“Companies can’t solve the happiness equation alone. Employees have a part to play.”
Samantha Clarke is a passionate advocate for happiness at work. It attracts and retains better talent, and makes employees more engaged and resilient.
We met her to talk about what makes a happy organisation, how employees should meet their employers half-way in the quest for happiness, and why she thinks the idea of Work-Life Balance is bad.
Samantha Clarke has made it her work mission to bring more happiness into the workplace.
Since 2013, after leaving her last role as Chief Happiness Officer at Dadi, a technology company, she has been something of a company therapist. Business leaders call her when they feel that their employees are not performing at their best. They wonder what they should do to keep things more fun at work. Often, it’s questions like “we currently do Friday drinks, is that enough?” or “how can we help our team cope better with stress?” that start Samantha’s journey into the organisation’s subconscious.
And more often than not, the underlying issue turns out to be something very different and not solvable by just Friday drinks.
The framework to assess happiness
Samantha has identified four pillars that hold up a company’s happiness roof:
- Head and Heart - These are traits around resilience, confidence and tenacity, as well as problem-solving skills. How is the company equipping employees to bounce back from adversity and give them the autonomy to do it on their terms?
- Work and Life - What can the company do to reframe the processes and structures that may be inhibiting collaboration? Flexible working and office arrangement are part of this pillar. Another component is work-life harmony: How can employees learn to reflect on compromises made that allow them to stay happy, even if not all the typical work-life balance boxes are ticked?
- Communicate and Connect - How can employees build better relationships with others? Where do communication breakdowns originate that make life in the office difficult and unpleasant?
- Digital and Mindful - How does technology impact happiness and wellbeing at work? How can the company help employees find the balance between mindfulness practices and nature vs constant tech stimulation and distractions?
When Samantha conducts her sensing journey with her client, she identifies deficits in each pillar and places the issues she finds into her framework. Based on these findings, she then recommends and implements remedial measures.
Where do most small companies have problems? “Definitely Communication and Connection”, Samantha says, citing one example of many: “Quite a few small and mid-sized businesses have remote teams, and as opposed to big companies, they don’t have well-established communication channels and processes to keep them engaged.”
Management challenges, part of the Head and Heart pillar, are also frequent. Many small and growing companies, especially startups, throw relatively inexperienced people into the deep end without equipping them with the know-how to manage complex problems. Without structured learning experiences, newly promoted leaders often feel overwhelmed.
Consistent practice beats initiatives
One of Samantha’s pet peeves is when company leaders see happiness as something they can will into existence with ad-hoc initiatives: “They’ll say things like ‘We need to do something that keeps the team happy. They’ve been working long hours, and we want to give them a boost of morale’. I hate that. It’s really gimmicky.”
If you want to durably improve team happiness, you have to see the problem more broadly and look beyond one-off measures. It’s the simple consistent practices that, little by little, improve a company’s happiness score.
Samantha’s approach is like eating your veggies and exercising. It’s not as conspicuous as an all-you-can-drink office party, but in the long run, it beats the sugar spike that such one-off initiatives bring.
Diet and exercise aren’t very fun. So it’s no surprise that not everyone buys into this idea.
It’s not about the money
Sometimes, there’s pushback. One of the most frequently heard objections that HR managers make is about their limited budgets. Not having, for example, Google’s resources, the story goes, means that they cannot have a meaningful happiness practice.
It’s definitely not about the money, Samantha says. Since when did money buy happiness, anyway? The fancy things can even be detrimental: For example, when an employee knows that every summer, there’s a big company holiday coming, they get used to it. “Your brain gets wired for consistent treats”, Samantha says. “There’s no novelty. And it’s that novelty that keeps you energised and looking forward to getting back to work.”
This is, of course, in line with the habituation effect - people (and all sentient creatures, for that matter) are very adaptable and quickly consider a new status quo the new normal. And while this can be a useful trait in evolution and survival, it can also mean that people start viewing a company trip, free lunches, and subsidised massages not as a perk, but as a right that they come to expect.
But should a company even be involved in people’s happiness?
Another source of resistance comes from executives believing that their employees’ happiness is not part of their responsibility.
This notion also comes from a false expectation. In this case it’s the wrong idea that companies need to provide a happy kingdom teeming with rainbows and unicorns. This is certainly not something that Samantha stands for. She insists on individuals’ responsibility for their own happiness. “People need to be self-aware and learn to articulate their work-related needs to their manager. If you were cold, you wouldn’t keep sitting in a chilly, damp room, would you? Yet in companies, I regularly encounter people who won’t ask their manager for changes that would help them be more happy and productive.”
The company’s responsibility lies in setting the stage on which people can thrive. To facilitate communication flows that have broken down due to ego or politics. To have policies that nudge people to take proper time off and not feel the need to be accessible on a Sunday afternoon. The company is in charge of the basics - removing the biggest obstacles that keep people in a zone of sub-optimal productivity and, consequently, unhappiness.
But employees need to meet the company half-way and articulate their needs. As Samantha puts it, “companies cannot solve the happiness equation alone”.
“Work-Life Balance is Bullsh!t”
The flipside of this coin of self-responsibility for your own happiness is the need to accept compromises.
Samantha criticises the narrative that ongoing work-life balance is an indispensable requirement for happiness. Instead, she proposes the idea of work-life harmony, which is characterised by temporary sacrifices: “Sometimes you just have a period when you need to fully focus on work. Other times you need to give yourself more space, or maybe you want to prioritise your relationships. But to constantly expect to do it all at the same time, that’s just not possible any more.”
Samantha uses David Whyte’s concept of the Three Marriages you have with yourself, your work and your relationships (to which she adds a fourth, the one you have with home and your private space): We need to have more of an appreciation of compromise, she insists. “We have been sold a message of a permanent equilibrium.” Instead, you need to have a conversation with yourself, and with the people in your life, and try to make sure that the temporary neglect of some of the four marriages does not derail them.
Work-life balance is a valid concept as long as you don’t expect to be balanced every day or every week. Or even on a longer time horizon. Because the fact is, no startup founder or anyone who has achieved anything significant, “has done this on a six-hour work day”, Samantha says. (Nikolai “hard work and no play” Storonsky from Revolut who spends 99.5% of his time in the office would agree).
“Happiness” is a vague concept. Everyone has their own definition, ranging from a short-term burst of joy to a general sense of contentment. Some people need balance in their life to be happy, others thrive on the rush of achievement. On top of that, even the need itself for happiness is not uniform among people. Some actually don’t even pursue it. There is enough literature out there claiming that the direct pursuit of happiness leads to frustration. Instead, the reasoning goes, passion for a subject matter or focus on a problem worth solving will, as a byproduct, lead to happiness. To paraphrase John Lennon: 'Happiness is what happens to you while you're busy doing your work.'"
It’s hard to capture the fickle butterfly of happiness. But most people are good at spotting unhappiness in themselves and others. There is plenty of that in the world of work.
And this is the main takeaway from talking to Samantha. Although she probably wouldn’t phrase it that way, she is mainly in the business of helping companies to identify sources of unhappiness. When the thorn is pulled out from the heel, walking and running become fun again.
But walk and run you must on your own: The onus is on the company to remove sources of unhappiness. To find happiness - that’s on the individual.
And that’s a great framework not only for work life, but for a thriving society in general.