Role of the chief health officer

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When respondents globally were asked where they thought the role of health would sit in their organisation in the next 10 years, the majority (46%) saw the role reporting in to HR.

As welcome as it is, the COVID-19 vaccine may not herald the end of the pandemic. The onus has come down to employers to play an increasing role in the health of their employees, not just to mitigate the impact of a future pandemic, but also to address other sustainability issues like climate change and factors that affect employee health.

This was a key finding of a new report commissioned by the International SOS Foundation, which noted: "The time of the Chief Health Officer (CHO) has arrived."

The report reflects responses from 100+ professionals responsible for employee health across the world: with representation from those working in the Americas, Asia Pacific, Middle East, Africa, and Europe. The survey took place during the COVID-19 pandemic in late 2020.

We've summed up the trends uncovered most relevant to HR and the wider C-suite.

#1 The C-suite may widen to make room for more roles

The pandemic made health and security a regular board-level discussion in every organisation. For example, International SOS has seen the number of C-suite level contacts per client double. This now includes contacts from CEOs, COOs, CFOs as well as the traditional owners of health such as HR Directors and HSE (health, safety & environment) directors. The survey noted the expectation that the scope and responsibilities of those in HSE roles will further increase over the next 10 years. One-third thought the increase would be 50% or more and nearly three-quarters thought it would be 25% or more. Some even thought it would double.

Dr Chan Yanjun, Medical Director, Malaysia, International SOS, shared, “The COVID-19 pandemic has acted as a catalyst for many organisations realising the need to address the health and wellness of their employees. The awareness was already there, whether it be through traditional occupational health or mental health and wellbeing provision, only now it has become one of the top priorities for the C-Suite."  

#2 The responsibility of health does not solely sit with HR

When respondents were asked where they thought the role of health would sit in their organisation in the next 10 years, nearly one-quarter see the future role as being part of the C-suite. The majority of respondents (46%), however, saw the role of health reporting in to HR (refer to image above).

The CHO has in the past typically been found in larger organisations, often in industries with strict workplace health regulations, or where occupational risk is high. In more recent years this has expanded to other industries, into smaller companies, into companies with more white-collar employees, or in industries where occupational hazards are less apparent. 

 #3 Skill sets required in the role of a Chief Health Officer

In addition to what's listed in the report, the ACOEM Guidance Statement sets out a useful description of the CHO role:

  • The CHO has overall medical responsibility for the company, including ‘all issues related to health (emergency response, critical event management, medical leaves, occupational and environmental health programmes, community health interface, and leadership and management of the medical organisation).’
  • Working with other departments, the scope can further extend to product stewardship (toxicology), global security (proactive disaster planning), HR, healthcare benefits design, and more.
  • The CHO role goes beyond being a clinician; they must understand the business and the world around it. They are the bridge between health issues and business needs - able to understand the scientific technicalities of a health question and the social and geopolitical considerations that influence management decisions.
  • Most importantly, the CHO role should be a trusted source of information. This is particularly important at a time when official announcements are losing credibility, and an overwhelming amount of conflicting information is readily available online and elsewhere.

Image / International SOS

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