Can you really learn to be happier at work? Without changing your job? Even if you have a difficult boss?
You hate Mondays....
You're enjoying life at the weekends, but then Sunday afternoon comes around, the evening approaches, and you start to think about Monday. You get that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. Maybe you can't sleep. Monday morning, you don't want to get out of bed, you start to work out if you can come up with a good excuse not to go in. But you threw a sickie only last week. Perhaps you can say the kids are sick and you’ll work from home? But you know the boss doesn’t like you working from home, so even that’s not without its stresses.
You're bored when you get there...
The work is unfulfilling, you have no control over what you do, you just have to do as you're told. The boss is a control freak and micromanages even the simplest task. She seems to constantly worry that you don’t know how to do your work properly or seems afraid that you might use some initiative and not to the job exactly how she wants. So you feel there’s no point in showing any initiative anyway.
Maybe you're overworked and stressed, and can never get on top of what you have to do. Always firefighting, dealing with the most pressing problem and never planning ahead. So you always feel like there’s things outstanding, no sense of achievement or a job completed well.
You don't like your boss or your colleagues...
Your boss doesn’t have your back, he never gives you any help, just keeps piling it on. He expects you to get through it all and doesn't care if you have to stay late. Then there's your colleagues. Always bitching and gossiping. No-one works as a team, there's no sense of a shared purpose.
How on earth can you learn to be happier in these circumstances?
Mindset. Not ‘think positive’, but mindset.
I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with positive thinking self help books; that skill of always putting a positive spin on things? Sometimes it’s really hard. But by making small adjustments to the way I think about myself, my skills and my situation, I’ve learned so much about mindset and how important it is. Viktor Frankl in a concentration camp experienced at first hand how much difference this makes to survival. Buckingham and Goodall in Nine Lies about Work encourage us to find the ‘red threads’ in our daily lives, and weave more of them into the fabric of our work. Zig Ziglar tells of the woman who complained about how awful her place of work was, but by getting her to focus on gratitude showed how ‘everyone else’ had changed. (It can be found on YouTube, but most have foreign captions. Search for Zig Ziglar and gratitude if you want to watch him.)
I was talking with Michael, who worked for a local authority office. He had hated the work and didn’t get on with his managers. Public expenditure cuts meant the working environment was very negative. One day, in a flash of personal insight, he decided to stop complaining about it and see what he could do to make things better. To look for solutions instead of expecting others to change. He said it took some time, but after a while he found he was enjoying his work more. He discovered a growing respect for his managers, who also started to show him more respect. His managers started to come to him for help, which led to him getting more interesting work, and they started to show him more appreciation.
It’s kind of like when two people fall out, who is going to apologise first? Do you hold on to a grudge and expect the other party to make the first move? If they’re doing exactly the same, no-one does it, and the rift grows. If you want to be shown some appreciation and respect at work, show some to your bosses and your colleagues first. If you want interesting work, demonstrate that you can be trusted to do the simple things well, without complaint, on time. Change your approach, and people will change their behaviour in response.
I’m not saying this will work 100% in every situation. There are some work situations that need more. A bullying manager. A severe micro manager. A ‘rules are rules’ approach. But even in severe situations, acceptance of the situation puts you in a stronger position to act. If you have a bullying manager you do need support, but accepting the situation and not embracing victimhood will mean that you can consider your options – go to HR, go to another manager, look for another job, leave.
In most cases though, it’s not a bullying manager, it’s more that you don’t see eye to eye, you don’t get on, you don’t respect or trust each other. Those things can all be worked on.
And the bottom line is, you can’t control someone else’s behaviour, but you can control your own. You can learn to control your responses and your emotions. If you want to know where to start, download seven things you can do today to be happier at work. These seven simple things can be implemented easily. Make a start on your new habits and new behaviour at work.
Let me know if you’ve tried any of these out, and how you get on.
I was described as a 40 something the other day. I’ll take that, thanks . If you’ve read some of my other posts, you’ll know I left my 40s behind a good while ago.
We were talking about work, and it got me thinking about where I was working in my 40s. It wasn’t a bad job – there were plenty of interesting things to do, I got on well with the boss, and there were only the two of us for most of the time. But there were no prospects, and to be honest I wasn’t using my best skills all that much. The wider organisation – head office, the charity’s trustees – didn’t really know me or my best skills and had no interest in helping me use them or develop and grow. So I got bored. I needed more.
They say 40 is the new 30
50 is the new 40, 60 is… well, you get the idea. And while it’s fun to bask in the glow of being taken for younger than you are, the reality is that we are living longer, are fitter, healthier, have more energy than our grandparents did. We have active brains and expect more from life.
If you’re a 40 or 50 something – you have at least 10 years of your working life in front of you. With pensions the way they are in the UK, it’s probably going to be longer than that.
How does that make you feel? If you’re living your life just counting the clock down until you can retire, you’re doing it wrong. If the thought of another 10, 20 or hell, even more years of turning up for this job fills you with horror, ask yourself, why are you choosing to live like this?
You might be taking issue with me now.
‘I’m not choosing to live this way! I have no choice! I have bills, commitments, family to support!’
There’s always a choice
You might feel trapped in you job. You need the pay, you don’t have the skills, or the confidence to look for something else. You’ve looked, without success. Work sucks anyway, a new job will likely turn out just as bad as this one. Or even worse, and then what?
We may be stuck in a given situation for a time, but we can always choose our response to what happens, how we deal with it.
Even if you haven’t read his account, you’ve probably heard of Viktor Frankl, who wrote about his experiences in Auschwitz, and how those who gave up on life were the first to die. He says
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Man's Search for Meaning
Are you just waiting to be happy?
Your job may be bad, but I’m pretty sure it’s not as bad as Auschwitz. This is such an uplifting read, despite its subject, it gives a great perspective on the resilience of people. (I made a video with my thoughts on the account, you can watch it here.)
Do you want to be one of those people who waits to be happy, waits till a retirement that you might not be able to take, or won’t be able to enjoy because you have no disposable income? Is that what it would take for you to be happy – an absence of work? We hear so much these days about the importance of purpose and meaning in our lives, But Frankl was saying it after the war, after a harrowing experience, and how much it helped those who survived.
Are you asking yourself if there’s more to life than this?
There is. If you want to make a start now and feel happier at work today, I have put together my best tips for making a change. It’s free to download. If you want to find out seven things you can do today to feel happier at work, get it here.
Work life balance – does it matter?
Work – work is hard, it’s no fun, a necessary evil. To be happy, you need balance, your life has to be better, so it evens out the hardship you must endure every day at work.
Really? Is that the work-life balance you want?
I’ve been saying for a long time that work should be fun, motivating, rewarding, meaningful. Fulfilling, purposeful, challenging. Yes, there will be times when the going gets tough, but if you love the purpose of your work, then you can deal with the hard times. But that’s a bit different to believing that work is hard, something you must endure to earn a living.
So is a good work-life balance the answer?
I’ve just finished reading Nine Lies about Work by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall. Lie #8 – work life balance matters most. I’m blown away by this. You might think they’re off their trolley saying this is a lie, of course work life balance matters. But what they say is that it’s more important to be in love with your work.
One of the most moving things I’ve ever read in a business or personal development book is the story they tell of Sergei Polunin. He was a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet who quit at the height of his fame because he was unhappy in his work. I found it particularly tragic that a dancer, surely an artistic form that you can only do if you love your art, had to quit because he was unhappy in his work.
You might know this story, it was big news when it happened in 2012. (I didn’t, I don’t follow ballet.) Buckingham and Goodall then tell us how he fell back in love with his art, which was also big news, there’s been a documentary. It started with a performance on You Tube, and you can see this here. It’s worth watching, even if you’re not a ballet fan. Buckingham and Goodall say...
‘…you’ll recognise it not only as the work of a man at the end of his tether, but also as a pure expression of technical craft and unabashed joy. You see here a man who is taking his loves seriously, interlacing them with craft and discipline, and contributing to us something passionate, rare and pure.’
They talk about red threads, what are the threads in your work that you love? Identify them, and then weave more of them into your work. Fall in love with what you do, and spend more time doing those things at work.
If you’re in full time work, then that’s 35, 40 hours a week – more, if you’re in a stressful job where you’re being taken advantage of - you’re devoting to your employer. Do you want to spend that time resenting what you’re being asked to do? Or do you want to bring your best self, do what you love, bring your contribution to the world? If you’re in a difficult situation, then I get that it’s not a simple fix. A difficult boss or colleagues can be challenging. But if you can find joy in what you’re doing, you’ll feel better about the worst parts of the deal. You'll also be stronger and more able to deal with them.
If you want to know where to start, I’m going to take a leaf out of the book again. Buckingham and Goodall suggest keeping a note for a week of what tasks you love, and what tasks you loathe, as you do them over the course of the week. No need to worry where there's no strong feelings, just the extremes. At the end of a work week, you will have a list of your red threads. There’s no need for all of your threads at work to be red; research found that if they make up 20% or more of what you do, then you are in love with your work. I'm surprised it's such a small proportion, but that gives hope. If you have other issues, such as difficult working relationships, then at least you know you have a solid foundation on which to build.
If you’ve read some of my other articles, you’ll know that I’m a big advocate of starting small with making a change. Does this activity sound like something you could do? If it does, I’ve made it a little easier by preparing a simple checklist you can download and use for the process.
You can also see my review of Nine Lies about Work here. I’d love to know what you think of it.
Get your checklist now and find your red threads
Buckingham, Marcus and Goodall, Ashley, 2019 Nine Lies about Work, Harvard Business Review Press Boston, Massachusetts
Master your ego – there’s a day of the year dedicated to this; Ego Awareness Day. Saturday 11th May is the second ego awareness day, it began in 2018. Who decides on these days? I went to the website, and it’s a very earnest website, with no individuals credited on there. In fact, one of the descriptions almost made me feel it was a spoof day.
I’ll be honest, I first started getting interested in days of the year as a bit of a running joke with my brother and sister. My brother posted on facebook that it was Penguin Awareness Day, not to be confused with World Penguin Day or African Penguin Awareness Day. Amongst other things, I was staggered that there was even such a thing as African penguins, so clearly the awareness day thing works. Since then, we periodically highlight others that amuse us.
Ego awareness day
So, ego awareness day. As a blogger, we learn to connect to these days so we can hashtag them on social media, and I couldn’t let this one pass. I wondered if there was something in it.
The latest book I reviewed says, among other things, that the biggest obstacle to change in the workplace is the leader. He’s talking about you. The leader who wants to make the change, the reader of his book. His advice? Learn to master your ego.
‘Work to master your ego. Work to quiet your voice. Work to step out of the way. You must become a paragon of trying new things. Starting new loops. Asking big questions. Don’t stay stuck in the habit of evaluating and judging the work of others. Go find something to do.
‘Your new job is to ensure that the conditions for change are in place, not just now but in perpetuity. While you won’t be doing as much “leading” in the traditional sense, you’ll be doing something far more rewarding. You’ll be creating and holding space for change.’
Not sure if that’s an accurate version of the quote, I had to rely on Google, and there are a few variations. But you get the idea. And if it’s good enough for Einstein, I’m pretty sure it’s good enough for the rest of us.
Well, yes. If you view it as a reflection that none of us are perfect, we all need to continue to learn, develop and grow, then of course we need to master the ego. I know I’m guilty of believing I’m always right (ask my husband) and it generally takes proof for me to admit I’m wrong. I also discovered recently how I like to retain control, as I described here. It’s difficult to let go, and as leaders in the workplace it’s so tempting to think that we know best.
Dignan also says that the old practices of scientific management, embodied by Frederick Taylor, separated the thinking from the doing. And it’s disturbing how much this attitude still prevails, with managers telling their teams what to do, and sometimes even what to think. As autonomy is so important to our motivation, no wonder so many people are dissatisfied and disengaged at work.
What can you do to master the ego?
Let me know what you think. Will you work on mastering your ego? Will you try one of these suggestions?
Links here to the book reviews mentioned
BUPA’s point with the article seems to be to encourage older employees to feel more confident in recognising symptoms and seeking help. Which is all very admirable.
For me though, as one of those older people (ok, not an employee any longer, but definitely in that age group) the article raises more questions than it answers. Those symptoms – are they an indication that professional help is needed? Continuous low mood – if you’re not happy at work, then yes, you may have a continuous low mood. Is that an indication of a mental health issue, or is it a question of an individual’s mindset?
There’s a line between what is a mental health issue that needs professional support and someone who is unhappy because they have a fixed mindset and, to quote Carol Dweck, think the world needs to change, not them. Or, as Jen Sincero  says, people with bad habits and limiting beliefs, head towards the big snooze – a life of mediocrity. It’s too easy to sleepwalk through life, meeting obligations , family commitments, having to earn a living, and then find that you’re stuck in some boring job that doesn’t inspire you or seem meaningful. That doesn’t translate necessarily into a mental health issue that needs professional help. There are things you can do, take action yourself, make a change. I know, because I’ve done it.
Apparently, many say that mental health simply ‘doesn’t affect me’. Is this because, as a comment on the article suggests, that older employees won’t speak up because they are afraid that if they do, their job is at risk? (Quite possibly.) Or is it because baby boomers are used to just getting on with things, even if they don’t feel like it? I’d say this is a definite characteristic of us baby boomers. Amongst the women, there’s a sense of obligation to our family commitments that mean we struggle on. Many men of this age still feel it is somehow weak to seek help for mental health issues.
And that 54 days before seeking help – so less than two months. You might legitimately feel that things will get better of their own accord without needing help; although, I realise I can’t argue this without proving BUPA’s point! But I’d still say; is less than two months suffering a continuous low mood an inordinately long time to wait before seeking help? Maybe younger people are too quick to say they have a problem that they can’t solve themselves?
One statistic in their findings I do find shocking is that two thirds of people in this age group suffer symptoms like anxiousness, (is anxiousness the same as anxiety? I’d have said anxiety, but the study said anxiousness. Maybe there’s some semantic difference I’m not aware of) continuous low mood, feelings of hopelessness and insomnia. Even if BUPA are overstating the extent of the problem, this is a terrible indictment of the quality of life for working baby boomers. I’ve long believed that work should be meaningful, enjoyable and rewarding. Surely us over 50s have earned the right to be doing something we love with our time, something we find useful and that we look forward to doing? Surely we should not be feeling hopeless, anxious or continuously in a low mood?
What is often not said is that it is work that makes us feel this way. Our lifelong feeling of not being valued in jobs that don’t feel meaningful leads to low self esteem and has a knock on effect on the rest of our lives. We don’t have interesting personal lives, we’re too tired once we get back from work to take part in social activities or hobbies, our family relationships may be suffering, and our health, fitness and diet aren’t ideal, making the tiredness worse.
I don’t want to suggest that you shouldn’t seek professional help if you need it, and if your company is enlightened and supportive enough to offer this, that’s awesome, use it. Or use the NHS. I'm not medically trained in any way, but my own past experience of support from the NHS for mental health issues hasn't really addressed issues of low self esteem and confidence. This has taken a lot of personal effort in self development and informal support instead.
So if it’s that you’re just unhappy at work, take action. Take control, and take back your power. There are some simple things you can do to be happier, and you can start today with these seven things.
Are you stuck in a job you don’t like, and you’d really like to make some changes, but somehow you never seem to get around to doing anything about it other than complain? I just want to say, it’s not your fault. It’s really hard to make that change, and sometimes we don’t even know where to start. To compound the problem, our brains conspire to keep us where we are. This post I wrote some time ago tells you more about how it does this.
I told you in the last post how I’d finally got the diet and exercise habit. What I didn’t say was that this was after more than forty years of failing to adopt healthy diet and fitness habits on a sustainable basis. So yay for me! And that got me thinking about transferring the lessons learned into other areas, and I showed you how you could start small to make some changes in your work situation.
I realised that the reason I’ve now adopted the new habits is because there are consequences to not sticking with it. At first, the consequence was that I’d have to pay a fine and show on a public website that I’d not achieved my goal. But now, several months later, the consequences of not getting in my activity for the day mean that I don’t get to eat so much. To continue losing weight, I must maintain a calorie deficit. If I’m active, I get more calories to eat and can still maintain a deficit on the day. If I don’t maintain a deficit, I won’t continue losing weight, and I now know that the progress motivates me. I don’t like to see a weight gain. I’ve associated the behaviour with the consequences.
There are other things I’d like to achieve though, and I realised that the consequences are not sufficiently associated with the results, so I need to find a way to link them – to ingrain the new habit to work towards other goals.
Which brings me to urgency. I’ve also always been a last minute kind of woman. As a mature student, I was often up until 3.30 am to finish an assignment. Once, I handed something in at one minute to the deadline, and my dissertation involved two consecutive all nighters in order to get it in on time. I did well to do two consecutive all nighters – that involved me planning ahead and doing some work two days before it was due in.
Now that I work alone, I have to create my own urgency, I have no tutor or manager expecting work to be done to a specific time, so you might have noticed that I don’t post an article every week. At the moment, I don’t have readers who expect a weekly post, so there are no immediate or obvious consequences if I miss a week.
You may be in a job you don’t like, you may come home and complain to your family or friends about how awful it is, and you may even look at the job ads online to see if there’s anything else out there. But you’re not really taking action, you feel stuck in your current situation. There’s no urgency to make the change. You need the income your job provides, you’re tired out when you get back with domestic responsibilities, you don’t have time to fill out job applications online. The consequences, remaining fed up, dreading Sunday evenings and Monday mornings – well, that’s how it is, you’ll just continue to whinge about it.
Urgency can be a double edged sword. You may eventually get to the point where you’re desperate, things are so bad that you’ll start to take action. But then your options may be limited, and you could end up in just as bad a position or worse. Like Brenda (not her real name) who left a public sector job because she wasn’t happy there, and took a job with a charity working for a cause she believed in. However, she soon found that the organisation had a toxic work environment. Her new manager was someone who had been promoted but wasn’t capable of her new job, there were no support structures in place to provide the training and coaching that the manager needed, a colleague was being bullied, bitching and gossip were rife. Speaking up got her nowhere.
You don’t want to act out of real urgency and not be able to take a considered action. So how can you create some urgency for yourself - enough to motivate you to take consistent action and start a new habit but not so much that you have to act at all costs?
As I’ve already said, I’m finding the public accountability very helpful, combined with making a commitment to myself. Owain Service and Rory Gallagher in their book, Think Small, support the idea that making yourself publicly accountable is one of the foundations of creating good habits successfully.
And then we come to procrastination. The result of consequences not having a direct link in your mind to your current behaviour, and of not having urgency to act, is procrastination. You know you want to do something – most likely look for another job – but you put it off. There are reasons we do this – it can be too hard to take the action we want to take, it can take up too much time, we don’t give it priority over more immediate things. This article in the New York Times puts a different light on it, and it makes perfect sense to me. It’s not a time management problem, it’s an emotional problem. We don’t procrastinate because we’re lazy or because we don’t have time management skills. It’s a response to a negative mood – the urgency of managing that negative mood takes priority over the longer term consequences. It may just be that the task itself is unpleasant, but it may also relate to deeper feelings of self doubt, low self esteem, anxiety or insecurity.
The article gives some useful tips on dealing with procrastination. I’d like to add one more. Start small. Think about your habits, and what you’d like to do differently in your working life. You may think that finding a new job is what you want – and you may be right in the long term that’s the right course of action – but starting small means exactly that. What else could you do? The last post had a few suggestions. Here’s a few more – they are massive goals, but small actions to make a start.
Be more confident at work
Repeat affirmations to yourself every morning
Be more motivated
Pick a task that you must do daily or weekly at work, where you usually struggle to get it done. Set yourself a target – must have it done by 11.30 am every day, or by Tuesday lunchtime each week, whatever is appropriate for the task. Make a pledge in stickk.com and ask a friend at work to be your referee
Be more creative
Walk to work, or during your lunchbreak. Exercise has so many more benefits than just for your body. The time walking gives your mind the opportunity to wander, enhancing your creativity. Start with three times a week, or even once a week if you’re not active. Walk for 20 – 30 minutes.
Be nicer at work
Smile at people. Set a target – I must smile at five people today You’ll probably find you’ll soon smile at more than five.
Learn a new skill
Block out the time to devote to it. You can’t learn a new skill without practice. So either go to a class, or ensure you block out the time – at work if appropriate, at home if it’s not.
Improve working relationships
Resolve to ask one person each day how they are. And really listen to the response – give them your time and attention. Or even resolve to do this once a week to begin with
Be more organised
Pick one task and work on that. As for motivation, set a target, make a pledge in stickk.com
As well as on stickk.com, make your pledge here in the comments below, and I’ll be sure to support your efforts. Look forward to seeing how you get on.
What’s your new year’s resolution?
Ok, it’s a bit early to be asking that, but bear with me, I have my reasons.
I’ve made the same three resolutions, pretty much, for more years than I’d care to count. Lose weight, be happy at work, and be more organised.
Any of these resonate with you? I have a suggestion that might help with one, maybe even two of these.
I’m pleased to say that this year, I’ve lost 30lbs. About 14 kilos. I exercise regularly. This is a big deal. Previously, the only resolution I’ve actually kept was the one when I was about 13 years old, to not drop litter.
However, I’m not a dietician, personal trainer or fitness expert, so let’s put that one aside. (Although I did learn some very useful things about motivation in the process.)
I work hard to be organised. I do so well at this (sometimes) that people think of me as organised. However, I know there’s so much more I’d like to be better at, hence the frequent resolution.
But the key one, be happy at work. That’s my key motivator. My quest in life, the reason I’ve taken some big decisions about my own working life. This is so important to me, I believe it is one of the fundamental rights. If you believe that too, then I would love to help you make some changes that can make it a reality for you.
I’m working on an exciting new programme to launch in the new year. You can help me to develop this programme by telling me what you would most like help with in the new year, by completing this short survey.