Our Future Well-Being Officers

Our Future Well-Being Officers

The business landscape is changing, creating the opportunity for the Rise of the Chief Wellbeing Officer. Yet how do we equip our future leaders with the innate belief that wellbeing matters for all and is non-negotiable? A year ago, an article may have read something like: “Our businesses will look and operate fundamentally differently in the next ten years, but we don’t have a decade to wait.” This means we need to adapt, pivot, and start to create the opportunities, experiences, and value systems that help our future leaders adopt and embody wellbeing as a way of life starting in college and university.

To be honest, no one has ever grown up in this current condition. It is not war; it is not the great depression; it is not famine; we are experiencing something so different. We face economic uncertainty; we face civil unrest; we face climate change all the while we are living through a pandemic that will forever alter our views and perceptions. Young people are questioning everything, and even questioning if they should go to college. It feels like dreams are shut down, and kids are the best at dreaming.

These young people are our future; our future business leaders, future government leaders, future parents, simply put they are our future. However, do they have the skills, the abilities, and the resilience needed? They have been required (along with the rest of us) to live in an unprecedented environment where they must stay home, and/or social distance and wear masks. For many, this has been a demotivator and/or has even increased mental health challenges, exacerbated stress, anxiety, and even caused a sense of loneliness and isolation. What can be done about this?

Wellbeing In Action at the University of Denver

The University of Denver (DU) is starting to address this very topic. A few years ago, DU began working on their strategic plan, DU IMPACT 2025, and part of this plan was to prioritize the “The Promise of a Holistic Approach to your Education, including Personal Navigation Skills for Life and Work.”

In 2020, the university’s Chancellor, Jeremy Haefner began to socialize a new integrative approach to ensure all future leaders have a comprehensive set of skills, abilities, and mindsets to thrive in even the most challenging environment: the 4-Dimensional experience (4D Experience). The mission of the 4D student experience is to offer an academically challenging, interactive, and dynamic experience for DU students to increase their abilities to self-reflect and connect with campus resources. This will empower them to realize their full potential by providing holistic learning and service experiences for all students with a focus on intellectual growth, wellbeing, professional development, and character exploration. Chancellor Haefner pulled inspiration from his previous experience during a 2006-2007 fellowship where he spent the year as a mentee for John Cavanaugh at the University of West Florida. He integrated academic affairs with student affairs and published a paper on this double helix. It gave birth to the idea of expanding this framework and implementing this into the culture and ethos at DU, prioritizing the student front and center.

So, what exactly is the 4D experience, what problems is it solving, and what opportunities is it creating? In short, it is creating a more integrated process that allows students to discover who they are, what they want, and how to get there. Students start with a self-discovery process and awareness, then parlay into identifying what they want and creating a fulfilling college experience that will support ongoing learning throughout life. In addition, they develop resilience to weather life challenges and finally work on creating a life plan along with their board of advisors inclusive of faculty members, mentors, and local business members. This creates opportunities for internships and experiences across campus and within the larger community. The 4D experience will result in certifications in their portfolio as well as a co-curricular transcript and resume and a self-understanding of what gives them meaning and purpose. The student will be equipped with a narrative that ties into their holistic person inclusive of the following:

  • Intellectual Growth: The intellectual dimension’s learning outcomes are intended to inspire inquiry into various fields and ways of knowing, creating opportunities for students to learn from their professors, peers, and staff members about their educational careers. This connection throughout various co-curricular experiences creates opportunities to understand more of what they are passionate about and how that relates to their purpose in their career and beyond.
  • Wellbeing: The key dimensions of health and wellness address social, spiritual, emotional, physical, and financial wellbeing, and serve as a foundation to enhance students’ character, intellectual, and professional abilities. Students have the opportunity to learn about mindfulness and meditation and create healthy habits that result in stress relief. They experience fitness and exercise classes both in the gym and outside as well as learn about the strategies and habit formation addressing financial wellbeing. This is a multi-modal approach with in-person and online activities that are tailored to the learning style of the student.
  • Professional Development: This is an essential component in preparing students for the modern workforce. This dimension provides students the opportunity for one-on-one appointments with career counseling, professional career workshops, and networking opportunities. There are various business development courses that start freshman year that foster tailored personal and professional development to assist students in actualizing their career paths and helping them prepare for a successful college-to-work transition.
  • Character Exploration: Students refine their character through the focus on six different aspects: courage, awareness, responsibility, respect, resilience, and ethics. Through experiences that explore leadership development, personal and collective values, trainings in how to dialogue, modules that help community members discover how they view resilience and growth mindset; challenge views and encourage communication across difference through various opportunities to gather around virtual and in-person community tables.

However, this initiative is not without challenges as there needs to be a plan to scale as it will be expanded to both the undergraduate and graduate student populations. This will take a focus and prioritization of including and involving all faculty and staff to ensure this becomes part of a cultural transformation company wide. Plainly put, it will become the ethos at the university.  Yes, this will take time, 3-7 years, and will include all stakeholders; students, parents, alumni, faculty, staff, and the community. This is very similar to the timeline needed when transforming a corporate culture to embody total wellbeing where employees thrive.

A DU alum, Haley Osborn, is managing this initiative. Haley experienced the death of a fellow classmate and it completely changed her purpose and passion. She realized that she wanted to make a difference in people’s lives through healthy social connections and building community so when students felt isolated, alone, depressed, and anxious it would be the norm to get help. It would be the norm to be vulnerable because there was a community available, and there would be numerous pathways to get help, to heal, to hope, and to build resilience.

Gen Z As Our Future Leaders

One of the most visible generations in history, Gen Y, also known as millennials, has forced a new look at everything from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to how companies do business and the future of the workplace. Growing up with unprecedented access to technology, they have changed everything from whether cars are best bought or shared, to how long it is okay to live with parents to what kind of behavior is acceptable from employees and leaders.

However, it is Gen Z that is now poised to enter the workplace very soon and as mentioned earlier, this generation was born into a tumultuous world, demonstrated to them in all its VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) glory through a wide variety of screens. They fear for the future of the planet, value their education, worry about their future careers, and want to make the world a better place. They are completely digitally native in the sense of being quite helpless in a non-digital world.

It has been estimated that Gen Z may have up to 20 jobs throughout their careers. You can’t have all those job changes without developing a strong sense of self, as well as skills and abilities and resilience, and this needs to be taught as part of the culture of growing up and what a better place to teach this than within colleges and universities, like what the University of Denver is doing.

However, the University of Denver is not alone. NYU has the 20 by 30, transforming the lives of 20 million students in higher education by 2030 and is improving student wellbeing now to improve lives for a lifetime. And, during the most recent HERO conferenceCarley Riley, MD, MPP, MHS, an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics, Division of Critical Care Medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center within the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and Brita Roy presented on collective wellbeing. They both discussed and emphasized the importance of collective wellbeing where individual wellbeing influences the collective and vice versa.

Components of Collective Wellbeing

  • Vitality: perceived overall health, positive functioning, and emotional health and includes positive/negative affect, optimism, and emotional intelligence (spread can foster or undermine)
  • Opportunity: the cognitive appraisal of financial situation and perceived opportunity to achieve life goals and socioeconomic mobility
  • Connectedness: level of connection and support among community members, including social acceptance (positive attitudes toward people) and social integration (i.e., feeling a sense of belonging to the community)
  • Contribution: feelings of meaning and purpose attributed to community engagement and sense of belonging examples volunteering, civil engagement, and giving
  • Inspiration: engagement in activities that are intrinsically motivating or simulating and the community’s valuation and support of these activities by providing opportunities for such engagement


Collective Wellbeing Framework:

These four systems will help with collective wellbeing, and once implemented, the power of story can make the adoption happen faster and with efficiency. The center is the collective wellbeing, and it is directly related to outcomes (productivity and achievement and the dotted line shows there is reinforcement, and it builds resilience). As you start to understand the systems it becomes easier to see how we can foster or undermine wellbeing, through things such as the environment (walkability, etc.), or psychosocial (psychological safety). The systems put in place are also important. For example, right now the distance learning, residential system, and even transportation system. Lastly is the economic lever (job placement, innovation incubators, internships, etc.). Each community has policies, programs, and culture that dictate systems and environment and there is also the ability of community members to influence these factors with social capital, capacity, and collective efficacy.

Just as employers are building wellbeing into the culture of their workplaces, and using it as a recruitment and retention tool as well as Linking Workplace Health Promotion Best Practices and Organizational Financial Performanceso are universitiesIt is exciting to watch this manifest in colleges and universities as we collectively help the youth gain the skills and abilities to thrive as they become our future leaders. Although it may seem like a dark point in our lifetime, there is hope. To have hope is to want an outcome that makes your life better in some way. It not only can help make a tough present situation more bearable but also can eventually improve our lives because envisioning a better future motivates people to take the steps to make it happen. Hope brings opportunity.

Colleen Reilly, Contributor
Leadership Strategy
I cover positive change for individuals and organizations.