Physician Health

9 pitfalls and mistakes chief wellness officers need to avoid

Tanya Albert Henry , Contributing News Writer

After a chief wellness officer (CWO) has assembled a team, defined a mission, developed a strategy to achieve it, established partnerships with other leaders in the organization and created a bidirectional communication strategy, what’s next? It is important to be aware of common missteps new CWOs could make and work to sidestep them. An AMA STEPS Forward® toolkit helps guide CWOs on how to do just that and more.

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“Avoid Common Pitfalls and Mistakes” is the final step of the “Chief Wellness Officer Road Map” toolkit that outlines a nine-step approach CWOs can follow to implement a leadership strategy for professional well-being.

“It is important to take the long view—improving the work environment takes time and requires the combined efforts of many people in the different disciplines and departments. So, start slow and build a solid foundation,” said Christine Sinsky, MD, vice president of professional satisfaction at the AMA, who coauthored the toolkit.

“This includes developing a strategic framework, a network of leadership support, a set of communication channels to hear from and communicate with frontline physicians,” Dr. Sinsky said.

Here are nine common pitfalls and mistakes that CWOs will want to avoid.

One common mistake is conflating metrics of organizational progress with the metrics of CWO efficacy. A chief wellness officer and his or her team don’t have direct authority over many of the organizational decisions and factors that impact professional fulfillment—productivity expectations, electronic health records and more.

For example, a CWO can be held to account for establishing a road map for improving workforce well-being within the organization and supporting individual unit leaders as they develop well-being plans. By contrast, it’s improper to hold the CWO directly accountable for the well-being scores of the workforce.

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This happens when a CWO doesn’t take enough time to develop a well-thought-out organizational strategy so that the team can identify the critical focus areas to prioritize first and identify opportunities to be pursued later.

Even in the most optimal circumstances, it takes six to 12 months to select the right team members, hire and onboard them and deploy them in a way that works with the strategy the CWO developed.

If a CWO tries to directly oversee too many initiatives, it puts the well-being of everyone involved at risk and is a recipe for failure. Keep in mind that some efforts will require working in partnership with other leaders and groups in a support or advisory role.

CWOs usually want to “hit the ground running,” but launching too many initiatives too quickly often leads to a decrease in the effectiveness of all the initiatives. Instead, focus on starting with a limited number of initiatives before expanding. 

Physicians may look at the CWO as the leader to whom to express their frustrations, concerns and ideas, for example, requesting policy changes so employees can bring pets to work, or that provide on-site child care, address cost of living in the community and more. Connect these physicians with leaders responsible for some of these concerns, but avoid becoming the clearing house for all complaints about the organization.

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It’s not feasible with the limited time, attention and resources the CWO has available. It also is not an effective path to organizational change. CWOs need to have “thick skin” for the criticism they will inevitably face by not pleasing everyone.

Systemic efforts focused on improving efficiency of practice, optimizing workflows, evolving leadership behavior and addressing problems with the organizational culture take more time, but they are the ones that will have a greater impact in the long run than initiatives aimed solely at improving individual resilience.

CWOs need to create the infrastructure to support bidirectional communication between the program and physicians in the organization. This important tactic should be one initial focus area for the team. Typically, a multi-faceted communication strategy is the best way to reach physicians across the organization.

Learn more about how to lay the groundwork at your organization with the “Establishing a Chief Wellness Officer Position” toolkit.