Aoife O’Brien is the founder & CEO at Happier at Work, where she works with HR and business leaders to improve work culture, drive engagement, and increase retention.
1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?
My background is in the market research space in the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG)/ consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry, working with clients like Unilever, Mars, Coca-Cola as well as local clients.
I worked in that industry for 17 years and had a very fulfilling career across Dublin, London, Perth and Sydney. My roles involved managing clients, business development, managing a team, but the core part of the role was to analyse supermarket data and present insights to clients in such a way that they took action and changed their sales and marketing strategies.
I set up my own business, Happier at Work, in 2019 because I saw that companies were losing talent and losing money because their people were not happy at work. Being in that position myself, I could understand from the perspective of both the employer and the employee, and so Happier at Work was born.
I work with companies as well as individuals to address this issue with the result that employees feel more fulfilled at work and can reach their full potential, companies are creating more inclusive working environments, increasing engagement, retention and profit.
2) What does a day in your life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?
I feel like there is no such thing as a “typical day”. I run my own business, and while I have outsourced some of the work, the bulk still rests on my shoulders.
I do all of the roles associated with the business, from finance, operations, and marketing, to business development, and client delivery. I also have a successful podcast called Happier at Work, and a big part of my week is recording and promoting the episodes from that.
I try to structure my time so that specific tasks are batched and done on specific days. For example, I work on the podcast on a Thursday only (and not any other day).
In a given week, I could be reviewing podcast applications, interviewing podcast guests, being interviewed for someone else’s podcast, working with corporate clients on people strategy, coaching individuals in their careers, speaking at an event, training clients, writing blog posts and book reviews, posting to social media, forecasting the financials, testing out a new system or improving an existing system, and speaking with a potential new client.
3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?
Because it’s just me in the business for now, and I don’t have an office (yet), my role definitely allows for flexibility and remote working. One of the reasons I set up my business was to have more freedom and flexibility (similar to a lot of entrepreneurs).
What I find sometimes is that having that level of flexibility can make it hard to switch off at times. I try to fit my work around my life, rather than the other way around. For example, I went out for a 1 hour run in the middle of the day yesterday, which was really refreshing.
It can get hard when it’s the same four walls day in, day out (especially since the pandemic!), but I make sure to build in time to get outside, take breaks and catch up with friends.
4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?
This topic has come up multiple times on the podcast! Previously, I would have thought of the idea of ‘balance’ as everything gets equal amounts of time (by ‘everything’ I mean the different aspects of your life – family, friends, relationships, work, and other aspects like finances and spirituality).
What has come up on the podcast are different ways to frame it – by calling it work-life integration, work-life fit, work-life harmony, and also removing the ‘work’ piece, so that it becomes life balance or life harmony.
People often complain of not having ‘balance’ because they’re working too hard and don’t feel like they have enough time for other things. I believe it’s about having clear priorities and clear boundaries to support those priorities.
Our priorities change throughout our lives, and what’s the priority now may be different in 5 years’ time. Think about what’s important to you, and make time for that. By saying “I don’t have time for that” reframe it to “that’s not a priority right now” and see what happens to how you spend your time.
Suddenly, “not having time” to go out for a walk, cook a healthy meal or spend time with friends becomes “that’s not my priority” and if it’s something that is a priority for you, you will make time for it.
5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?
In January, I started a #100DaysOfWalking challenge, and I’m still going! It was tough during winter when it was cold, dark and wet, but I kept with it, and am inspired to keep going. I also meditate before bed every evening.
I go through phases of stopping alcohol intake, and try to limit it to maximum once a month. I find when I do drink, the tiredness can last for days afterwards.
6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?
Of course, I have to recommend my own podcast, Happier at Work, which is available wherever you listen to podcasts! I also love listening to How I Built This with Guy Raz, Work Life with Adam Grant, The Good Life Project with Jonathan Fields.
I read before bed every evening and read 58 books last year. I’m ahead of schedule to read 60 this year. I have so many to recommend, and blog about the books on my website under Aoife’s Reading List. Some that stand out for me: Shoe Dog by Phil Knight (the story of Nike), Essentialism by Greg McKeown, and Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.
7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?
I use Insight Timer for meditations, BorrowBox for borrowing ebooks and audiobooks from the library, WhatsApp for keeping in touch with friends and family.
I have an iPhone 12 Pro and love it – I’m a keen photographer and it’s handy to have such a high quality camera on my phone, I can’t take photos wherever I go. I have recently signed up for a Mindvalley subscription which is proving fruitful so far and covers all aspects of life and business.
8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?
That’s a great question, and when I first thought about it, I thought about someone like Jeff Bezos where the perception is he works all hours, how does he manage it?
But upon reflection, I think it would be interesting to hear from older, retired people to reflect on how they have spent their time and what learnings we can take from the successes and failures they have had when it comes to work-life balance.
9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?
I think it’s important to consider the balance between discipline and self-compassion. If you find yourself being a little bit easy on yourself and you’re not achieving your goals, time to ramp up the discipline – commit to what you want and hold yourself accountable (or find an accountability buddy).
If you feel like you’re working too much and starting to burn out, try a little self-compassion. It’s important to enjoy the journey – this is a marathon, not a sprint!
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