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Chief Happiness Officer? Really?!

When you embark on a roadshow to ‘present the equity story’ to your international community of stakeholders you expect the presenting management team to be composed of the usual C-Suite suspects (CEO, CFO, IRO, CTO…).  Will the day arrive when you introduce your CHO to a fund manager?  If happiness = more productivity, virtue should increase the value of the stock, right? Chief Happiness Officer?? Are you kidding me?

The story begins with Google and Chade-Meng Tan, the first chief happiness officer equivalent, officially known as the Jolly Good Fellow. Now we are talking about Zappos (whose CEO Tony Hsieh released a best-selling book, Delivering Happiness, which covers strategies to increase happiness in corporate culture), IKEA and Lego to name but a few. All of a sudden, the job title of Chief Happiness Officer is appearing in corporate organigrammes and popping up in LinkedIn searches all over the world. Studies and surveys of employee engagement and their relationship with the workplace are pointing in one direction:  a full-time role dedicated to employees’ well-being at work. Is the age of the CHO upon us?

Surveys show that employees in large businesses think a work environment should facilitate happiness in the office, more so than any other aspect.  It is hardly surprising to see the evolution of workplace infrastructure to include sleep pods, meditation studios, yoga mats, wellness suites, organic food bars as well as ergonomically engineered desk areas; or cultural practices like 20% time, Results-Only-Work-Environment (ROWE), or even Agile.  Corporate headquarters have become corporate campuses and corporate culture focuses on creating happiness.  Some companies use the Happiness Business Index, a survey based on “well-being researcher,” Nic Marks’s Happy Planet Index that scores how motivated and engaged employees feel in their workplace.

At the macro level, quality of life can be found alongside traditional economic indicators: countries look at performance through the lens of a ‘happiness index’–just look at the OECD’s ‘Better Life Index’ –right alongside the GDP and financial measures. In our ever-changing, short-termist, highly volatile world we have to deal with uncertainty and ‘stress’ each day. By targeting what makes us happy, we can counter this volatility and make strides towards developing the optimal environment for a productive workforce.

The correlation between happiness and productivity is no longer in dispute. Statistics to support this abound.  Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends study reports that “productive, positive employee experience has emerged as the new contract between employer and employee.” The problems of employee engagement and productivity continue to grow.

Nearly 80 percent of executives rated “employee experience” very important (42%) or important (38%). 25% of US companies’ workforces are actively dis-engaged and the cost of employee attrition is high.  In the UK, for example, the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) estimated that 16 million days are lost to ill health from stress, with a £26bn cost to employers.  It’s clear that leveraging employee motivation and advocacy, where engagement translates into better ideas, creative fun, extra hours of problem-solving, better customer-staff interactions, willingness to go that extra mile, will impact the bottom line.

What does the CHO do? ‘Promoting happiness’ is done through identifying the very specific needs within teams in complex structures as well as in influencing the C-Suite for positive change. As with most new concepts, the feedback is not all positive. The New Republic called it the “latest, creepiest job in corporate America.”  HR Directors in Europe say it has to be re-christened, because the term CHO doesn’t wash. Is the CHO just a reincarnation of the ‘Head of Culture/People’? The jury’s out. Some take their CHO quite literally.

Whilst there is no denying that happiness fosters harmony, an abundance mindset, enhanced problem-solving and better productivity, it is also one of the most elusive notions philosophers have been grappling with since the beginning of time. The CHO is faced with a daunting task and needs to tap into organisational behaviour, management and influencing skills. They must also have a deep-rooted understanding of the company values and strategic vision, to remain aligned with the long-term performance targets.

There are other issues: does your company have the right to intrude on what is largely a very personal experience?  In her PhD thesis, executive coach Lucia Ceja highlights a counter-intuitive fact: happiness thrives in chaos.  Worrying about being happy could be the best antidote to happiness itself.  Is happiness something that can be artificially cultivated? CHO today CEO tomorrow?  Hey, 15 years ago, Facebook didn’t exist….