Confessions of Your Company’s Chief Happiness Officer

It’s a job title that prompts smirks and questions: chief happiness officer.

If you’re wondering what the heck a CHO does all day, or imagining a gig that’s all about smiling, then you’re partly right. This month’s duties for Erika Conklin, CHO of a digital marketing startup, included procuring beer and Jet Skis for a company retreat to Sarasota, Fla.

THX. Conklin, who started in April 2020, says after two pandemic years that her role “sounds a lot sexier than it actually is.”

Sure, she comes up with zany team-building activities. Yet the position can sometimes make her seem like a rebranded human-resources manager — as if a focus group suggested the “happiness” tag could make HR tasks appear fun.

She still deals with questions about benefits and payroll. And she often works late, signing contracts for company events or listening when co-workers need to vent about whatever makes them ahappy.

Being responsible for others’ high spirits comes with a lot of pressure, CHOs say. So does the expectation to always appear cheerful.

“Generally, I am very positive — my husband and my immediate family are the only ones who see the not-so-great side,” says Ms. Conklin, 43 years old. “When I’m not feeling particularly happy, I do put on a smile.”

It’s hard to quantify how many companies have chief happiness officers, but thousands of workers now identify as such on LinkedIn — 65% more than two years ago, according to the social media network.

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The position isn’t entirely new, but it hasn’t always been seen as legit, either. In one of the first notable uses, McDonald’s Corp.

“Promoted” Ronald McDonald to chief happiness officer in 2003 as a joke, and the label can still carry a whiff of french fries and clownishness.

More recently, tech companies such as Google and SAP have assigned the moniker to non-mascots, ostensibly to project whimsical corporate cultures. The late Zappos Chief Executive Tony Hsieh was famously committed to a fun working environment, and his book, “Delivering Happiness,” prompted other business leaders to give priority to workers’ emotional well-being.

Companies grappling with remote or hybrid workforces and a tight labor market want to keep employees satisfied and engaged. Some are telling their finance, operations and technology chiefs to make room for a grand vizier of the company vibe.

The perch is lofty but not necessarily cushy. At a time when many workers feel empowered to ask for raises and flexible hours — and can snag competing offers with ease — CHOs’ mission is to retain talent with as many cold brew taps and Pilates classes as it takes.

Other fluffy-sounding titles are popping up, too, as HR departments, often led by chief people officers, try making workers feel more like humans and less like resources.

Airbnb has a global head of employee experience and Slack has a senior vice president of employee success. A Slack spokeswoman says the role reflects the company’s commitment to a workplace “where all employees are empowered to do their best work.”

Whatever the label, the idea is to show that companies are invested in employees’ mental and emotional health, says Karyn Twaronite, the global head of diversity, equity and inclusion at Ernst & Young.

“Companies are having to pay much greater attention to how their employees feel,” says Ms. Twaronite, whose company recently added a mindfulness leader and a chief well-being officer.

When I spoke with her, Ms. Twaronite said she’d just gotten out of a 90-minute meeting with EY’s chief executive and a few dozen business leaders. The central topic wasn’t earnings; it was loneliness. EY recently surveyed 5,000 workers in the US and four other countries and found 82% were, or had been, lonely in their jobs.

Ensuring a whole staff feels good isn’t easy. And if morale sinks or the retention rate slips, the person with “happiness” in their title is likely to get some of the blame.

‘If there’s a dip, we ask,’ Why? ‘ If it soars, we’re like, “What are we doing? How can we keep repeating this? ”’


– Izzy Blach, CHO of a digital media agency

Izzy Blach, CHO of a digital media agency in New York, polls her roughly 100 co-workers weekly so that she always knows the collective mood.

“If there’s a dip, we ask, ‘Why?'” She says. “If it soars, we’re like, ‘What are we doing? How can we keep repeating this? ‘”

Popular initiatives include career coaching, personal finance tips, a book club and a company volleyball team on which Ms. Blach, who played the sport in college, is a big asset. CHOs tend to be fitness buffs.

I asked Ms. Blach, a 32-year-old former HR analyst, whether she stresses about her colleagues’ levels of happiness.

“Yeah, I do!” she said.

Dispensing happiness can cause anxiety, and the paid professional bringers of sunshine and joy have strategies for keeping dark clouds away.

Sarah Klegman, the 34-year-old CHO of a real estate accounting firm in Los Angeles, starts her day with a lemon water and a gratitude journal. “I list a few things that I’m grateful for, a few things that I feel will make the day great, and I’ve got a few affirmations that I say to myself.”

THX. Klegman, a former talented manager for comedians who makes killer challah bread and is a certified yoga instructor, says she needs to be intentional about her attitude.

Camille Meyer-Arendt’s outlet is kickball, as in the playground game most people give up after elementary school. The CHO of a bicycle tour company in Seattle plays in an adult league of mostly 20-somethings on a team of people who are around her age, 39.

So happiness is found hurling a rubber ball at a younger runner on the basepath?

“You can do that, but it’s not strategic,” Ms. Meyer-Arendt says. Pegging an opponent, though exhilarating, can produce a wild bounce that lets the other team score, she says.

I’d find it hard to resist the rush of drilling someone rounding first base. But a consummate happiness officer is willing to delay gratification in pursuit of a bigger goal.

Sherri Brown’s mandate as CHO of a 40-person upholstery business in St. Louis is to hold on to good workers and customers after an acquisition led to new management in 2020. She says she succeeded by getting to know people personally and thinking about small gestures that can go a long way.

For example, she knew several factory workers would not be able to fully participate in a recent company luncheon because they were fasting during Ramadan. She packed the meal in to-go containers for after sundown.

THX. Brown, 46, says she tries to set the right tone every day by rolling up to work in a bright yellow Jeep, often sporting big, colorful earrings and a shirt with a positive slogan.

The motto on her chest when we spoke: “Smiles are contagious. Be a carrier. ”

Write to Callum Borchers at callum.borchers@wsj.com

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