Is it Time to Create a New Wellness Function?

Headhunter Alan McIvor explores the concept of a new wellness-centered role within companies, arguing that it could enhance efficiency, productivity, and employee well-being.

I recently met a very interesting woman for coffee. A while back, An-ting Liu started her role as the executive assistant to a general manager sent to Taiwan from Europe. She then convinced her boss to adapt her scope into a hybrid position that also involved her becoming an in-house “wellness coach” to the Taiwan staff.  

This role, she proposed, would involve sessions centered around improving employees’ mental and physical health through life coaching, nutritional guidance and planning, exercise routine building, career coaching, and mindfulness practice. She has since been helping her colleagues improve their lives by applying a holistic approach to health. The results have been fantastic – the project has even won an internal award, gaining recognition within the Asia Pacific region.  

I was pretty stunned by her story. I would consider myself an expert in job functions within the corporate office, and I’d never really heard of anything like it in Taiwan. Of course, these occupations all exist outside the traditional office setting – you can hire a trainer at the gym, a therapist at the clinic, and a career or life coach through LinkedIn. But an in-house combination of the above seems revolutionary to me. It’s one of those simple but effective ideas that really change the game in several profound ways – a new role for the post-modern workplace, catering to the needs of a new generation of workers.   

I asked Liu if she’d heard of Angela Feng, founder of Ness Wellness, a company focused on the same type of holistic office healthcare. Ness Wellness offers corporate clients a chance to invest in their employees’ mental and physical health by connecting them with several specialist trainers.  

Most people reading this will have done teambuilding sessions. I have been involved in several and even ran a few myself. These sessions are rarely embraced properly. Usually, they are seen as a “bit of fun” by most attendees and as an annoyance by the rest. I would guess that irregular coaching sessions arranged by HR have very little effect on the company’s employees. Outside visitors wouldn’t be able to make any tangible mental and physical health progress in the same way an in-house coach could, having already gained the trust of their colleagues. I’m sure most therapists and coaches would agree that familiarity and trust are key factors to success.  

This new “wellness” function would likely be placed under the Human Resources umbrella. Larger HR teams usually have someone responsible for Learning and Development (L&D), although L&D professionals tend to be more focused on improving employee skillsets aligning with specific company values and standard operating procedures. I would be surprised if any L&D professionals have one-on-one mindfulness sessions coaching the sales head out of their smoking addiction or providing guided meditation to reduce the stress and anxiety of the CFO.  

Alan McIvor has accumulated over a decade of experience in the Taiwan job market.

Now, I know some of you will be skeptical of modern techniques for improving mental health – I personally recoil whenever I hear the word “spiritual.” To be completely honest, most traditional companies (and people) have a deep-seated aversion to anything new. However, this type of function could also have massive benefits to the company in a purely capitalist sense. This is not some hippy-style Silicon Valley “we need bean bags and ping-pong tables in the office” idea – this is a fiscally sensible move for companies.  

Employing someone in your company to solve non-work problems could result in increased productivity, engagement, and morale, improved communication, lower turnover, new ideas, and strengthened employer branding. Sure, you might still have some staff quit over work-related frustrations, but imagine tripling your retention rates because your in-house wellness coach keeps people mentally and physically healthy.  

Let me give you some concrete examples. Your employees all have different problems. Jasmine could spend her 50-minute bi-weekly session working on improving her sleeping issues. Jack could work on exercise accountability, planning his gym and daily walking routines, and using the wellness coach to encourage and monitor progress. Lilian could take six months of weekly sessions to work on her confidence, building up the nerve to start talking more openly in meetings and sharing her ideas. Now, please tell me you are starting to see the endless potential like I did. 

The benefits to staff and company morale could be life-changing, and all you need to do is hire one extra person. If your wellness coach is good at their job, you could improve company revenue and reduce turnover rates. Happy staff rarely quit. 

Getting with the times 

Does this still seem too Californian to you? This kind of role is rare, almost unheard of. In fact, Deloitte’s Chicago office is one of the only places I know with an in-house health and wellness coach. But wellness coaching covers so many fundamental areas that it needn’t be something only the young would buy into. Having someone dedicated to offering support from a holistic point of view would be universally effective.  

One-on-one sessions could be supplemented by group activities and exercises organized by someone who understands the staff’s needs. Such sessions would be much more effective than the outsourced annual teambuilding sessions that are more commonplace in the current environment. It’s exponentially more effective than the “let’s just book an escape room and have dinner somewhere” teambuilding I’ve been a part of before.   

If you are still not convinced, let me address some of the counterarguments to my claim. A skeptic might argue that this function would be incredibly difficult to recruit for, with very few capable people in the market. Most HR people I know would be useless at this job, lacking the personality type and skillset needed to be effective. This might be a bit harsh, but HR isn’t generally really on your side – this department tends to consist of more “by the letter of the law” types upholding company policy.  

I would imagine most of the potential applicants for “Wellness Manager” are currently teaching yoga (I’m only half-joking) and probably have an aversion to working in a corporate office regardless of the potential financial benefits.  

There is also a fine line between scientifically proven mental health treatments like meditation and quackery like crystals, astrology, tarot, and chiropractors. I wouldn’t want to be the person telling my new wellness coach that their morning walk advice is great, but their comment about Geminis not working well with Pisces was nonsense.  

The elephant in the room is most likely concerns regarding confidentiality – a valid issue. The nightmare scenario would involve sharing something personal during a session and subsequently facing termination or having the information leaked to the entire office. Confidentiality would need to be taken extremely seriously in this position. Even then, serious mental health issues should be treated by mental health professionals. 

In-house wellness experts could instead cover a range of issues related to stress, pressure, work efficiency, communication, and physical health without having to take on the responsibilities of professional physicians. The scope of the wellness manager would be more like that of a life coach than a psychiatrist with a medical degree.  

So, where would we be finding this new breed of employees? As a talent expert myself, I’ve asked whether professional psychologists and therapists would consider this type of in-house corporate role. And I know the answer – for the right compensation, many would consider it.  

Some corporations already hire in-house doctors, dentists, and vets. Pharmaceutical companies often tempt doctors away from grueling hospital shifts into in-house expert roles by offering a regular nine-to-five (or six in Taiwan) and competitive salaries. I guarantee there are qualified therapists who would make the move if companies like Google and Uber started calling.  

In the same way that many young people want to work in ESG and sustainability functions, the younger generation is likely to be enthusiastic about this type of altruistic function. I’d imagine that within a couple of decades, we may see graduates increasingly choosing careers in the wellness function over more traditional options like sales, HR, supply chain, and finance. 

Ultimately, this is not just a good idea – it may even be an inevitable part of the future. Younger millennials and Gen Z suffer much higher rates of anxiety and depression. They are largely unsatisfied with traditional working styles and are demanding change through mass resignations, “quiet quitting,” and embracing remote work.  

According to a recent report by the U.S. nonprofit Mind Share Partners, approximately 50% of all full-time U.S. employees have left a previous job, at least in part, due to mental health reasons. This percentage increases to 68% among millennial respondents and even further to 81% among Gen Z respondents. Companies that don’t modernize will ultimately pay the price of high turnover rates. 

I can tell you for a fact that most traditional companies in the market are suffering a dearth of young managers coming through the ranks. Young people leave these companies before reaching mid-level positions. Like an aging population in a country, this type of problem is an existential one.   

Covid has also taken a toll on people’s physical and mental health. Remote work has changed the employment landscape forever, and there is no going back to how it was before. Having an in-house wellness coach might enable companies to deal with “people-centered” issues in a new, more efficient way.