How to love what you do (whatever you do)!
The world is starting to resemble something a bit more like our normality again, great news in the fight against the pandemic (no, we know it’s not over but it’s at least getting better), but we’re still feeling the effects of it, of the stress we faced, and many of us are on the road to burnout, perhaps already there, or even been there for while. According to new research 79% of UK workers have experienced burnout, with 35% reporting extreme symptoms.
It’s figures like these, and very similar in the US (76% of US workers have experienced burnout in the last few years), that have sparked ‘The Great Resignation’. If you missed it, it’s a movement sweeping the globe, from the USA to China, Japan, Germany to name a few. People are leaving their jobs in the pursuit of more money, better work-life balance, and more joy from their jobs.
So should we be thinking about quitting too?
On one hand, if we really truly hate our jobs, the workload is too much, the stress is overwhelming, etc, you know you really hate your jobs then probably. On the other hand, how many of us are actually able to ‘just’ quit our jobs in the pursuit of happiness? And have we, unknowingly, raised the expectations of work making it more difficult to enjoy what we already have?
The narrative of finding joy and happiness in life has been at the forefront so much so that many of us are now under the belief that anything else means there might be something wrong with us or in our lives. And with the majority probably not in a position to leave our places of work, that narrative can leave us feeling less than fulfilled.
As with anything in life, work will have its ups and downs. There’ll be days when we love what we’re doing, we love the people we’re surrounded by or zooming with, we have productive days that leave us feeling satisfied, and we believe in our capabilities. There will also be days when the mere thought of logging on can make us want to stay tucked up in bed, we find the people slightly irritating, we can’t concentrate and we log off and at the end of the day feeling anything but satisfied. And that’s quite normal.
Cultivating contentment at work
If we’re setting these unattainable expectations for work we are likely to feel more miserable in what we do because we just can’t achieve it. And thanks to our pal the brain, we tend to focus on the negatives more than the positives naturally which can really take its toll on our self-worth and contentment with our jobs. Have you noticed minor inconveniences like waiting for hours for an email response which could’ve taken 5 minutes, or not realising the time and showing up to a meeting late, can rocket our stress levels almost instantly and really dampen our day? We focus on these little negative things and forget the praise that came in the email response, or the great discussion we had in the meeting.
We can then get lost in the idea that what we do is the problem, it’s our roles at work rather than our mindsets, our attitudes or thoughts towards what we do. For some of us it will be the role, sometimes we land in something we weren’t expecting or doesn’t turn out to be quite the same as the description we applied for. Other times it's more about how we view our work, what our work means to us and how satisfied we are with our work.
Cultivating contentment at work is about being satisfied, feeling purposeful and staying motivated, while knowing there will be days where we feel none of that and that’s ok because other days we’ll feel we have it all. So how can we cultivate this view for ourselves? And how can our workplaces help us out?
3 ways to cultivate contentment at work:
A big motivational driver for us is autonomy, that’s how much we feel in control of what we do and our choices, and at work it’s how much say we have on what we work on and how we work on it. It’s empowering to feel in control of what we do, but sometimes we’re not in control of everything at work, so where’s the balance?
Autonomy can be created at individual and team level, mutually assigning tasks, discussing our roles, workloads and even where we work from. To ensure we’re giving autonomy as employers and having autonomy as an employee, rather than expressing demands or seeking control, notice how we’re having these conversations. Is there more advice or more questions? Asking questions gives the space for choice, offering advice can close that space leaving us feeling controlled. Now, we won’t always be able to choose exactly what we’d prefer or we might find that sometimes being told is necessary, but that’s life - one of those childhood life lessons, we don’t always get what we want. Creating the space for autonomy is also about communication and compromise. Communicate your needs, listen to how that can work, and discuss with an open mind to come to feasible solutions between you and your employer.
As humans we have desires to learn, to improve and to master, to feel like we’re progressing. Progress could be big goals like working your way up the career ladder, or simply breaking down smaller barriers that stand in our way of progress, like working with a team that’s progressing towards something, or doing the tasks we’re not so confident in.
Creating competence within teams and as individuals using feedback, constructive criticism and praise allows us to feel a sense of accomplishment. Being told we did a good job, that a meeting went really well or that you're valued as part of the team can really boost our sense of competence. This harnesses our motivation and keeps us progressing to keep getting that kind of feedback. Constructive criticism is important too, outlining areas for improvement, suggestions for next time or what doesn’t seem to work helps us to progress. But if it’s overly negative or vague it can be demotivating. Balance feedback by offering constructive criticism and praise, speaking with empathy, to highlight progress that’s already been made and how to keep making it. As employees we may need to ask for more feedback, but remember you’re human and make mistakes, listen to the feedback and always ask questions for clarity to make sure you understand.
We’re really beginning to grasp the importance of relatedness, our will to connect with others, interact and care for other people. Us humans love to be seen as helping, we like social interactions (even the introverts among us like a few), connection helps us to feel satisfied in life.
Creating relatedness at work is about ensuring people build connections to each other. Connection at work can help us feel satisfied even on days where everything is going wrong. It gives us that outlet to complain a bit (something we all bond over, more so that discussing the good bits), we can laugh together, have off topic conversations, feel part of a team and valued. Connection helps us feel secure at work, and everywhere else too. But relatedness is more than just bonding with others, it’s understanding our significance to tasks, the significance to the whole team or organization's larger objectives, feeling part of something bigger than just us and our needs. Talk about the outcomes of people’s efforts with the whole team and how the work helps others. We tend to work harder and feel more motivated towards pro-social behaviour (behaviour seen to be helping others), and are left feeling satisfied.
Now, these are by no means the only things we can do to cultivate contentment at work, but it’s a great start. While work perks and salaries will impact how we feel about our jobs, it’s helpful to look into the less tangible perks to help us navigate this narrative of finding ‘happiness’. The important part to remember is that we won’t always feel happy in our jobs and we won’t always feel content even. But when we find our work satisfying, feel competent and have some control, connected to others and contributing to a bigger picture more days than not, we’re probably on to a winner!