Put your hand up if you employ a ‘Chief Happiness Officer’. Anybody? Don’t worry, I’m not going to make fun of you if you do, because it’s not a bad thing.
But I do think that you should be asking yourself why. And this is the exact question Dr Kai Haas asked the room at Mad World 2018, with his engaging speech titled: Do you really need a Chief Happiness Officer?
His conclusion? Hiring a Chief Happiness Officer is a nice thing to do. But doing this alone will not provide happiness. Instead, you must create an employee experience that spreads across the entire organisation – otherwise, you’re just hiring a person who is launching initiatives that nobody will buy into.
What is a Chief Happiness Officer?
Dr Haas works as Managerial Occupational Physician at Airbus. He says that there is no formally accepted definition of a Chief Happiness Officer. However, he says that a definition can be worked out, by comparing it to that of a Chief Financial Officer.
“The task of the CFO is to coordinate effective financial, accounting and tax strategies” he tells me. “So if I translate that for a Chief Happiness Officer, I would say that the role is someone who coordinates effective strategies of wellbeing and employee experience.”
But Dr Haas does not believe that it matters what you call it.
It doesn’t matter what you call it
If Google can hire an official ‘Jolly Good Fellow’… well, what’s wrong with calling a person your Chief Happiness Officer?
“I use the phrase ‘Chief Happiness Officer’ because it’s a little bit provocative” Dr Haas tells me. “It probably makes you think of somebody designing offices that look like leisure centres, or like kindergarten classes with colourful plastic toys. But there is much more to it than what you call it.”
According to Dr Haas, you can call it what you like, and launch as many health and wellbeing initiatives as you like. But if you don’t connect the role to the entire employee experience, then you won’t get very far.
“If you just create a title, obviously that brings attention to the topic of employee happiness. Which is a good thing! But if you just leave it at that… you know, if you establish a Chief Happiness Officer, but you don’t really connect your health and wellbeing programs to your culture, communications and leadership, then it will not be sustainable.”
Connect wellbeing initiatives with culture, communications and leadership
“It’s about the whole experience” insists Dr Haas. “What matters, is how well you connect the role to other areas of your organisation.”
He says that your health and wellbeing initiatives should be fully connected and integrated with the context of your whole business, including:
- Wellbeing should be embedded as an important part of your entire workforce culture and how you operate.
- Your leaders need to understand, promote, and lead by, your commitment to good health and wellbeing for your employees.
- Your internal communications should reinforce the principles you stand by.
“Don’t get me wrong” he adds, “I think this kind of role is a good thing. But it’s not enough to simply distribute apples, or build a fitness suite on-site. If your management is toxic, or if your employees are being handed ridiculous workloads, then they are not going to care about happiness initiatives.”
A wellbeing strategy isn’t a quick win
Before Dr Haas returned to Germany with his family and took his current role with Airbus, he worked for another large corporation – Novartis, in Switzerland.
But he says that just because your organisation is big and well-funded, doesn’t mean it’s easy to roll out a good health and wellbeing strategy.
“I helped develop strategies in both organisations” he explains, “but it is not a case of thinking up a brilliant strategy, then having one single meeting where you make a business case and everybody says ‘HOORAY!’. It can take years to develop these things.”
Identify an issue, start small, and have patience
I asked Dr Haas what advice he would give for an organisation looking to take action and make things better at work. He said that first, you must identify a problem. Then, it’s simply a case of starting small, and having patience.
“First, you must understand what your pressing issue is” he says. “Do you have a high long-term absence rate, for example? Then, start small. For example, provide training for supervisors to help them deal with mental health issues. Start in a small department, so that you can learn from it. You’ll also have a better business case going forward, once other people see that it was a success.”
Dr Haas adds that starting small is also helpful because it’s faster to execute than a more holistic, company-wide approach – because if you try to do this, then you might never start anything at all.
Small organisations can use the same principles as large organisations
Don’t be intimidated by the fact that Dr Haas represents a big brand. He says that many of the principles of a good wellbeing strategy can translate from a big business to a smaller business.
“You probably don’t have an occupational health specialist” he admits, “and you certainly won’t have a Chief Happiness Officer. But as a smaller company, you can still identify what is important in terms of culture and leadership, and then apply it on a smaller scale.”
When I asked him to provide examples, he told me not to underestimate the value of positive psychology.
“Positive psychology achieves a lot” he says. “Really small interventions can change a lot. For example, you start meetings by looking for success, or things that went well, instead of what went wrong.”
And Dr Haas says you can do this in any company, regardless of size. All it takes is human interaction and communication.
Six more ways to improve mental health in the workplace
To read more advice on how to improve mental health in the workplace, you might be interested in reading my interview with Dr Shaun Davis.
Dr Davis is the Global Director of Safety, Health, Wellbeing and Sustainability, with the Royal Mail. He transformed the Royal Mail’s employee assistance programme, to achieve ‘First Class’ mental health for postal workers.