Rise of the ‘Chief Empathy Officer’ as global leaders prioritise wellbeing and ESG commitments

21 September 2021 . International

  • New report reveals empathy now the top-rated leadership trait globally
  • Workplace mental health spend increases by 30 per cent in some markets, with China, UK and Hong Kong leading the way
  • In the face of continued economic pressures, leaders look to the long-term with investment in people and the green agenda
  • Bupa Global’s Executive Wellbeing Index 2021 reveals biggest trends in wellbeing at home and work for the year ahead
man at desk

A new breed of business leader is emerging as global executives adapt their leadership styles and shore up commitments to employee wellbeing, in a bid to future-proof their businesses post-COVID-19.

According to the latest Executive Wellbeing Index from premium health insurer Bupa Global, board-level executives worldwide now rate empathy as the most important attribute of an effective leader, followed by integrity and self-awareness1.

A quarter of global board-level executives (26%) now see CEOs taking on the new role of ‘Chief Empathy Officer’. The Index suggests two in five business leaders (44%) already have this position in post at their company, with a further 24 per cent planning to introduce the ‘CEmO’ role in the next year. It comes as board-level executives cite inclusive leadership qualities as essential to improving workplace wellbeing2, following in the footsteps of CEOs like Tim Cook of Apple.

Economic outlook

Business leaders continue to feel the effects of the pandemic, with 36 per centfearing the full economic impact is yet to come. Economic optimism is also down; just one in five (19%) business leaders are optimistic about global recovery now compared to 32 per cent in 2020’s Index, with the biggest drops in UAE (38% to 8%) and Egypt (35% to 10%).

Sheldon Kenton, Managing Director of Bupa Global said: “Whilst economic optimism is down, expectations of business leaders have never been higher, as they steer their organisations through the COVID-19 crisis into the ‘New Normal.’ In the face of continued economic uncertainty, global leaders are clearly looking to the long term with a renewed focus on employee wellbeing and empathetic leadership. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it makes business sense – for talent attraction, retention, and reputation.”

Investment in workplace wellbeing

Empathetic, inclusive leadership is manifesting as concrete investments in employee wellbeing. Businesses in most markets are predicted to increase their spending on mental health support at work in the coming year, averaging a 14 per cent increase on current spending with China, the UK and Hong Kong upping their spend the most3.

These larger wellbeing budgets are set to pay for initiatives including new roles focused on supporting mental health, paid mental health sick days and private medical insurance with mental health cover4. Global business leaders are also planning to introduce better benefits for parents, including greater emphasis on flexible working and maintaining a healthy work-life balance5.

ESG commitments

As part of the great ‘re-set’ of global recovery, business leaders have ramped up their focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG) commitments. In the context of events such as COP 26 and widespread public attention on climate change, employees, investors and customers are all now looking for strong ESG values6. The Index also reveals more leaders will be prioritising balancing profit with purpose in the next 12 months as well as putting more emphasis on the environmental agenda. These ‘green and purpose-driven’ values came through most strongly in Asia and the UAE7.

Sheldon Kenton, Managing Director of Bupa Global said: “It’s positive to see business leaders shoring up employee mental health and wellbeing after a tough 18 months. Last year’s Index painted a picture of digital transformation and staff decentralisation, but the pandemic has led to innovations in all areas of business and this year we are seeing the emergence of a more empathetic, inclusive leadership style. It’s a huge cultural shift from 2020 where business leaders were struggling with the stigmas of discussing their own mental health.

“In addition, by focusing on the environmental agenda and more purpose-driven goals as part of a wider company cultural overhaul, they will surely reap the benefits from employees, customers and investors.

“Bupa Global is committed to supporting business leaders and their people by continually investing in and updating our mental health and wellbeing provision. Our Global Virtual Care proposition gives people access to international doctors wherever they are in the world. We recently removed lifetime limits across our plans for in-patient and day-patient mental health treatment, and we also now include cover for ADHD, addiction and self-inflicted injuries within our plan benefits. We also provide a range of preventive health and wellbeing services, designed to enable customers, their families and employees to take a more holistic approach to their health management.”

Notes to editor

Table 1: Key leadership traits

Most important leadership traits according to global business leaders









Awareness of bias


Table 2: Spending on supporting employee mental health and wellbeing per business (board-level respondents)


% change in next 12 months, compared to current spend





Hong Kong












Table 3: Top 3 markets focusing on ESG values

Companies planning greater emphasis on balancing profit with purpose in next year

Companies planning greater focus on the environmental agenda in next year

UAE 76%

UAE 74%

China 35%

Hong Kong 36%

Hong Kong 32%

Singapore 36%

For more information, to view the full report, graphics or videos please contact bupaglobal@thirdcity.co.uk

Notes to Editors

Bupa Global’s second Executive Wellbeing Index takes opinions from over 1,200 high net worth individuals (HNWIs) and senior executives based across Europe, North America, the Middle East and Asia in its annual view of the trends set by international business leaders and wealth creators and how they will impact on business, home life and health.

  1. See Table 1
  2. 32% of board-level executives see inclusive leadership as key to improving workplace wellbeing.
  3. See Table 2. An average increase of 14% among countries that increased their spend
  4. 24% of board-level execs will add new roles with responsibility for mental health in the coming year, 26% will add paid mental health sick days, and 27% will add private medical insurance with mental health provision
  5. 19% of business leaders are planning to introduce better benefits for parents, 46% more flexible working patterns and 20% greater focus on a healthy work-life balance
  6. (38%) of board-level execs say employees are increasingly looking for strong ESG values and 35% say the same of investors and customers
  7. See Table 3

About the research

The Bupa Global Executive Wellbeing Index 2021 includes analysis of four international datasets from research conducted between May and June 2021 among 1263 high net worth individuals and senior executives:

  1. UK, USA, France, UAE and Egypt-based HNWIs – referred to as the ‘global research’. Research conducted via online survey / CATI by Opinium Research between 10 May – 28 May 2021 among 463 HNWIs defined as those with over £1M in salary and investable assets. Of the 463, 355 are working and 296 are board level executives.
  2. China-based HNWIs - conducted online by Insight Focus between 21 May – 10 June 2021 among 400 HNWIs defined as those with over £1M in salary and investable assets. Of the 400, 400 are working and 202 are board level executives.
  3. Hong Kong-based HNWIs – conducted online by Insight Focus between 21 May – 10 June 2021 among 200 HNWIs defined as those with over £1M in salary and investable assets. Of the 200, 200 are working and 108 are board level executives.
  4. Singapore-based HNWIs – conducted online by Insight Focus between 21 May – 10 June 2021 among 200 HNWIs defined as those with over £1M in salary and investable assets. Of the 200, 200 are working and 112 are board level executives.

The data sets were subsequently merged by Opinium Research and weighting was applied to enable us to derive global averages by ensuring all markets were represented equally despite differing sample sizes.

About Bupa Global

Bupa Global is the premium health insurance arm of Bupa. Established in 1971, it provides individuals, small businesses and corporate customers international coverage with products and services so they can access the healthcare they need, when they need it, whether at home or when studying, living, travelling or working abroad.

With a multilingual team of advisers, Bupa Global serves customers across the globe and can provide access to c.1.6m medical providers on a direct settlement basis. Offices are located in London and Brighton (UK), Miami and Philadelphia (USA - GeoBlue), Dublin (Ireland), Cairo (Egypt), Dubai (UAE), and Hong Kong (China) as well as regional offices in Mainland China and Singapore.

Bupa Global’s international private medical insurance offers multiple resources for those affected by mental health issues; access to a network of doctors available 24/7 in multiple languages – enabling individuals and their families to speak to a specialist at a time that is convenient to them.

Bupa Global is also focused on supporting the health and wellbeing of its people through the pandemic. Initiatives include a Covid-19 people hub and a new employee newsletter with a focus on wellbeing and resources, and a digital health and wellbeing programme. Bupa Global’s Mental Health First Aid Network has been expanded with more business leaders taking the training and an Employee Assistance Programme has been rolled out across all parts of the Bupa Global business (new to China, Hong Kong, Singapore & Egypt).

For more information about Bupa Global visitwww.bupaglobal.com.

About Bupa

Bupa's purpose is helping people live longer, healthier, happier lives and making a better world.

We are an international healthcare company serving over 31 million customers worldwide. With no shareholders, we reinvest profits into providing more and better healthcare for the benefit of current and future customers.

We directly employ around 85,000 people, principally in the UK, Australia, Spain, Chile, Poland, New Zealand, Hong Kong SAR, Turkey, Brazil, Mexico, the US, Middle East and Ireland. We also have associate businesses in Saudi Arabia and India.

For more information, visit www.bupa.com.