New Calling: Wellness Officer

There's a healthy job market for helping to keep employees healthy.

By Susan J. Wells Feb 1, 2011
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As employers expand and formalize their focus on employee health and wellness, the need for qualified corporate wellness leaders is growing in tandem. The trend, experts say, is quickly creating new, complementary career paths and advancement opportunities for HR and benefits professionals.

Job prospects are strong, according to data from the 2010-11 edition of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Federal officials use the term “health educator” to describe people who promote healthy lifestyles, including those targeting employee wellness. Employment for health educators is expected to grow by 18.2 percent through 2018, faster than the 10 percent average for all occupations. The bureau attributes the growth to the rising cost of health care—and employers’ quest to curb it.

Evidence in the job market confirms the rising demand. The online job site CareerBuilder, for example, had a 17 percent increase in wellness job listings from April to October 2010, says spokeswoman Jennifer Grasz. A search in December 2010 for “wellness manager” returned 2,245 jobs posted within the previous 30 days.

A New ‘Calling’

“The increase in emphasis on employee wellness certainly is creating a new ‘calling’ for human resource professionals,” says Bob Merberg, founder of the Employee Wellness Network and wellness program manager at Rochester, N.Y.-based Paychex Inc., a payroll and HR services company with $2 billion in revenues.

Merberg, author of The Health Seeker’s Handbook (Well Lit Books, 2003), launched the network in April 2010 as a privately held social media website for employee wellness professionals. It maintains a jobs board that aggregates wellness job posts from around the Web.

The site also seeks to connect the growing community of wellness professionals so they can network and exchange ideas, he says.

“The absence of adequate networking opportunities is not only an impediment to the career growth for wellness professionals,” he says, “but also an impediment to the expansion of our knowledge about what works and what doesn’t work.”

While the network does not collect data on the number of wellness jobs, Merberg says he sees an increase in managerial jobs in the wellness field.

Who Are They?

Wellness leaders go by many titles—wellness manager, health and wellness manager, well-being director, wellness coordinator, wellness specialist and wellness champion are common. Most wellness hires report to a company’s top HR or employee benefits executive.

While wellness professionals have many duties, they’re generally defined as the management-level individual who leads a company’s wellness efforts—defining the wellness mission in an organization and working to improve health and well-being companywide. Increasingly, wellness initiatives are linked and integrated with employee benefits plans.

Healthy Dose of Earnings Potential

Strength in the wellness job category is leading to healthier salaries, according to data from the 2010/2011 Survey Report on Human Resources Personnel Compensation conducted by Towers Watson Data Services, part of New York-based global professional services company Towers Watson, in conjunction with the Society for Human Resource Management.

Wellness program managers were among the top 20 HR positions with the highest percentage increase in compensation from 2009 to 2010, according to the report. Those surveyed earned median total cash compensation of $71,100 in 2009 and $79,400 in 2010, chalking up an annual increase of 12 percent even in a tough business climate when salary budgets were tight.

“Many times, wellness responsibility logically and naturally falls to HR and benefits folks,” says Gary Kushner, SPHR, CBP, president of Kushner & Co., a Portage, Mich.-based HR strategy and employee benefits consulting and administration firm. “Small to mid-size organizations are generally less likely to create separate jobs for wellness, while large companies may be more likely to do so.”

In some organizations—especially those that operate an on-site clinic or health services component—wellness managers have a background that combines HR, benefits and health, either academically or clinically, with a background in medicine, nursing, nutrition or physical fitness.

Many HR professionals who take on wellness duties tend to have considerable experience in planning and managing their companies’ benefits strategies. It’s a logical fit, given that wellness programs often tie into employee benefits plans.

Lisa Reimer, benefits and wellness manager at Foremost Farms USA, a dairy cooperative business based in Baraboo, Wis., with $1.6 billion in sales, grew into the role. With a degree in business administration with HR emphasis, she started working at the 1,100-employee cooperative in 2000 as an HR coordinator performing HR generalist duties.

Always heavily involved in the planning and coordination of employee benefits, including health insurance, Reimer and the HR team offered health risk assessments and on-site biometric screenings to salaried employees in 2004, and expanded the benefit to hourly manufacturing employees at 13 locations soon after.

“Our wellness programming started slowly but has steadily grown more intense,” she says. As a result, Reimer was named benefits and wellness manager in 2009. Reporting to the corporate director of HR, her responsibilities include day-to-day administration, planning and communication of all employee benefits—retirement benefits, health benefits, soft benefits and wellness programming.

“As wellness grew, so did my interest,” Reimer says.

The cooperative’s commitment to employee well-being provided her with resources and time to take an aggressive approach. She attended seminars and conferences, read, and worked with benefits consultants to learn what’s new.

Reimer’s efforts to promote and expand employee health and wellness earned Foremost Farms a 2010 Well Workplace Gold Award from the Wellness Council of America, an Omaha, Neb.-based not-for-profit with 3,200 member organizations.

‘Hard Skill Set’ Wanted

Along with the backgrounds they bring to the job, wellness professionals must possess the “hard skill set” necessary to drive results, Kushner emphasizes.

“There is an altruistic side of wellness, but there’s a financial side, too,” he says. “Wellness isn’t all about soft HR. It’s about the hard science of wellness.”

Whether it’s logging improvements in health and well-being, increasing productivity, reducing absenteeism and presenteeism, or reducing overall health risk, it’s about analyzing, benchmarking, measuring, tracking and return on investment, Kushner explains. “The really good HR practitioner has that skill set.”

Paychex’s Merberg—whose background includes health coaching, training, and a graduate degree in community health and exercise science—shares that view. “My concern is that employee wellness is perceived as simply a fun job,” he says. “It is fun, but it also is dependent on broad knowledge and on strategic methodologies.”

Credentials Important

For HR professionals looking to take on the role of wellness manager—or looking to hire one—a growing crop of professional credentials can help establish credibility and demonstrate hard skills and current knowledge in the field, experts say.

In fact, more companies now require or strongly prefer their wellness professionals to have a nationally recognized certification in health and wellness, says Beth Taylor, a consultant and a certified wellness program manager for Intercare Insurance Solutions in San Diego, an insurance brokerage and consulting firm.

“Wellness certification provides a tool for the employer to measure expertise,” Taylor says. “But not all certifications are created equal, and the field of available wellness certification programs narrows when the goal is to find one that incorporates employee benefit concerns.”

Some certification programs, for instance, focus on the clinical aspects of wellness; others concentrate on intervention services like health coaching, nutrition or fitness. The type of certification that best supports your company’s strategic goals is “one that takes a total wellness program management approach.” This approach should include:

  • Information on types of wellness program offerings.
  • Information on design of health risk identification, such as risk assessments and screenings.
  • Implementation instruction.
  • Evaluation and results techniques.
  • Communication strategies, including incentives.

The following certifications garner favorable reviews from wellness professionals interviewed for this article. All strive for academic preparation, breadth of professional leadership experiences, and commitment to continuing education and professional development.

Certified Health Education Specialist. Offered by the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing in Whitehall, Pa., this certification requires that candidates pass an exam on health educators’ responsibility and is aimed at entry-level professionals with at least a bachelor’s degree. Applicants must complete 75 hours of approved continuing education courses or seminars during a five-year period to maintain certification.

Certified Wellness Practitioner. Offered by the National Wellness Institute in Stevens Point, Wis., this designation is geared toward wellness professionals who have demonstrated excellence. It’s based on a point-ranking system of qualifications, knowledge and documented leadership.

Certified Worksite Wellness Professional. Also offered by the National Wellness Institute, this program uses best-practices solutions to help worksite wellness professionals, benefits managers and HR administrators get the skills and information they need to design, implement and evaluate programs. Offered in partnership with WebMD, a medical information website, the multilevel certification requires two days of training, four small group projects and an exam.

Well Workplace Practitioner. Offered by the Wellness Council of America, this multilevel certification and webinar series is known as Well Workplace University and focuses on skills and benchmarks needed to deliver a results-oriented workplace program. To date, more than 1,200 worksite wellness practitioners and business leaders have completed the Well Workplace University curriculum.

Certification in Wellness Expertise. Newly added to the lineup of certifications offered by the National Association of Health Underwriters in Arlington, Va., this continuing education course is targeted to employee benefits professionals who want comprehensive guidance on program implementation, compliance, incentives, return on investment and evidence of the business case for wellness. Certification is achieved following completion of the course and an online exam.

Health Promotion Director. Offered by The Cooper Institute in Dallas, this curriculum-based testing course is meant for professionals establishing or enhancing their worksite health promotion program. Topics include planning, needs assessment, evaluation strategies, marketing tactics, and building support and direction. Those who complete the course and pass written and practical exams earn a certificate.

An Evolutionary Revolution

As HR professionals continue to accept and pursue opportunities in health promotion leadership, they would be wise to keep in mind that corporate wellness roles are still evolving.

The employee wellness profession still lies in “uncharted waters,” Merberg says. “The goals and methods of employee wellness are not quite like conventional health promotion or like other HR initiatives. It’s an unusual and fascinating hybrid. This is just one of the reasons it’s such an exciting field.”

The author, a contributing editor of HR Magazine, is a business journalist based in the Washington, D.C., area.

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