Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project, to which you can subscribe here.
Our work-life balance has, to borrow a term we all learned in the 2020 Olympics, been feeling “the twisties” during the pandemic. So many of us had to adapt to working from home, adjustments and accommodations, mass layoffs, career pivots and rehiring.
Even if you managed to keep your job, it likely changed in some significant way. And change doesn’t always mean for the better.
Even before Covid-19, more than half of Americans found their job unsatisfactory, according to an annual survey by the Conference Board research group. The nation had been hovering around the halfway mark of job dissatisfaction since at least 2000.
That statistic means half the people you work with every day are living a work life that Henry David Thoreau would have described as one of “quiet desperation.”
Many of us also unhelpfully conflate our self-worth with our career. Our job unhappiness becomes life unhappiness, which raises the stakes.
Wouldn’t it be nice to stop being envious of those who love their jobs and become one of those people?
There is a lot of career advice out there about how to ask for a raise, get a promotion, deal with a difficult boss, manage others and so on. But very little addresses the fundamental issue of your day-to-day happiness at work.
The factors that can tip the scales one way or the other for job happiness can boil down to our innate desire for three things: control over our lives, positive daily connections, and joy and meaning in how we spend our waking time (half of which is at work, for most people).
The way to integrate our need for control, connection and meaning – while on the clock – is by “job crafting.” That’s the term used by Yale University psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski and University of Michigan professor of business administration and psychology Jane E. Dutton. It’s about “taking control of, or reframing, some of these factors,” they wrote in a study on the topic.
The problem is not the job
People who don’t like their jobs – i.e., the majority of us – may suffer and grumble day to day. They may even be chronically stressed, a state that has serious medical consequences, from hypertension and cardiovascular disease to decreased mental health, according to a meta-analysis of studies by the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Harvard Business School.
There are also factors connected to job happiness that we have little control over, such as your boss. About half of people who quit their job did so “to get away from their manager,” according to a recent Gallup poll. Salaries are important as well.
But we don’t usually decide who our boss is, and they can suddenly change (for good or bad). As for money, studies have shown it has only a short-term effect on happiness.
So that leaves you with one powerful recourse: Take matters into your own hands.
Wrzesniewski and Dutton’s research focused on three main factors of deeper workplace satisfaction that are within your sphere of influence: 1) Refining your job to add parts you like and remove parts you don’t. 2) Building better relationships with your colleagues. 3) Reframing your job to add meaning and purpose.
Wrzesniewski distilled them nicely on the excellent social science podcast The Hidden Brain. Their research isn’t just theoretical. They wrote an instruction manual on how to job craft.
And – in my own, less scientific, more DIY way – here are exercises I’ve been practicing to get into better work happiness shape.
1) Hack your job
Start by making three lists. (Do this over a nice cup of coffee or tea in a quiet place, during work hours, even if it’s in your own living room.) One list is all the things you currently like about your job, big and small. The second lists all the hassles and headaches of your job, from the petty to the systemic.
And the third lists things you’d like to be able to do in your job that you currently don’t – even if they have nothing to do with what you’re paid to do. You can add “take more solo brainstorming coffee breaks” to it if you like.
Now, it’s time to systematically attack items on the second two lists. Go for a few easy wins first. Some things you can start adding and subtracting today; others may take months. Some may require buy-in from your boss (who will hopefully be amenable to increasing your workplace happiness), but many won’t. Some changes will be directly related to your job, while others will just be ways to increase happiness or reduce stress while there.
It’s all progress.
Be imaginative with these lists. Creativity is itself a well-being booster. Writing this wisdom column is something I added to my job. It has benefits to the company I can easily articulate but also makes me happy (and adds meaning to my job). I also try to work in exercise during the work day, running during lunch or during a meeting where I just have to listen in. Again, it has the benefit of reducing stress and sick days while increasing my energy at work but also benefits me personally.
Over time, your lists will grow and, as you cross off items, shrink. But make sure that when you remove an item from the second list (things you don’t like) and third list (what you want to add), you record the change on the first list (things you like about your job). Every new item on that first list is another rung in the ladder of work happiness, and it’s good to look down every so often and see how high you’ve reached.
2) Enjoy your work neighbors
You can’t do much to change the cast of characters with whom you work. But you can enhance every one of those relationships.
Learn more about what others want and help them achieve it, even if you aren’t their boss. Make meetings more fun or engaging. Help reduce the length, mandatory attendance and frequency of those meetings. Try inserting humor throughout the day.
Just getting to know your colleagues better – which is no harder than asking them questions – deepens your connection to them. The more you’re connected, the more you’re going to look forward to working with them every day. And if you look forward to interacting with your co-workers, you’re going to like your job a lot more as a result. You may not like what you do, but at least Michael, Jamie, Collin, Fiona and Saeed will be there!
The added benefit of this second effort is that it increases happiness for your colleagues too, perhaps helping them to tip their scale into the “satisfactory” side and beyond.
3) Create a new job title in your head
Wrzesniewski and Dutton’s research focused, in part, on a group of hospital cleaning staff. It’s a job that most people, without having done it, might assume would be unsatisfactory. Cleaning bed pans and interacting with the sick and dying is few people’s dream job.
But what they found was that a significant factor among those who reported liking their job was how they cognitively reframed it. The work was the same for everyone, but while some thought it was comprised of uncreative tasks, those who liked the work thought of themselves as playing a critical role in healing patients. One hospital worker considered themselves an “ambassador.”
And it’s not just thinking differently, because that has limited effect when nothing else changes. Thinking differently altered the way they performed the job, as well.
“It’s more than just a change of mindset,” Wrzesniewski explained to me. “It’s a change in your behavior approach to your job. If you think ‘I’m an ambassador to the hospital,’ it changes what you do.”
For example, you may be cleaning bedpans, but if you think of yourself as a caregiver, you may be looking at what’s in the bedpan for signs of health problems to alert to a nurse. “You don’t think, ‘I can’t do that,’” said Wrzesniewski. “That’s where the action really comes in.”
By shifting the paradigm around their job and adding meaning and purpose, the hospital staff made the tougher parts of their job tolerable, even important, and changed their behavior to support that purpose.
Can you do that with your job?
Think about the part you play in a larger framework that has a positive effect on others, or culture, or the environment. You may do data entry in a cubicle, but what’s that data used for? And how is your commitment to accuracy and detail vital to the effectiveness of that data? You may perform rote tasks in a factory, but are you helping build something that people need or brings others joy?
How might your actions change when you start seeing it that way?
Beyond whatever the job itself accomplishes, there is also meaning and purpose with what you do with your wages. Providing for your family, for example, is fundamentally important to their ability to thrive. It is important – particularly when you are stressed, put out or otherwise unhappy – to remind yourself of the security and opportunities garnered from your wages. That alone may give you strength in difficult moments at work.
“Onboarding” is the term human resources folks use when someone starts at a new company, to get them prepared.
It’s now time for you to get on board with your new start. You’re prepared. You are the human resource you’ve been waiting for.
Here’s the last takeaway: These factors – improving how you spend time, connecting with those around you, adding meaning to your tasks – are just as vital for your non-working hours.
David G. Allan is the editorial director for CNN Travel, Style, Science and Wellness.