By: Dr. Greg Harms
It seems like just a couple weeks ago I was writing about how to make the most out of summer and the natural enjoyment that it brings to so many of us. Now, Labor Day is right around the corner. What a weird holiday; going on vacation to celebrate work. There’s something rather paradoxical in that whole concept, not to mention that most Americans, at least the ones lucky enough to have jobs right now, are not too fond of their jobs.
We’ll take the day off that we’re given for sure, but we’re certainly not going to be more grateful for our jobs, bosses, low pay, demanding customers, unreliable co-workers, et cetera, et cetera.
Well, I hate to break it to you, but in most cases, work is actually helpful to our overall mental and emotional well-being.
Now, I’m not talking about jobs where you might be exploited, placed in danger, or emotionally (or even physically) bullied or abused, which I’ve written about in previous posts. If you’re in one of those situations, get out! But, normal working circumstances that require us to use some degree of skill and interact in some way with other people actually provide a benefit to us that goes beyond money.
Many theories of human development, including those from such respected theorists as Alfred Adler, Abraham Maslow, and William Glasser, identify the need for mastery, goal attainment, striving, and/or productivity as essential human needs. While the specifics of the theories differ, they all encompass the concept of engaging with life and working hard to achieve a sense of accomplishment.
When you think about that, it really seems to make sense. Most of us, even if outside of work, pursue some sort of hobby or interest that requires the development of skills, and it feels good just to pursue that interest, even in the absence of any sort of monetary or social gain. We take pride in being good at something just for the sake of doing it and often we start to feel sad, listless, or anxious when we are not able to do that activity.
The problem with work is that many times our jobs become almost automatic and require little thought. We keep processing forms over and over, day in and day out, or we sit at the same desk and direct people to the same places over and over, or we run the same machine over and over, creating the same piece day after day.
Once we get the routine down, there is little need for skill, which poorly trained managers will often point out in a misguided attempt to motivate their employees to keep up productivity (“if you don’t want to do this, we can find 20 other people who can do it and will take a lower wage”). No wonder so many people are dissatisfied with their jobs. However, if we can take a step back and see the bigger picture, we can easily get that sense of purpose and accomplishment back.
It’s all about reframing the situation. Instead of being bored because everything is the same, we can see it as keeping things running smoothly, which makes other peoples’ lives easier and might help them to have a better day. The more products we can get from our machine, the less likely the next person on the chain is to get yelled at by their boss for falling behind. These are things we can take pride in even when it seems like there is little point to the job. As we start seeing how we might be impacting other people, it is easier to have that sense of pride in what we do and start to feel that sense of accomplishment.
Those people who have more exciting jobs of course have an easier time finding a challenge and something to take pride in. However, it is still easy, even in these jobs, to get distracted and caught up just in what you are doing. Too many challenges might even lead to resentment that no one is doing anything to help you out or make it easier, or that obvious solutions are not getting implemented. Again, step back and see the bigger picture and where your skills fit in. Perhaps your boss or management trusts you enough to meet the challenges because they know you will do a good job. Or, you can make it a personal challenge to find ways to do things better and take pride in your ability to create change, even if no one else will try it.
The more we embrace challenges, the more likely we are to be satisfied and reduce the likelihood of depression, anxiety, substance use, or any of the other myriad of problems that have been linked to burnout and poor job satisfaction. The more challenges we can find to overcome, the happier and more satisfied we are going to be.