Wellness Pros: The Skills That Matter Aren’t What You Think

7-minute read

The path of an employee wellness career, now more than ever, crosses a field of uncertainty, with all the excitement — and, yes, sometimes anxiety — that typically accompanies exploration of the unknown.

Where should practitioners focus professional development in an industry that sometimes seems destined to immerse itself in technology, other times touts its human touch; sometimes looks forward to a future emphasizing culture, environment, and holistic approaches, while other times rallying around the orthodoxy of behavior change?

It’s risky to guess which critical areas will universally advance wellness careers, but national data points us to the abilities that will be essential — regardless of our industry’s twists and turns: soft skills, defined by attitudes, habits, and behaviors rather than specialized expertise.

Occupational Information Network (O*NET) is the primary US clearinghouse about jobs, now and in the near future. Its data — based on employee and employer surveys plus other sources like the US Bureau of Labor Statistics — profiles required qualifications, typical tasks, and even the rate of a profession’s growth.

First, Context

O*NET lumps together information based on various job titles. For wellness (to be consistent with the data, I forgo using the word “well-being” here) these include Chief Wellness Officer, Executive Wellness Programs Director, and Wellness Director. So far so good. But the same dataset is drawn also from jobs like Fitness Coordinator, Fitness Director, Fitness Supervisor, Fitness/Wellness Director, and Recreational Sports Director. This is an imperfect combination; wellness and fitness are distinct industries (except for certain employee wellness programs housed in fitness facilities).

Jobs even within wellness differ significantly based on program type. Fortunately, the O*NET data tends to apply broadly to various circumstances, while remaining relevant to our field at large. Where it doesn’t, I’ve tapped into my own knowledge — based on experience as an employee, hiring manager, and industry observer — to filter what will be meaningful to the broadest wellness professional population.

The data was collected pre-pandemic, but I spotlight below findings most relevant regardless of curveballs.

A Snapshot of Wellness Jobs

The most prominent qualifications of wellness professionals:

  • Coordination (adjusting actions in relation to others’ actions), critical thinking (using logic and reasoning to identify alternative solutions, conclusions, or approaches to problems), social perceptiveness (understanding others’ reactions and feelings), and oral communication — all related to emotional intelligence — are rated the most important. Next is active listening (giving full attention to what other people are saying, taking time to understand the points being made, and asking questions as appropriate).
  • Establishing and maintaining interpersonal relationships are job activities wellness professionals will engage in most, followed by communicating with supervisors, peers, or subordinates. Next are coaching and developing others and getting information (gathering input from all relevant sources).
  • Enterprise tops O*NET’s list of important job interests: “Starting and carrying out projects. Leading people and making decisions.” Sometimes, the data shows, this requires risk taking and dealing with business matters.
  • Independence is among the most important values in our profession. “Occupations that satisfy this work value allow employees to work on their own and make decisions,” O*NET reports. “Corresponding needs are creativity, responsibility, and autonomy.”
  • Customer service is, by far, the most important type of “knowledge” to have. Yes, O*NET classifies it as knowledge: “Familiarity with principles and processes for providing customer and personal services. This includes customer needs assessment, meeting quality standards for services, and evaluation of customer satisfaction.”
  • Administration and management also are high on the list of knowledge categories. These include understanding principles of strategic planning, resource allocation, human resources, leadership, and productivity.

In O*NET’s surveys of this category, 71% of respondents had a bachelor’s degree; 29% had a master’s degree. Jobs are expected to grow 7%-10% between 2018-2028 — more than twice the average rate of all occupations analyzed.

Translating Data to Real Life

Fitness and nutrition, I believe, remain respectable academic backgrounds for practitioners leading wellness programs that emphasize physical health. Additional specialties like these may also be valuable as wellness strategies evolve:

  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion
  • Sustainability
  • Analytics
  • Health care management
  • Industrial-organizational psychology.

Reading between the lines, however, here’s my key takeaway from O*NET data and my own experience:

Today, and increasingly in the future, we must establish a base of soft skills. Specialized expertise is secondary and not always necessary.


This transition runs parallel to how many other occupations are adapting to an ever-changing work and life landscape.

You have many ways to develop soft skills:

  • Check with your employer. Organizations often offer training for honing skills in listening, oral communication, teamwork, and leadership, to name a few.
  • Find free and low-cost online classes through websites like edX, Coursera, and LinkedIn Learning.
  • Look for in-person training from university extension programs and community colleges.
  • Read articles and books about soft skills — the options are endless. Consider topics like personal productivity, conflict resolution, decision making, emotional intelligence, and storytelling.
  • Seek coaches and mentors who fully appreciate soft skills, are continuously developing their own, and will accommodate your unique needs and learning styles.

When you dust off your resume, go to an interview, or assess yourself for a performance management process, don’t just list your soft skills. Identify how they’ve helped you achieve specific goals — for yourself and your employer.

Your soft skills make you a more valuable employee and a better teammate. That’s the story that will help you advance as a professional throughout your career.


Bob MerbergBob Merberg
Bob Merberg is an independent consultant with 20+ years in managing employee well-being programs. He specializes in helping employers increase engagement and health outcomes through innovative programs, communication, workplace environment, and organization development strategies. Bob’s well-being program evaluation results have been featured at wellness conferences and in various media outlets.


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