To say Dr Karen DeSalvo’s entry into Google was busy would be an understatement. “It’s been quite a whirlwind,” she says of her role as chief health officer, a new position for the tech group. The doctor, who previously worked as US acting assistant secretary for health and as health commissioner for New Orleans, joined at the end of 2019.
“When the pandemic happened, I was pulled into company-wide support. We established [the role] as we were moving,” she says.
Covid-19 has brought the role of the company chief medical officer — also known as a chief health officer — to the fore. Typically former doctors, they work with human resources and senior executives to develop and implement strategies to take care of employees’ physical and mental health, as well as overseeing workplace safety.
As the impact of the pandemic has become clearer, more companies are seeking to create positions that oversee wellbeing. Medical officers’ responsibilities during Covid-19 began with trying to reduce the risk of employees and their families catching the disease, and have moved on to looking at the effects of Long Covid and encouraging staff to be vaccinated.
During the pandemic, workload has also included advising senior leadership on work-from-home policies, securing safe manufacturing sites, retailers and offices, phased returns to the office, communicating information about the virus to the workforce, as well as creating customer and employee temperature-taking and tracing protocols.
At Google, DeSalvo says her work is helped by it being “a very math-based, fact-based company. Googlers and leadership are very informed.” One of her greatest challenges was to “learn how to speak Google in the throes of the [pandemic]. I had to learn the company, culture and the language.”
Mental health and burnout support
CMOs have become key internal players in terms of overseeing staff mental health. Social restrictions, high workloads and remote working arrangements have combined to increase the threat of burnout, and all workers are having to cope with uncertainty.
They have also advised on choosing and buying wellbeing products, such as mental health assistance and apps. This is a market that has exploded in the past year. Dr Richard Heron, CMO at BP, the energy group, says that “trying to understand which product and service actually makes a difference can be very difficult. I’m reminded of snake oil salespeople occasionally — some may be very good, some may be harmful. It’s important to be an informed buyer rather than looking at what other companies might have. Looking at the evidence on what works is important.”
Dr Brent Pawlecki, chief health officer at Goodyear, the tyre company, says his experience in a similar role at Pitney Bowes in New York during the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 taught him that “people who were resilient” were better equipped to adapt to “the new normal”.
CMOs becoming more ‘visible’
Dr Jenny Dodman, CMO at Ford of Britain, says “there’s greater visibility of the role” since the arrival of Covid-19. BP’s Heron describes the past year as being like a “wingman for the C-suite in making difficult decisions” amid changing information on a new disease, and countries making different political decisions. “For someone with a lay background it’s like navigating in a storm without a compass.”
Over the past year, more companies have become interested in creating a CMO position, says Jenni Hibbert, global managing partner at Heidrick & Struggles, the executive search company. “Financial services, manufacturing and tech firms are looking to fill these roles with individuals who can provide credible guidance to staff and leadership on navigating these challenges, tackling regulatory affairs and providing clinical advisory associated with chronic health issues.” In some sectors — notably healthcare, science, sport and pharmaceuticals — the role traditionally focused on helping to create and market products and services for customers.
The pandemic has accelerated interest from employers in wellbeing, says Brian Kropp, head of human resources research at the Gartner research and advisory group. Employers’ focus is shifting from safety to encouraging productivity, reflecting the fact that “there are fewer jobs that people are at risk of injury, and more where people are experiencing burnout”.
In the early days of the pandemic, CMOs’ key responsibility was to look at the data and available information about the new disease. At Salesforce, Dr Ashwini Zenooz says she was helped by collaborating with colleagues who have expertise in data and public health. “It isn’t a one person job — it’s collaborative. It’s a novel disease, with data emerging every day.” In February 2020, she advised the company’s leadership to stop travelling.
For Dodman, who was new to the role and company, her priority was to make Ford’s Dagenham plant Covid-safe to enable workers on the assembly line to contribute to the ventilator challenge, which brought together companies to help build equipment for UK intensive care units.
She says: “We had to make sure social distancing was in place and protective equipment was compatible with doing the task. There’s no point in putting control measures [in] if you can’t do the job.”
Training was key, working with management, HR and unions to explain the importance of compliance.
Des Quinn, a national officer at the Unite union, agreed, saying the “partnership approach has greatly strengthened worker confidence and engagement in the process”.
Communication at all levels
Making medical information intelligible to a broader audience, internally and externally, is key to the CMO role. Dr Pamela Hymel, chief medical officer for Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, says: “Understanding the medical content surrounding this virus and its treatment, then interpreting this for our leaders and employees in clear language has been a large part of my mission during this pandemic.
“We have tried to deliver information to them through video and written messaging, using ‘Ask Dr Pam’ as a way to flag content coming from a medical provider.”
Making medical language intelligible is part of the CMO job, but understanding business language can be an issue for medical staff. Previously, Goodyear’s Pawlecki gained a masters in medical management from the University of Southern California. He says: “It’s very different talking to other doctors from business people. My role was to learn to speak the language and also to learn that I’m not the most important person in the room — until I am.” The work in the past year has been intense. “Around 4 July I realised I needed to take care of myself, to think of it as a marathon.”
Navigating an uncertain future
One issue longer term will be to encourage workers to stick to preventive measures, even when vaccines are widely available. “People are tired,” says Pawlecki. “There are a lot of things we just don’t know, we have to be comfortable with that. We don’t know the variants that might come through, we don’t know how vaccines will protect us long term. Business is trying to make decisions on limited information.”
Zenooz at Salesforce agrees. “For the next few years, every company will be thinking about public health and welfare of its employees, [bringing more expertise] in-house. Even if Covid was wiped out, the after-effect should concern employers. There will be an impact on the economy and mental health.”