Happier at Work: It’s all in the name

Social innovator Aoife O’Brien is on a mission to make people Happier at Work; so much so, she has built a business around it.

Over the past few weeks, we have been shining a spotlight on social enterprises, to share more about the fascinating world of social innovation and social entrepreneurship in Ireland.

Last week we spoke to Hair Together, which has created a new lease of life for vulnerable teens. Before that we spoke to David Beakey from Amplify about how the social innovation start-up is supporting climate-conscious shoppers. And prior to that we spoke to Fiona Descoteaux, CEO of Innovate Communities, who talked about the important role that social enterprise and innovation plays in Irish society.

“I saw an opportunity to help companies to change how we ‘do work’ in order to drive better engagement and retention”

This week we talk to Aoife O’Brien whose business Happier at Work is a refreshing take on the future of work.

What is your business/ social enterprise about in a nutshell?

My business is called Happier at Work. I like to think it ‘does what It says on the tin’. I partner with organisations looking to retain their top talent to create happier working environments so that employees feel a greater sense of belonging. This results in better performance, increased productivity and engagement, and lower attrition.

The business operates across the four pillars of: engagement and belonging; leadership equity; performance and productivity; the future of work.

I offer a range of services: Happiness Audits; speaking, training, and workshops; live programmes, Imposter to Empowered and Happier at work; online courses, the Imposter to Empowered programme, Happier at Work programme; I regularly conduct public and company-specific research on topics relating to happiness at work. With a background in research and analytics, everything I do is backed by research.

I also have a podcast (also called Happier at Work) and has been running since August 2019. Using a combination of interview-based discussions as well as solo podcasts, I challenge the way we are currently thinking about work and offer practical solutions on how to change it. The podcast has been hugely successful, has over 90 episodes, nearly 40,000 listens in more than 50 countries, and recently came runner up in the Digital Women Awards for Podcast of the Year.

How did your business journey begin? Where did the idea come from and how did you start?

I experienced first-hand the detrimental impact of not belonging at work, both from the employee perspective and the employer perspective. I saw an opportunity to help companies to change how we ‘do work’ in order to drive better engagement and retention, especially of the top talent who have their choice of organisations. While still completing my MSc in Work and Organisational Behaviour in DCU, I founded the business in 2019 to solve the most pressing problem – that most people are unhappy and disengaged at work. During my studies, I learned that a resignation can cost up to 200% of the person’s salary, according to research. I dedicated my dissertation research to understanding the root cause of this and use the valuable knowledge I have gained to address this issue in organisations.

How has Innovate Communities supported your business?

I took part in the Incubate 4 Growth programme at Innovate Communities starting in July 2019. It was a vital part of my growth journey, being a newly established business. The programme gave me a much-needed sense of community, connecting me to businesses at the same stage I was at, a welcoming environment, a desk (I can see the value of that much more after the pandemic and the associated isolation!). It was also vital from the perspective of growing my network, having a community of entrepreneurs to connect with, and to get support and advice from. I also had regular, more formalised mentoring sessions with Annabelle Conway which were invaluable in terms of challenging my business ideas and supporting me on my growth journey.

Have you received any other supports along the way?

I have been lucky to have received lots of support in the form of mentoring and financial support from the Local Enterprise Office. I have attended countless courses both online and in person (pre-pandemic), and have received financial support in the form of the Trading Online Voucher. All this support has had a noticeable impact on my business, from the knowledge I have gained, building my network, as well as having a professional website. I also took part in government tender training through Intertrade Ireland which also had a direct and positive impact on my business.

Why is sustainability and having a social conscience important in business?

From a consumer perspective, they are becoming more aware of what a business stands for. I see that consumers are supporting local, and voting with their wallets by not spending with companies that are unethical.

From a business perspective, I see the focus shifting from profits to people. Pre-employment, candidates want to know what a company stands for – they want to know they would be making a positive difference in the world and not merely a number. They are seeking out companies that have a strong purpose and an ethical grounding. Once employment has started, it’s important to remind employees of your purpose, and to look after them during the employment journey – do what you said you would do, live your values, and treat people like humans. At the end of the day, if you look after your people, they will stay longer, which will increase your profitability in the long run.

Beyond this, it’s important because it’s the right thing to do. It’s important to support social and environmental causes for the long-term sustainability of our planet, and to make sure issues don’t arise in generations to come.

What is next for you and your business in 2022?

There are lots of exciting plans in the pipeline. I will continue offering my two programmes, Imposter to Empowered, and Happier at Work, and I have launched them to the corporate market now. I have some high-profile speaking engagements in the pipeline for later in the year. I will continue to do monthly research on important topics relating to happiness at work, such as the Great Resignation, the future of work, and understanding trends for women at work. I spent a month remote working in Tenerife, so that I could speak knowledgeable with my clients about some of the challenges their employees may face when undertaking this. I plan to go back for a longer period later in the year. The podcast will reach the milestone of 100 episodes in April – watch out for a special episode to celebrate that. It is also likely to reach 50,000 listens by the end of the year, so I will definitely be celebrating that as well.

John Kennedy
Award-winning ThinkBusiness.ie editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.