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Research Report

The Rise of the Chief Wellness Officer

A Guide to Well-being Leadership Job Descriptions for College and Universities

April 19, 2021 , By Lindsay Kubaryk, Associate Director, Moon Shot for Equity and Impact Services

Chief Wellness Officer (CWO) positions have grown rapidly across the past few years due to growth in appreciation for proactive well-being support and escalating demand for mental health services. These senior leadership positions manage units that support campus well-being.

EAB analyzed job descriptions to find common responsibilities, reporting lines, and desired expertise and credentials for these positions. This resource summarizes these commonalities and provides select examples of Chief Wellness Officer job descriptions across a variety of institutions in North America.

Download the full white paper as a PDF or explore the major sections below.

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Why Hire a Chief Wellness Officer?

Mental Health is a Top Priority, but Progress by Committee Goes Slowly

Colleges and universities are working tirelessly to meet students’ demand for mental health support on campus, making significant investments to staff-up the counseling center, offer tech-based mental health resources, and promote robust non-clinical wellness supports. Increasingly, institutions find that these investments, while essential, are not enough to address rising student distress on campus.

As a result, many institutions are elevating student mental health and well-being as a campus-wide priority to develop a comprehensive strategy that streamlines existing efforts and transcends operational silos. Many campuses rely on working groups or committees to formulate strategy and drive progress, but these groups struggle to sustain momentum and effect lasting change as members have already-full plates and limited authority.

We had a working group on mental health, and they generated some outstanding ideas. But despite best intentions, it was hard to maintain momentum and execute on the more ambitious strategies. Hiring a chief wellness officer was the right move for us to actually make progress on the bold ideas we had to support students’ well-being and, ultimately, their success.

Vice President for Student Affairs, Mid-sized Public Institution

Dedicated Leadership Provides Bandwidth and Expertise to Effect Change

Progressive institutions recognize a need for dedicated leadership to orchestrate a holistic, integrated approach to student well-being. Chief Wellness Officers (CWO) are experienced professionals charged with managing services that directly support students’ mental and physical health and embedding well-being into all facets of the student experience. They provide critical vision, bandwidth, and expertise to strategically align campus efforts, identify gaps and redundancies in resources, and rigorously assess progress and adapt as needed.

Chief Wellness Officers don’t necessarily replace efforts by a task force or committee. The role of the CWO is to lead a holistic and sustainable campus-wide approach to student well-being, and most leverage campus knowledge and expertise to realize that vision. In fact, many CWOs convene campus partners to build credibility, cultivate cross-silo working relationships, and bring the full expertise and focus of the institution to bear on the challenge of improving student well-being. Others use committee recommendations or assessments to inform strategy.

Core Responsibilities of the Position

Chief Wellness Officer responsibilities generally fall into three categories:

1. Develop and execute a campus-wide strategy to improve student health and well-being.

CWOs are expected to leverage their experience and expertise to develop a comprehensive vision for student well-being. These leaders implement this vision both within the units they directly manage as well as through smart collaborations that transcend campus silos. Their work enables faculty and staff across campus to adopt strategies that enhance students’ capacity to succeed.

2. Provide visionary leadership for and management of units that impact students’ physical and mental health.

Operations and administration for managed units fall under the CWOs purview. By consolidating the management of health-supporting offices under a dedicated senior leader, institutions can more effectively align their existing distributed efforts. CWOs are responsible for identifying gaps or redundancies in services and resources and streamlining workflows amongst the departments they manage, such as health and counseling centers, wellness promotion offices, disability services, and others. Additionally, they own coordination between on and off-campus resources.

3. Assess reporting units and campus-wide strategy effectiveness.

Institutions have made, and continue to make, significant investments in well-being support, but often struggle to evaluate their effectiveness. CWOs have ownership or influence over these investments and resource distribution and are expected to conduct a rigorous assessment to make informed decisions on what the college or university should keep doing, what it should start doing, and what it should stop doing.

Additional Chief Wellness Officer Responsibilities

Additional responsibilities within the scope of the CWO vary across institutions. Examples of these duties include:

  • Ownership or key subject matter expert contributor to the institution’s health-related policies and processes (e.g. medical leave-of-absence, voluntary and involuntary leave-of-absence, housing and learning accommodations).
  • Support emergency preparedness and response efforts relating to health or mental health issues.
  • Develop and coordinate a communication plan to promote campus resources and services for student well-being.
  • Liaise with enrollment services to develop or inform recruitment messaging around the institution’s vision and resources to support student well-being.
  • Direct or assist in fundraising efforts in support of the institution’s vision for student well-being.
  • Provide subject matter expertise or guidance to the institution’s human resources department on employee well-being initiatives.

Organizational Structure

Reporting Lines

The Chief Wellness Officer typically reports to the Chief Student Affairs Officer and sits on that executive’s leadership team. In some cases, CWOs have dotted reporting lines to other campus leaders, including the Chief Academic Affairs Officer or President. All CWOs are expected to lead collaboration across silos to implement a holistic strategy for student well-being.

Units Supervised

Chief Wellness Officers lead robust teams spanning the health and counseling centers, disability services, and beyond. The following departments and teams consistently report to the CWO across a variety of institution types:

  • Student Health Services
  • Counseling and Psychological Services
  • Wellness/Health Promotion Center
  • Disability/Accessibility Services
  • Behavioral Intervention/Care Team
  • Student Health Insurance Programs

Some CWO portfolios also include other campus services that more holistically support students’ physical and emotional well-being. Sometimes, responsibilities for these units are included in the initial job description, but it helps to remain open to adding or removing units as strategy evolves or students’ needs change. For example, shortly after hiring an associate vice president for student health and well-being, Carnegie Melon University added oversight of services to support religious students to that person’s portfolio to align with their vision and strategy. Common examples of more holistic support units include:

  • Substance Abuse Rehabilitation
  • Campus Recreation
  • Cultural Identity Center(s)
  • Services for LGBTQIA+ Students
  • Services for Religious Students
  • Services for Women Students
  • Other Identity/Belonging-oriented Services

Frequent Cross-Campus Collaborators

Since CWOs are expected to work across campus silos to enhance student well-being, many job descriptions cite specific offices with whom the incumbent can expect to collaborate. Common examples of collaborators include:

  • Public Safety
  • Academic Affairs and Support Services
  • Registrar
  • Residence Life and Housing
  • Dining Services
  • Affiliated health education programs (i.e. University hospital, school of psychiatry, nursing, etc.)

Higher ed leaders should follow these three recommendations to define the scope of mental health care at their institutions, design a network of options, and target interventions.

Experience and Credentials

Experience

CWOs own management, operations, and administration for a substantial share of the student affairs organization, including numerous FTEs and multimillion-dollar budgets, depending on the size of the institution and the scope of their portfolio. As a result, positions typically require a minimum of 7-10 years of relevant progressive leadership and a track record of successful management and supervision in health care, mental health, public health, health promotion, health care administration, or other related fields.

Common minimum and preferred skills and knowledge for these roles include:

  • Strong leadership, communication, and interpersonal skills.
  • Deep knowledge of and ability to articulate health and counseling treatment models and best practice standards in relevant fields, national and local trends, state and university licensing, accreditation, and certification requirements for practitioners.
  • Direct experience in college or university health, mental health, or health promotion.
  • Demonstrated experience partnering across a complex organization, influencing without authority, and managing crises.

Credentials

Job descriptions for CWOs typically require a master’s degree, with a preference for candidates with a terminal degree in their field. Typical expertise sought includes a master’s in a health-related field, such as counseling, social work, public health, and health administration; master’s in higher education or student affairs administration are also commonly sought-after credentials for professionals in CWO positions.

Few job descriptions require that candidates be licensed physical or mental health practitioners; those that do often note that the CWO may be expected to see students in a practitioner capacity when demand for services peaks on campus.

Discussion Questions: Should You Hire a Chief Wellness Officer?

As colleges and universities raise their ambitions around a comprehensive strategy for student health and well-being, we can expect the number of Chief Wellness Officer roles to continue to grow. The scope of the position will vary depending on the institution's aspirations and needs. Use the below questions to start a discussion about the role of a CWO and how it can help your campus achieve its goals.

Is a Chief Wellness Officer Right for Your Campus?

  1. How does student well-being feature in your institution’s mission? What role does well-being play in your student success strategy?
  2. How do existing offices that support student well-being coordinate their efforts? Think about health services, counseling centers, health promotion offices, BIT/CARE teams, disability/accessibility, substance abuse programs, campus recreation, etc.
  3. How is well-being integrated across campus, both inside and outside the classroom? Are current efforts siloed across schools and/or departments?
  4. What are the pain points in engaging with well-being resources from the student’s perspective? What is the root cause of some of these pain points?
  5. How does your institution make progress on preventative and reactive efforts that support student well-being? What are the advantages and disadvantages of your current approach?

Determining the Scope of the Position

  1. Which of these offices/centers are already organized within student affairs? Which are located outside of the current organizational structure?
  2. How would dedicated senior leadership and expertise enable these offices to optimize and better coordinate their work?
  3. Consider the culture and needs of each office that supports student well-being. For offices both inside and outside of student affairs, is there a willingness to re-organize around a vision or strategy for student well-being?
  4. What considerations about our campus culture, student needs, and the local community should inform the CWO’s responsibilities and expertise? For example, does demand for physician or counselor services vary to the point that this leader needs to be a practitioner to fill in the gaps during high demand? Is there a wealth of community well-being resources the institution is or wants the CWO to better coordinate with? Are other campus leaders bought in on the connections between student success and well-being?

Hire Internally or Externally?

  1. Does your campus need added expertise to craft a vision or strategy, or do you need a dedicated senior leader to execute an existing strategy?
  2. Is there existing or ongoing cross-campus work or dialogue, such as through a committee or working group, to address student well-being holistically? Have contributors to these efforts expressed interest in or shown the potential to lead this work in a more focused and direct way?
  3. Consider the campus culture, including the various constituents impacted by a CWO’s work and recent incidents that have elevated well-being issues: What would the reaction of these different groups be to new outside expertise and leadership? To an internal hire?
  4. What advantages would an internal or external hire have? What would each need to overcome to affect change?

Sample Chief Wellness Officer Job Descriptions

We’ve created a compendium of CWO job description examples from a variety of institutions:

  • Cal Poly Pomona
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • Central Washington University
  • Denison University
  • Ithaca College
  • Louisiana State University
  • University of Albany (SUNY)
  • University of British Columbia
  • University of California – Santa Cruz
  • University of Houston
  • University of Notre Dame
  • University of Utah

View the Example Job Descriptions

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