause serious business interruption.

Let’s be clear: this is going to remain the situation for some time. The pandemic may be receding, but Covid is not going away, now entering an endemic phase – hence the increasingly well-trodden phrase ‘living with the virus’. As a business, you can’t risk a contagious virus running through your office, especially not one that carries such high risks for the vulnerable or the unvaccinated.

Going into next year, every business leader’s priority will still be stopping Covid-positive employees from setting foot in the workplace. Achieving this means introducing ongoing testing for employees and, crucially, adopting tests that employees can administer themselves before they set out to work, or that could be administered by a trusted partner. While in the UK, home testing has been government-sponsored for some time, it is unlikely that taxpayers will foot the bill on this indefinitely.

The knock on effects

And beyond the disease itself, Covid has given fuel to many other employee health and wellbeing concerns. Employee burnout, stress and anxiety have all increased during the pandemic, which have previously been found to have a serious impact on absenteeism and productivity.

These health concerns carry financial, reputational, and potentially even legal ramifications for businesses that don’t get to grips with them. But more fundamentally, it’s entirely right and appropriate that organisations should be supporting their employees across a range of health and wellbeing matters.

After all, worker health and safety has been a concern since the introduction of factory inspectors more than 200 years ago. Pre-Covid, an employer’s duty of care towards employees was already broad and far-reaching.

What’s changed since the onset of the pandemic is two-fold. Firstly, there’s much broader awareness about ‘biosecurity’, i.e. the need to keep infectious diseases out of physical work environments. Secondly, mental health has finally risen to the top of the priorities list. It is long overdue, and, crucially, these two organisational challenges are interlinked. If people don’t feel physically safe in their workplace, their mental wellbeing will suffer.

Where does the health strategy sit?

If all of this sounds like a lot of responsibility, that’s because it is. Employee health used to be an HR issue; today, it’s the sort of strategic priority likely to keep board members awake at night. Managing health and wellbeing is not only necessary from a culture-building perspective, but as we’ve seen through the pandemic, it’s vital to prevent business interruption too.

The larger the organisation, the more acute these issues are likely to be. Hence, it might be the right time for these companies to create a new position within the C-suite: the Chief Health Officer, responsible for all aspects of organisational health and wellbeing.

The Chief Health Officer is not a reactive role. Instead, CHOs will be tasked with examining how companies can optimise their employees’ physical and mental health – whether that’s providing in-office clinicians and health practitioners, delivering flu shots and Covid booster programmes, or introducing burnout leave and other wellbeing initiatives.

Even before the pandemic some large companies had begun to introduce Heads of Employee Wellbeing and Chief Medical Officers. If large companies aren’t looking at this by now, they risk being viewed as ‘behind the curve’.

Maybe in years gone by, such proactivity would have been seen as intrusive. Not anymore. Employees want to feel supported; they want to feel safe. When companies first started to talk about their return to office strategies, their teams were frequently outspoken in their calls for better workplace testing and other Covid safety measures.

In fact, beyond Covid, all of the evidence suggests that employees are now actively seeking out organisations that go further in supporting their health and wellbeing – effectively, organisations that ‘care’. Outside of flexible working provision, it’s becoming the main reason people choose one employer over another. And it’s why, as we shuffle closer and closer to the post-pandemic world, the appointment of a permanent Chief Health Officer might be the wisest strategic move a large organisation can make.

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