A best-selling author and executive coach explains what it means to be happy at work.
What does it take to be happy at work?
It boils down to three things. First, people need a sense of purpose. They need to feel that they are contributing in an impactful way and that their work is meaningful. Second, people need to feel hopeful about the future. They need to feel that work fits into life and that overall, work is helping them progress towards their life vision. Finally, people need great, warm relationships with colleagues — they need friends.
What role do workplace friends play?
In the best cases, we have more than one friend at work — people who we trust and who trust us, who care about us and whom we care about in return. There is even a phrase for this kind of relationship: ‘companionate love’. The research shows that when employees have these kinds of relationships, they get more done. Purely transactional relationships don’t support us in the workplace. Friendships are good for us individually and they are also good for our organizations.
With so many people working remotely these days, it’s definitely harder to build friendly, warm relationships virtually. You have to make a proactive effort to regularly check in and build a sense of connection. If you are going to be working virtually with large groups of people, make sure
there are opportunities to break into smaller groups or pairs. We’ve got the technology to do this, and as indicated, it’s very important.
We talk about success and happiness almost interchangeably. Which comes first?
Happiness comes before success, although we don’t often think of it that way. We tend to think we’ll be happy when we get that next promotion, or a new job, or a new perk. But in fact, it’s how we feel about our work that determines how much we give to it and how much we want to learn. The research supports this.
Talk a bit about all the unhappy people at work.
When I studied what makes people unhappy at work, I found that they tend to point fingers outwards: They blame their boss, the tasks they have to do or the company culture in general. While it’s true that there are toxic managers and unsupportive workplaces, in reality, we have to take responsibility for our own happiness at work, just as we do in life. Gallup Polls show that two thirds of us are either activity disengaged or feel neutral about our work. Being neutral means that we see it as ‘just a job’, a transaction: You show up for eight hours and get a paycheque and some benefits. But if your work is just a job, it won’t be long before neutral turns into actively unhappy.
What can we do to consciously choose to be happy in the workplace?
In order to become truly happy at work you have to develop your self-awareness and understand what you really care about, what values are important to you, and what it means to make a contribution. Then, you should take a really good hard look around the workplace and ask, “What aspects of my job are not making me happy, and, in fact, make me miserable sometimes?”
If you’ve got a boss or a culture that isn’t great, you’ve got to then lean into your ‘self-management’ competency. That means building up psychological boundaries to protect yourself from whatever it is that is not healthy. If you do that, it frees you up to start to understand how to shift your mindset and actions to make your work more palatable, meaningful and fulfilling.
You talk a lot about Emotional Intelligence. How does it relate to workplace happiness?
Emotional intelligence is our ability to understand and manage our own and other people’s emotions, and to use that knowledge to further collective goals. It requires self-awareness and self-management to stay true to who we are and manage the pressures of our ‘always-on’ world. Our social awareness, or the ability to read other people and understand their needs and motivations, helps to ensure that we create warm, resonant and productive relationships. Clearly, these things relate very closely to workplace happiness.
You have identified several ‘happiness traps’. Please describe them —and how we can set ourselves free.
There are five happiness traps. First, doing what you think you should do — including staying in a job long after you should probably leave — is a common trap. The second trap is finding yourself completely over-worked and constantly struggling to keep up. That does not lead to happiness. The third trap, the money trap, is one that many of us fall into, and it is driven by a variety of factors. The fourth trap is the ambition trap, and this one is very insidious because ambition helps us to reach for our very best. Yet, over time, we can get caught on a treadmill, striving for the next promotion or raise. We’re ambitious for that goal, but we lose sight of the joys of the journey along the way. That can make life feel very empty. Finally, there is the helplessness trap. This arises when we feel disempowered and unable to impact our situation — and it might be the most dangerous trap of all.
Breaking free from these traps requires self-awareness and the courage to act on what you discover. Never mind what matters to other people. Where are you going in your life, not just in your career? How does your job and your career support that? You’ve got to look at the big picture, and
ask these important questions. If you do that, you will be on the road to a deeper kind of happiness that is more sustainable and will not only effect your working life, but your entire life.
Describe the difference between a job, a career and a calling.
A job is when we experience work as transactional: You work in exchange for a paycheque, and there are times in life when that is completely appropriate. However, if we experience work that way for too long, we can start to feel very resentful about giving up hours of our ‘real’ lives for something that doesn’t matter much to us. The money never feels like it’s enough to pay us for the time or the effort that we put forth. We always want more.
A career is usually linked to joining a profession that you care about. When this is the case, you will experience some meaning as a result of engaging in work related to that profession. In a career, we want to progress — to learn more, to get better. But, again, we have to be on the lookout for mindless movement or climbing the ladder, which can happen to the best of us.
Ideally, we want to experience our work as what researcher Amy Wrzesniewski and her colleagues at Yale describe as a calling: We want to feel that our work is meaningful, that we are truly living our purpose and our values.
If a workplace culture is oppressive or toxic, what can we do about it?
Even if you’re not the boss, you can inspire change by creating ‘resonance’ around you: Choose the values you want to live with in the workplace; reflect on how you treat people; and ask yourself what kind of norms and habits you want to model for your team. If enough of us did this, organizations would change for the better.
You write about crossing the ‘happiness line’. What does that mean?
Tipping the scale from happiness into unhappiness or even despair does not happen overnight. It may seem like it does, but that’s usually because we’ve been ignoring the clues. I always encourage people to look at three categories of clues. The first is being aware of your physical health. Are you suddenly not sleeping well? Do you feel anxious all the time, to the point where you’re having physical symptoms? There are lots of little signs that something might be wrong — and you don’t want to wait for a major physical wake up call.
Next, there are the emotional clues. Are you increasingly impatient, when you used to go with the flow? Do you lose your temper too often? The place to look for this first is at home. We’ve all been trained to keep our game face on at work, so difficulties tend to show up at home first. Then, there are the relational clues. Do you find that people seem hesitant to spend time with you, even in professional settings and meetings? Do they not make eye contact? Are you getting either subtle or overt messages that things aren’t right?
It’s really important to pay attention to these things long before the big wakeup call that you’re miserable at work — and before they spill over into your personal life.
Best-selling author Dr. Annie Mckee is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and a coach to executives of Fortune/ftse 500 companies. Her most recent book is Happy at Work: The Power of Purpose, Hope and Friendship (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017).
We have to take responsibility for our own happiness at work, just as we do in life.