When Elen Maggs’s oven broke down on 23 December, she definitely didn’t feel happy. “December had been a terrible month already,” said the manager for the high-street retailer Timpson. “I’d totalled the car and had Covid.
“Now, not only was I going to be without a cooker over Christmas, but paying for a new one was going to mean dipping into the wedding savings that my partner and I were working hard to build up.”
Maggs bemoaned the catastrophe with her colleagues on their group WhatsApp. Without her knowledge, they called Timpson’s director of happiness. A few days later, a new oven was delivered – paid for by the company.
“You hear of nice things happening to other people but you never think they are going to happen to you,” said Maggs. “But it’s not just these big things. Having a director of happiness makes a massive difference to every minute of my working life.”
One of London’s oldest City law firms hit the headlines earlier this week when it discussed hiring a chief happiness officer. The role would, they argued, ensure that staff enjoy “the most vibrant, happy and uplifting place to work in the world”. It involved, among other things, organising micro-retreats for staff and sending them books by their favourite authors.
These personal touches are not expandable “nice to haves”, according to Janet Leighton, Timpson’s director of happiness, but rooted in evidence-based, positive psychological research that yields concrete results. “It’s a commercial no-brainer,” she said. “If people feel supported and cared for, they are calm, relaxed and hardworking. They’re considerate towards each other and towards customers.”
The role of happiness officer is becoming increasingly high-profile: the first formal position that Prince Harry accepted after stepping down from the royal family was as chief impact officer at BetterUp, a Silicon Valley startup, to help clients with their “personal development”.
But the UK is quietly embracing the role too. The UK-based Happy Coffee Consulting company has trained hundreds of budding happiness officers over the past few years through its certified chief happiness officer training.
“Companies spend a lot of time and effort trying to make employees happy or engaged by investing in perks, bonuses, free fruit, free coffee, ‘enforced’ fun, free smoothies, etc. But these things do not make people happy at work,” said Sarah Metcalfe, the chief happiness officer at Happy Coffee Consulting.
“Happiness at work comes from doing great work together with great people,” she said. “This might sound fluffy, but trained specialists have evidence-based frameworks and programmes that precisely define how each company can achieve this.”
Andrew Mawson, the founder of the management consultants Advanced Workplace Associates, believes the role is so important that he recommends all his clients introduce it. The position is, he said, worthy of a high-ranking placement within the company: happiness officers should sit on boards alongside CEOs and have far-reaching powers.
“A company of 20,000 people has 20,000 different brains,” he said. “If you want all those brains to be at the top of their game, their teams need to be cohesive and connected. Working well together is the fundamental platform for business success: it gives you a massive competitive advantage.”
Happiness officers will become more common, he believes. “There’s a ‘people versus the bosses’ thing going on in many companies at the moment,” he said. “The people will have to win because employees are going to vote with their feet in the end.”
Katina Byford-Winter is the office and employee wellbeing manager at Magenta Associates where she organises chats between employees and line managers every three months to discuss career progression, quarterly team outings and annual mini-breaks. She also has a monthly, hour-long mental health “walk-and-talk” with every member of the company, including the founder and CEO.
Last week, Craig Peters, a consultant at Magenta, had his monthly meeting with Byford-Winter. “The work Katina does makes me way more efficient and effective as an employee,” said Peters. “My head is clear and calm when I come into work because of her, and I pay back the support she gives me with 100% loyalty to the company.”