It May Be Time for Chief Happiness Officers in Senior Living

Senior living organizations across the country have introduced a variety of new C-suite positions—from chief information officers to chief health officers—as they’ve repositioned their companies to serve frailer residents and please pickier adult children.

Now, given the current labor challenges plaguing the industry, the next top executive to join senior living organizations in droves may be Chief Happiness Officer (CHO).

In many cases, a Chief Happiness Officer can help improve retention by making employee happiness a priority, according to Jenn Lim, CEO and CHO at culture coaching and consulting firm Delivering Happiness.

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The senior living industry has to attract 1.2 million more workers by 2025. Meanwhile, providers are struggling to keep their workers on the payroll, with the national assisted living turnover rate hovering at 31%, according to the most recent Assisted Living Salary & Benefits Report from the Hospital & Healthcare Compensation Service. Given this situation, providers are anxious to ensure that their employees stick around, and creating a CHO position could be a way to drive toward that goal. It’s a move that companies across various other industries have already made.

Hilton Worldwide (NYSE: HLT), Facebook, Inc. (Nasdaq: FB), Aetna Inc. (NYSE: AET) and Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS) have all been clients of Delivering Happiness, a firm co-founded by Lim and Tony Hsieh, CEO of e-commerce giant Zappos.com, to help companies apply the frameworks of values-based cultures and happiness to their workplaces.

While some companies have hired a dedicated CHO, in other organizations the CEO or another leader might double up as the chief happiness officer. Lim herself is Delivering Happiness’ CHO and CEO, for instance. Having this dual role colors how she approaches the typical duties of a CEO.

“The main difference, I think, is that I try to do everything with our happiness model and core values in mind,” Lim tells Senior Housing News.

Whether appointing a CHO or giving that role to a current member of the C-suite, several experts agree that doing so can help providers stay competitive in a rapidly changing marketplace.

It’s high time for low turnover

For years, senior housing providers have operated despite ongoing high turnover of frontline workers—but in the current labor market, a high turnover rate is not going to be sustainable much longer.

“There was an expectation of churn and burn,” Jennifer Saxman, chief strategy officer at senior living sales and marketing firm Bild & Company, tells SHN. “Most of the clients coming to [Bild & Co.] are coming to invest in their people. They don’t want to invest in their people and have them leave.”

Plus, it’s becoming more difficult to find new front-line staff to hire.

“The unemployment rate is at its lowest in years, so retaining the talent and workforce you have is crucial,” Lim explains. “You can do this through culture, especially through your organization’s core values and higher purpose.”

The stakes are high; if a provider fails to adequately engage and satisfy employees through its company culture, they’ll probably leave. A February 2016 report from job review website Glassdoor found that when employees leave a company, they typically do so for a better company culture.

General Motors (NYSE: GM) and UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH), meanwhile, have both had success boosting employee engagement by transforming their company cultures.

“People want to be really be happy in their work environment, and they can get it now elsewhere,” Saxman says.

The best way to ensure that a company culture successfully engages and satisfies employees is to have its enforcement start all the way at the top, according to Lim. That’s where a CHO can work his or her magic.

“To improve company culture, there really has to be alignment from the top-down about what the core values of the organization are and what the culture strategy is—or else it fails,” Lim says.

A CHO by another name

In senior living, chief happiness officers don’t necessarily have to be called chief happiness officers.

“I’ve seen some other organizations that bring on happiness roles to support human resources or culture, and those are great areas to use the same title,” Lim says.

There are definitely some skeptics of the “chief happiness officer” title.

“I’m not sure about the term ‘chief happiness officer,’” Michele Holleran, founder and CEO at senior living research firm Holleran Consulting, tells SHN.

Instead, she feels that a chief engagement officer can successfully boost a provider’s employee engagement levels, as that’s been the case with the chief engagement officer at her own firm.

Holleran’s chief engagement officer, among other tasks, keeps track of the “mood” in the office, Holleran explains. The chief engagement officer recognizes the successes of individual employees through company events and helps Holleran’s workforce develop “soft skills,” like servant leadership and emotional intelligence.

“It takes a really special individual to do this work, because it means really being in sync with everyone, and what’s going on in their lives,” Holleran says. “If she notices someone seems disengaged or out of sorts, she will quietly try to find the source of the issue and lend support.”

Whatever form they come in—they’ve been called chief satisfaction and compliance officers or chief brand officers at some senior living providers, Saxman says—the changes that a CHO can bring to a senior living provider would likely make a positive difference.

“By having someone whose sole focus is on that happiness piece, satisfaction piece and retention piece—it does make an impact,” Saxman says.

Written by Mary Kate Nelson

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