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Happiness is the fundamental engager

Alastair Atkinson, Director of Consultancy - scarlettabbott

The pursuit of happiness
On 4 July 1776, at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, the Founding Fathers of the USA pronounced the United States Declaration of Independence. The Declaration cited “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as examples of “unalienable Rights”, thus adding to the centuries-long debate about the nature of human happiness.

Fast-forward 245 years to a world emerging from the covid pandemic and happiness once again became a hot topic on both sides of the Atlantic, this time in the corporate world. 2021 saw a flurry of advertisements for roles bearing titles like Happiness Manager and Chief Happiness Officer. After the practical and emotional difficulties of covid, progressive employers were keen to make their workforces happy and they weren’t shy about stating their intentions.

Now, two years on, with the dust having (almost) settled, how should we judge the rise of the Happiness executive?

The business benefits of happiness
In the 2011 book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor makes the compelling case for the notion that happier employees result in more successful businesses. The evidence is pretty-well indisputable: people who report feeling happy across a number of metrics tend to be more creative, take fewer sick days and stay longer with an employer. One might conclude, therefore, that the most surprising aspect of the proliferation of Chief Happiness Officers (CHOs) is that it took so long to happen.

There are, however, challenges worth considering. Firstly, making a workforce happy doesn’t seem like an achievable challenge to set someone. By way of explanation, let’s examine happiness by looking at its antithesis – extreme unhappiness or depression. The UK’s NHS website tells us that any number of factors, or a combination of them, can lead to depression. It cites examples such as bereavement, the breakdown of a relationship, illness and substance misuse. It also suggests that a tendency towards depression can be an inherited trait, passed down from family members. Given these many factors that contribute to our happiness (or the lack of it), isn’t it surely beyond the ability of any employer to make its people happy?

The obvious counterargument is that CHOs aren’t meant to make people happy, but to foster a work culture and environment that, as far as possible, uplifts people. Fair enough. But that leads to a second stumbling block: commercial organisations must fulfil commercial obligations. Put simply, they need to make money. So, what happens when the need to make a profit conflicts with the happiness of employees? For example, being made redundant is a commonly-cited trigger of anxiety and low self-esteem, and, while very few employers ever want to lay people off, commercial exigencies sometimes demand it. So, how is someone with ‘Happiness’ in their job title supposed to walk the floor of a workplace when P45s are being handed to dozens of people?

Once more, there’s a viable counterargument: that a CHO can only be expected to operate within the micro- and macro-economic environment in which they find themselves. In tough times, their job is to lessen the blow for all concerned and ensure a respectful, compassionate process. But therein lies the third problem: responsible business leaders and HR professionals should be, and often are, fulfilling this role already, just as they’re already nurturing cultures that uplift employees wherever possible. While there’s a good argument to say that ‘Human Resources’ is a term that belongs in the dark ages, surely the invention of the Chief Happiness Officer is grandiose and unnecessary if you have a good People team in place.

An authentic employee value proposition
This whole issue relates to a topic close to my heart: employee value proposition. Identifying, articulating and communicating an EVP can help a business attract and retain great talent, but only if that EVP is authentic. Striving to be a respectful, fair, nurturing and even fun employer is laudable and there’s nothing wrong with articulating such intentions explicitly. However, appointing Happiness tsars risks seeming like a propaganda stunt that could undermine authenticity, particularly when times get tough.

The truth is, humans can’t be happy all the time. The best most of us can hope for is a self-aware acceptance as we experience the natural range of emotions, from joy to sadness, anger to love, boredom to excitement. A positive experience of work can undoubtedly contribute to our wellbeing, but it’s perhaps unwise to place responsibility for our contentment in the hands of our employer, and equally unwise for our employer to accept it.

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