the newest c-suite officer wants to get inside your head

June 29, 2015

employee engagement, productivity are key business benefits the Chief Happiness Officer (CHO) will drive

As you sit in front of your desk at work, rate how accurately these statements reflect your outlook :

  • “I feel that life is very rewarding.”
  • “There is a gap between what I would like to do and what I have done.”
  • “I am able to take anything on.”
  • “I don’t feel particularly healthy.”

Do these seem a little too probing? Don’t be surprised if one day you see questions like these on an employee survey as momentum gathers for one of the newest positions in the C-suite. Say hello to the Chief Happiness Officer (CHO).

Yes, it’s a real title, and a growing number of organizations are creating the position or something like it. Google has one, and his official position is the Jolly Good Fellow. Others have also created similar roles in an effort to drive employee engagement and motivation. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has published a book on the idea entitled “Delivering Happiness,” which gave way to a consulting firm of the same name. According to experts in the field, the position is not a replacement for the CHRO but one that specifically focuses on enhancing engagement and enforcing the company culture.

Just another trivial corporate initiative, you say? Consider this: workforce surveys have suggested that only 13% of workers worldwide are properly engaged, and as many as 20% of North American and European workers are actively disengaged. With so much discontent in the workplace, it simply makes good business sense to raise happiness levels at work and translate this into productivity gains.

After all, employers have traditionally invested in physical wellness programs to improve the lives of employees and to reduce costs. Harvard Business Review reported in 2010 that Johnson & Johnson’s wellness program from 2002 to 2008 saved the company $250 million on healthcare costs and reaped $2.71 in return for every dollar spent. The same logic would dictate that mental well-being may also lead to better organizational performance.

Arguably, measuring the return of a wellness program may be easier than measuring the return on investing in employee happiness, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest employee engagement has hard-savings benefits. Just as important, it also leads to softer benefits such as better retention, greater creativity, and better workplace safety. Increasingly, it looks like the CHO is just the person to lead the effort.

So how does the CHO accomplish the mission of creating a happy and engaged workforce? Like all good program launches, they start by establishing a baseline for workforce morale. This gives a clear picture of the situation in the workplace. (There are many engagement surveys available, or access one at deliveringhappiness.com. To really understand a particular employee’s mindset, try something like the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire, which contains the four questions above. Be mindful it may be overly probing for some employees.)

Such an exercise provides the basis on which organizations can drive engagement and, arguably, happiness. Delivering Happiness, the consulting firm, refers to this as the Happiness Business Index. In promoting an organization’s core values, the CHO initiates and oversees efforts to enhance workforce cohesion and common goals. By building a positive work experience, they drive a sense of purpose and collaboration.

An example cited by Chade Meng, Google’s Jolly Good Fellow, is the extensive philanthropic work undertaken by its employees with company support. Coming together to provide disaster relief, build hospitals, and help the homeless have all contributed to the sense of purpose and cohesion. Of course there are many ways to achieve similar results in the office, but one of the key pillars of his philosophy is to give workers opportunity to express their sense of compassion through philanthropy. Compassion, he argues, is a personal trait shared by highly evolved and effective business leaders.

Google’s key to worker engagement, of course, goes well beyond philanthropic activities and is well documented. Workers can propose to invent their own title and job description, choose to work on pet projects with managers’ approval, and enjoy a sense of freedom that few companies offer. Is it any wonder that the company enjoys a rating of 4.4 stars on a scale of five?

Whether your company needs a CHO is best determined by your C-suite, but one thing is clear: by addressing the issues that a CHO might contend with and by prioritizing worker engagement in your human capital strategy, you’re sure to put more smiles on the faces of your employees and positively impact workforce and business performance.

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