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Q&A: Employee Happiness Insights From Nancy O'Brien of Experience Happiness

By Dave Anderson - May 18, 2021

Nancy O’Brien is the co-founder of Experience Happiness and the co-creator of The Happiness Practice™(THP)—the only evidence-based behavioral health solution that measurability improves well-being and performance at the individual and collective level. 

As a pioneer and innovator in workplace well-being and performance, Nancy has deep insight into what makes people happy at work. As we recognize Mental Health Awareness Month, she was kind enough to answer a few questions on employee mental health, employee listening, and DE&I. 

Tell us a little about yourself and share how and why you started your business, Experience Happiness.

I began my career at IBM and I’m very grateful to have been part of the change team during the transformation from a manufacturing to a service organization. That was a launchpad to establish a career in Experience Design & Experience Management—helping organizations around the world improve customer and employee experience. 

Over lunch one day with Linda Saggau, my friend and now business partner at Experience Happiness, we were trying to figure out what was wrong with us. We had done and achieved everything on the list required to have a happy life, but the reality was we were both struggling with suicidal ideation. If the Gallup Well-being Index score would have been out at the time, we would have scored an A+ on all 5 aspects of well-being—and yet we were suffering. So we did what most innovators and entrepreneurs do—we set out to find the solution we needed.  

What we know now that we didn't know at lunch that day was that we were suffering from burnout and working with a definition of happiness that was destructive. We first redefined happiness and then set out to figure out how happiness can be learned, practiced, and measured. Now, 15 years later, we help others do the same by inspiring, equipping, and empowering people with (THP).

Through your practice, you’ve developed a deep understanding of what truly makes people happy. How do you define “happiness” and what does it take for someone to actually improve their level of happiness?

I think it's important to begin by sharing the definition of happiness that we invite people to try on and see if it feels true to them. 

“Happiness is your innate ability to locate and cultivate serenity and excitement about your life regardless of outside forces.” 

Like anything else, happiness takes practice—which is where the 5 Principles of Happiness™  (5PH) are helpful. As you learn and practice each of the 5 Principles of Happiness, you are creating new neuropathways that reduce the 16 signs and symptoms of burnout and simultaneously increase the 12 signs and symptoms of happiness and its byproducts: innovation, resiliency, and sustainability. 

THP is a human optimization solution—you feel better, you act better, you perform better because you’ve taken the longest journey—the 17 inches from your head to your heart—and you made the shift from being a human doing to a human being! 

What are the main factors that contribute to happiness at work and what distinguishes workplace happiness from happiness in our personal lives?

One of the nice things about being a human is that we bring ourselves everywhere we go. We bring our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and beliefs with us on every step of our life journey. And THP helps us to be very intentional about what we carry and what we let go of when something no longer serves us—so we step into new ways of being.

And when we make our happiness a priority wherever we find ourselves—at work, home, school, or while walking the dog—we are inviting others to do the same. 

In your experience working with clients, what does it take to enact change, and actually boost happiness across a large workforce?

As with anything else, it starts with leadership. Prior to the pandemic, it was reported that 95% of executives were suffering from burnout. When leaders engage in THP first, they are not only healing from the physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms of their personal burnout, they are also modeling the desired behavior for others and are able to hold space for others as they engage in THP. 

Our Return On Happiness™ (ROH) measurement system allows us to measure the impact of THP on individual happiness and burnout and tie it to KPIs such as engagement, turnover, satisfaction—even revenue and expense. 

To quote our client Jim Mortensen, president of R3 Continuum, “THP is a well-being solution even your CFO will love.”

Besides being the right thing to do for people, why are happiness and DE&I programs beneficial for organizations, and how do these initiatives intersect?

Mental health is the next frontier of DE&I. 

Studies show that people who are in a greater state of well-being are naturally more inclusive, and inclusive cultures foster well-being and happiness. When people are authentically happy, they operate from a place of self-love and self-worth and can extend that to others. Isn’t that the truest expression of inclusion?  

Happiness and inclusion practices are often inconsistent throughout large, distributed organizations. How can HR leaders identify teams, or even specific manager/employee relationships, where improvement is needed and help address underlying issues?

The early signs of burnout are exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy and these will often manifest as performance issues such as absenteeism, negativity, and resilience to change. I invite HR leaders to take a deeper dive into the engagement and performance issues and explore if the cause is burnout. 

Find your corner to start the practice. The impact of a small but committed group has a ripple effect that creates sea change. 

The pandemic has accelerated many organization’s views on the importance of monitoring and supporting employee happiness and mental health. Do you have any advice for the HR leaders who may still be struggling to get buy-in?

Measure what matters! Happiness is not fluffy. And the good news is it can be learned, practiced, and measured. One of our clients offered THP as a benefit to all their employees and ~80% engaged in the practice starting with senior leadership. The ROH results are amazing: Burnout reduced 24%, happiness increased 17%, innovation increased 11%, resiliency increased 6%, sustainability increased 10%, and engagement increased 13%. Upon reviewing the ROH metrics, the company president and HR head were able to determine that the impact of THP resulted in improved business performance, including being above plan on revenue and net income and below plan on internal operating expenses. 

How can employee survey/listening programs play a role in designing and implementing employee happiness and well-being strategies?

Our research shows that happiness propels well-being and performance. Equipping people with tools like THP will allow them to check in with themselves and others throughout the day and make adjustments to improve their well-being and performance—individually and collectively. 

In addition, the innovation engine turns on and people will be offering up ideas and solutions in kind, forwarding, and compassionate ways that improve the well-being of everyone and the organization. 

If you want to learn more about THP and take a free and confidential Happiness & Burnout Assessment visit experiencehappiness.biz. You can also reach Nancy O’Brien at nancy@experiencehappiness.biz.

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