Are chief happiness officers a gimmick?

Law firm Clifford Chance made headlines last week when its co-head of tech Jonathan Kewley proposed the appointment of a chief happiness officer responsible for keeping staff’s spirits high.

The suggestion was part of a manifesto Kewley submitted in a bid to become managing partner at the firm which, according to The Standard, reportedly shocked existing leadership. 

But is it just a gimmick? Or could chief happiness officers and their equivalent become the next hot ticket for workplace wellbeing? 

Happiness in the workplace:

Keeping teams happy, healthy and productive in the new normal

Micro-cultures may be better for wellbeing

Why love matters in organisations

Speaking to HR magazine, Andrew Mawson, founder of global management consultancy Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA), said roles that are focused on ensuring employees remain content should not be considered a gimmick. 

He argued: “It’s a vitally important role that should be drawing lots of different functions together to design and deliver an innovative and effective experience that will enable effective work, create engagement and inspire people to do great work.” 

Other proposals in Kewley’s manifesto included offering employees micro-retreats every six weeks, and sponsorship for passion projects and hobbies, the likes of which have already proven effective at companies like juice and smoothie maker Innocent.

Mawson added: “Companies should be seeking to use the workplace experience as a (currently untapped) competitive weapon in recruiting and retaining the best talent.  

“Currently it’s everybody’s job so it’s nobody’s job.” 

Though not internal like the proposed role at Clifford Chance, Emily Alexander uses the chief happiness officer title for her consultancy role at The Joy Dept. 

For her, the title was chosen to clearly communicate her aims.   

Alexander told HR magazine: “The thinking behind my title was that my role is help others find joy in their working life – and what better way than to explore what makes people feel and become happier. 

“We help people live their authentic selves, working aligned to their core values so that no day feels like a ‘workday’.” 

This, she said, also helps business recognise how external factors impact employee experience, productivity, culture and wellbeing. 

She added: “It’s no longer ‘what can you do for me’ but ‘what can we do for you and what will you bring to the table’.” 

One important distinction of the chief happiness role and other elements of Kewley’s manifesto, including promises to make the company “the most vibrant, happy and uplifting place to work in the world,” however is authenticity 

Simon Fanshawe, co-founder and MD of consultancy Diversity by Design, pointed out: “Law firms are the most rigid in what they value in their staff. So if this proposal embraces creating teams of difference where staff are valued for the difference they bring and includes an end to charging by the hour, which produces a work culture which values presenteeism and length of work rather than quality, […] then all power to this fellow’s elbow.  

“If it doesn’t, it’s just very clever branding.”