I just finished Johann Hari’s Lost Connections. It’s not about work and wellbeing – at least not exclusively. It’s about depression and anxiety: what causes them, and what actually works in treating these widespread mental health crises. Hari explores the various ways we – as a society – have lost connection with things that are critical to our wellbeing and then offers solutions for reconnection. It’s a truly excellent book chock full of phenomenal insights. I highly recommend it.
One of the critical disconnections Hari highlights is a disconnection from meaningful work. There are a million ways to describe what this looks and feels like, but the studies Hari references boil the core of our discontent with work to two issues:
- Lack of control over the work (amount and content)
- Lack of balance between efforts and rewards
It sounds so simple, but when you think about it, doesn’t it also feel familiar? Most of us spend our work lives in a constant state of overwhelm. There will always be more work to do than there are hours in the week. We are expected (or expect ourselves) to be on and available all the time, reacting to whatever is happening in the moment. While some of us may have the ability to choose the types of work we do, how we manage our workloads and are able to set our own priorities, many workers don’t have these kinds of autonomy.
As we lose autonomy about what we do at work and how we do it, we often also see a decrease in appreciation for the work we put in. The average worker puts in more hours today than ever before and reports feeling less appreciated. That sounds pretty imbalanced to me.
While these issues do need to be addressed at the broader organizational and societal levels (and Hari’s book has great insight here), I also believe there are small ways we can connect meaning to our work and improve our work lives.
Learn to identify the difference between necessary work & unhealthy expectations
If you don’t work through the weekend on that project, what will happen? If the answer is (a) I will have too much to do next week or (b) my boss will be annoyed, you should probably have a conversation with yourself or your leadership about realistic workload expectations. If the answer is c) we will miss a critical deadline or window of opportunity that could significantly hurt our company, it may be worthwhile to work through the weekend. We’ve gotten so used to overblown workloads that many of struggle to tell the difference between the need to work extra because something is urgent, and the expectation of extra work. Be careful though, if you find yourself answering (c) regularly, you should also have a conversation with leadership about realistic workload expectations (and be on the lookout for a systemic problem).
Ask to participate in projects that interest you
Many of us feel limited by our job function or department, but lots of companies welcome collaboration across departments and seniority levels. When you’re able to choose something at work, it gives you back some of your agency and can make those “have-to-dos” at the office a bit more palatable. A quick warning: don’t be afraid to ask for accommodations to your existing workload, or to set careful boundaries on any additional projects when taking on something new.
Ask for help
I know I’ve been in work situations where I felt like I had to suffer through getting it done. In some cases, this may have held some truth, but in most cases, I could have benefitted significantly from asking for some help. Some of the top reasons we don’t ask for help include, wanting to solve a problem ourselves, fear of being seen as incompetent, and not wanting to bother others. I’m here to tell you that even the greatest athletes get coaching and need assists, knowing that you need help is a sign of competence, and literally everyone I’ve talked to about this subject has expressed how much they love helping others. Do someone a favor and let them help you!
Celebrate others’ contributions
Whether we mean to or not, we help set the culture at our workplaces. We may not be able to shift an entire company culture, but we can impact the way our immediate colleagues experience work. If you manage team members, regularly acknowledge their contributions. If you don’t, congratulate your coworkers on a job well done. Make it a practice to tell colleagues that you see and value the efforts they are putting in. When you model appreciation, you assign value to the work of others, which in turn will help you value your own work. (Your boss may even catch the bug and start to appreciate you.)
In truth, we can’t love everything we do, and there will always be jobs – and parts of our jobs – that don’t resonate. There are also many things out of our control that contribute to workplace satisfaction, or dissatisfaction. Take control of the small things you can, advocate for larger changes, and look for other options if a situation is untenable. We spend a third of our lives at work, let’s try and make the best of it!