The chief wellness officer role is expanding at institutions across the nation, propelled in part by the pandemic's spotlight on mental health

The rise of the chief wellness officer on campus

The chief wellness officer role is expanding at institutions across the nation, propelled in part by the pandemic's spotlight on mental health

In an effort to enhance community wellness and create new resources to support students and faculty, the University of West Georgia has established its first chief wellness officer position.

As chief wellness officer, Bridgette Stewart ’03, director of UWG’s Wolf Wellness Lab and member of the National Wellness Institute’s board of directors, will work within the National Wellness Institute’s six dimentions of wellness–emotional, occupational, physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual–as she and her team craft policies, programs, and supports targeted to the UWG community.

“Wellness has been something we’ve focused on in higher ed, but it’s typically been in siloed pockets,” Stewart said. “We’ve had services, but what we’ve never had is a collective culture. Any time you truly want to change a culture, you can’t do it in individual silos. You can’t make the best use of your resources when you have different groups that are essentially offering the same type of programming but aren’t communicating.”

Creating and implementing an institution-wide wellness framework is one facet of the university’s strategic plan.

Administrative support has been critical in developing the chief wellness officer role, and UWG President Brendan B. Kelly values the importance of wellness in the university community.

“One of our biggest feats is having an administrator at that level,” Stewart said. “[To have] your university president, your provost, your vice president for student affairs, all realize that retention, progression, and graduation are great, but we have students who can’t feed themselves because they don’t have food. We have students who don’t know where they’re going to live. Students who don’t know how to manage stress or high levels of anxiety. That is causing retention, progression, and graduation not to move forward.”

Chief wellness officer positions are spreading rapidly across campuses, particularly in the wake of COVID’s spotlight on the importance of mental health and well-being.

While institutions have made “significant investments to staff-up the counseling center, offer tech-based mental health resources, and promote robust non-clinical wellness supports,” campus leaders discover that these critical investments are not quite enough to address mental health and well-being concerns on campuses, according to an EAB white paper.

This has led institutions to create a space for dedicated leadership overseeing a holistic, integrated approach to student well-being, according to EAB: “Chief wellness officers 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.”

Campus-wide wellness

Wellness applies to all students, whether they’re on a 4-year track right out of high school or whether they’re adults with personal and/or professional obligations and goals.

“Wellness doesn’t belong to one individual, but wellness is different for people depending on where they are in their stage of life,” Stewart said.

Stewart said initially, top wellness priorities will include mental health, food insecurity, and financial wellness, and the university has many programs in the right places already–all it’s going to take in some cases is a little communication to break down silos and make wellness services more cohesive.

“Sometimes it’s not about creating a new program, it’s about taking what you’re already doing, elevating it, and bringing in people with passion,” Stewart said. “I developed ‘passion teams,’–I don’t like the term ‘committee.’ I want people to have a space where they can work within their passion, because that’s when productivity goes up.”

Stewart hopes UWG’s efforts will serve as inspiration to other institutions.

“I would love to see other institutions in the system be able to look at this model. We look at it through the lens of sustainability, collaboration, multi-culturalism. It sums up what our framework is doing, and I do think it’s a model that could be looked at. I’m ecstatic and blessed to have the opportunity,” she said.

“Wellness needs to be the foundation for everything that we do here at this university–not just for retention, progression, and graduation, but for success beyond the classroom.”

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Laura Ascione