What makes us happy at work?

From horticulture projects to free haircuts, some company perks sound like upmarket holiday resort activities. But wellness at work is about more than just snooze pods and free massages

When it comes to wellbeing at work, “casual Fridays” and an “eat me” sticker on a fruit bowl in the office kitchen just don’t make the grade anymore. As our working lives become more hectic and the jobs market more competitive, companies are going to ever greater lengths to ensure their employees stay engaged, happy and well.

In Silicon Valley – home of the snooze pod, free massage and ping pong table – some of the perks available to employees today sound more like the activities on offer at an upmarket holiday resort. There are classes in everything from crossfit to AI, free on-site ice-cream parlours and gourmet restaurants, lunchtime yoga retreats, barber shops, mobile spas and dentists, vintage video game arcades, free dry cleaning and even – at Facebook’s Menlo Park campus – a woodworking shop, where you nip out between meetings and knock up your own coffee table, if you’re so inclined.

Though most Irish workplaces are still a long way from offering in-house ice-cream parlours, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar recently announced new tax breaks for companies to install showers, bikes and other exercise equipment in the workplace, as part of a plan to reduce obesity levels.

For employers, a concern for their staff's wellbeing isn't just altruistic: a 2015 review of several global studies concluded that happier employees were up to 12 per cent more productive. But what actually makes them happier?  Is it all about perks, and are there thing smaller companies can do to compete?


The answers are “not what you might think”; and a resounding “yes”.

Research by recruitment site Glassdoor – which publishes an annual list of the top perks and benefits – found that while things like free membership of gyms and art museums might get employees in the door, what keeps them there are much less glitzy perks: good health insurance, adequate time off, decent pension and retirement planning, dental benefits and parental leave. And the good news for smaller companies is that what they valued most of all are “culture and values, career opportunities and senior leadership”.

Workplaces which fostered positive practices had higher levels of productivity, profitability, customer satisfaction and employee engagement

This is backed up by a recent paper by researchers from the University of Michigan, published in the Journal of Applied Behavioural Science, which found that workplaces which fostered positive practices – things like caring for one another; avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes; emphasising the meaningfulness of work – had higher levels of productivity, profitability, customer satisfaction and employee engagement.


Another 2016 study by the American Psychology Association found that workers in companies where the leadership visibly demonstrated support for their wellbeing felt more motivated to do their best, reported higher levels of job satisfaction and had better relationships with co-workers.

"Small to medium-size enterprises can't necessarily compete on a salary basis, but you can create a work environment and a leadership culture which ensures people are engaged and happy at work. So for somebody else to come along and try and attract them out of that is going to be much more difficult," says Declan Noone, co-founder of Serrano 99, a management consultancy with expertise in corporate positive psychology and mindful leadership.

Wellness is just one component of wellbeing, Noone adds. “The question a business leader should ask is ‘what am I seeking to build here?’ Wellness is part of it, but wellbeing is a more holistic picture of the whole organisation.”

The process of building a positive organisation starts with a conversation about what the shared vision is. This can also be an opportunity to seek employees’ input on what can be done to improve the culture. “It’s no different to a GAA team sitting down at the start of the training season and figuring out their goals and vision for what they want to achieve.”

When it comes to wellbeing, the message from the experts is the example must come from the top down

When it comes to wellbeing, the message from the experts is that the example must come from the top down, and that it’s important to listen to employees. Voxpro, a business process outsourcing firm based in Cork, runs a programme encouraging employees to share their own ideas for innovations that might improve their lives. One of the winning ideas in 2015 was to create a company garden. Dubbed Voxgro, it started life as a small allotment, and is now a 3.5 acre garden, featuring a biodome, outdoor bar and disco-ball pizza oven – and, since last year, a full-time horticulturalist to run it.

Showing they care about the physical health of their workers is another way companies create a better culture, as well as reduce absenteeism due to ill-health. Lidl puts a significant focus on looking after the physical health of its employees. "We've placed a huge emphasis in recent years on nationwide screening programmes for cardiac problems and diabetes – both of which are unfortunately risk areas for the demographic of a workforce such as ours," says Maeve McCleane, HR director for Lidl Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Cardiac screening

In 2015, the company rolled out Ireland’s largest corporate cardiac screening programme to its 5,000 Irish staff members. A bespoke bus toured the country, checking in on staff in stores, warehouses and offices nationwide. The screening was run in conjunction with company-wide step and fitness challenges, and followed up by a second diabetes screening programme last year. “Through the cardiac screening we actually had an employee who required emergency heart surgery. Experiences like that really make the investment we make in our teams health and wellness all the more vital,” says McCleane.

Small and medium-size companies may not have the same budget to spend on employee wellbeing as large multinationals, but that doesn't stop some finding innovative ways to keep their staff happy, well and active. Metis Ireland, a financial planning company employing ten people in Limerick, is currently running a voluntary group challenge in conjunction with CoachPact.com. Each employee has been given a fitness belt that measures their activity and gives them points based not on the achievement, but on the effort they exert.

Carl Widger, the company's founder, says it's part of a package of measures focused on stress management and letting employees know they're valued in a hugely competitive jobs market. "We try to do things differently to other financial planners. There has been a huge drain from smaller firms with all the big companies that have come back into Limerick. There's no way we could do what we're doing on our own. So we need the right people with the right mindset, and when we find them, we need to hang on to them."

Group challenges are important for employee engagement and mental health, says clinical psychology and NUIG lecturer, Malie Coyne. "So is anything that promotes interaction or community engagement. So much of western society is focused on us being individuals, where we are wired to be social beings. Volunteering has such well-established mental health benefits, it even has a name: 'helpers' high'," she says.

Lidl, Vodafone, GSK and LinkedIn are among the companies which offer volunteering as a perk. LinkedIn in Ireland gives staff a day every month called an InDay, to do something that they are passionate about – it might be volunteering for a charity or just doing something fun for the day.


Flexibility and autonomy are also highly valued by employees and factors in creating a sense of wellbeing at work. Kevin Devine works for nearForm, a tech company based in Tramore, Co. Waterford, from his home in Tara, Co. Meath. The company has employees based all over Ireland and around the world, and is operated on a culture of trust, flexibility and family friendliness. "There's a real emphasis on wellbeing in terms of hours, the support offered, and the chance to create your own schedule. It's really been a breath of fresh air for me, particularly with a new baby this year," he says.

Aidan Coughlan, managing director of a small tech start-up, Far From Avocados, which employs six people, made the decision to put mental and physical wellness at the core of the business model from day one.  "I just don't buy that you need to be a tech giant with enough space to set up an in-house gym to invest in your team in this way."

Coughlan’s strategy includes offering gym memberships and financial incentives for voluntary upskilling. “We’ve also enabled automatic Do-Not-Disturb mode on Slack, our internal comms platform, so that staff do not receive notifications out of hours,” he says. “None of this is revolutionary, but it represents an important first step for us. I feel if we hadn’t introduced it from day one, we would have pushed it back forever.”

Practising mindfulness and taking regular exercise and screen breaks are important for maintaining wellbeing

Self-employed individuals and freelancers are often overlooked in conversations about wellness at work – but as anyone who has ever sat alone in a small room all day, scrambling to meet a big deadline can attest, they may be the ones most in need of it. Strategies like practising mindfulness, taking regular exercise and screen breaks, and trying to achieve some kind of delineation between work and home are all important for maintaining wellbeing when you’re working alone.

Glandore, a company offering co-working spaces in Dublin, hosts regular wellbeing programmes for its members, which range in size from one person to 150. "The wellness programme we set up two years ago focuses on wellness in mind, wellness in body and life and financial wellness," says Clare Kelly, an occupational therapist and director of Glandore.

The programme includes seminars on nutrition, stress management, and classes in yoga and pilates, as well as a running club. “Working up to 50 hours a week has become the new norm for lots of us. An ESRI report in 2016 found the two biggest work-related illnesses were muscular skeletal disorders, which account for 50 per cent, and stress, anxiety and depression, which accounted for 18 per cent. Perks are just the icing on the cake, you have to make sure there’s a genuine purpose to doing wellness, and it has to be a top-down approach. If it’s not encouraged and embodied from the leaderhip level down, it won’t get the traction to succeed.”

As Declan Noone points out, wellbeing is a two-way process. “We have to look after our own personal wellbeing, as well as trying to create a work environment that allows people to flourish, to be open, share, and help find solutions.”

The experts’ view: 12 steps to wellbeing at work

1. Focus on how your emotions are impacting you. Understand that emotions feed behaviours. “This is one of the things that has been most useful to me personally,” says Declan Noone. “If I’m angry or there’s an element of fear – do I go into catastrophic thinking? Try to create more positive emotions, and celebrate our achievements and successes.”

2. Take a break. That can be a ten minute walk, or a brief pause to listen to some music, says Noone.

3. Make sure you’re getting enough exercise, sleep, nutrition and meditation.

4. “Be aware that not all stress is bad, and that it can help us learn and focus and drive us on,” says Noone. It’s the intensity and frequency of stress that’s bad. When you’re in that space, understand that a positive assessment is a realistic assessment of a situation.

5. Identify what gives you purpose and pleasure, and that it is a pendulum swinging back and forth, says Noone.

6. Become aware of your own “mental models” and how they affect your thinking. Mental models are our intrinsic perceptions of things like success, failure, happiness, good parenting. “They can provide limitations and create challenges,” Noone says.

7. Think in terms of success and learning, not success and failure.

8. Build positive relationships. “Find a work mentor,” suggest Malie Coyne. “If you’re feeling a little bit stuck at work, find somebody that works in a similar field to reunite your passion.”

9. Practice mindfulness. “For me personally it’s a great help, even if it’s only ten minutes a day,” says Declan Noone. Malie Coyne recommends starting with the Headspace app.

10. Start meetings with a positive message. You can ask everybody at the table to give one positive personal thing or one positive professional thing that has happened recently, suggests Noone. “When people share a personal or professional win, it creates a personal relationship and helps people to be more open.”

11. If you need a mental health day take it, suggests Malie Coyne.  ”There shouldn’t be any shame in saying you need to take annual leave to recharge your batteries occasionally.”

12. “When you’re off, make sure you’re really off,” says Coyne. “Actually full switch off from work, because if your brain is still on high alert, you’re not taking a break. We need time to recuperate.”