“When work is a pleasure, life is joy, when work is a duty, life is slavery” (Maxim Gorky)
This is Part II of my series on joy at work, this time from the perspective of an individual employee. In this article I will explore what an individual’s responsibility is to ensure they’re experiencing joy at work in as much as possible. This is a central component of what it means for people to flourish. We spend more than one-third of our working hours at work. To the extent we are miserable at work and we find it a duty and a chore or a necessary evil, we are not free to experience the fullness of life as it is meant to be lived.
In my previous article I explored what the leaders and managers of an organization’s responsibilities are to create an organizational culture where employees could experience joy at work. I explained why experiencing joy at work was important for employee health and wellbeing, i.e., their flourishing, as well as how it actually contributes to a company’s productivity. I noted that four essential ingredients for creating joy at work include meaning and purpose at work, psychological and physical safety, job autonomy and team cohesion (camaraderie).
In this article, I will explore an individual’s responsibility in these same four areas. To these I will add a final one, choice.
- Alignment of our individual meaning, purpose, and values with that of the organization for whom we are working
The Covid-19 Pandemic has now been with us for almost two years and due to new variants and new outbreaks, the end of this unprecedented season still eludes us. If there’s anything we have learned from this time, it is that life is too short to waste time doing things that don’t give us joy or fulfil that deep internal desire we all have for meaning and purpose in our life. Most of us have come to recognize that we have invested too much time in doing things that don’t matter and not enough time and energy in the people and activities that do.
The existential nature of the crisis has us questioning the very nature of our existence, i.e., what is our meaning and purpose of life. Or has caused us to wonder whether human life beyond our material existence, has any purpose at all. This is normal and natural.
Many workers are voting with their feet and leaving jobs in droves that no longer give them a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Successful individuals have quit prestigious positions and started their own companies out of part of what is being referred to as the YOLO exodus. YOLO is short for you only live once. One article published in the New York Times in April 2021, chronicles this mass exodus of exhausted Type-A millennial workers (Roose, Welcome to the YOLO Economy) from their current jobs in order to do something that is more meaningful to them. Many have explicitly stated they are leaving these roles because they want to make a social impact in a particular area of concern; either by creating their own organization, or by working for an organization that shares their particular concern, whether it’s for the environment or for building houses for the homeless.
Alignment between your mission, vision, purpose, values, and those of the organization for which you work will greatly enhance your joy at work. Every organization has a mission, purpose, vision and values and are organized around doing something. The sweet spot is when there is approximately 75% alignment or overlap between your mission, purpose and values and that of your organization. There will always be those aspects of the job and the company that you won’t like. Ask yourself whether you can live with those areas where they are not aligned?
Is your purpose in alignment with the stated purpose of your organization? Do you know what your personal purpose or mission statement is?
Too many of us haven’t give much thought to this. A person’s purpose in life is something that is constant, it is their why, their raison d’etre. It can be expressed in many different jobs and in different ways in different seasons of our life, but it is our personal why which remains consistent over our lifetime. This why is the golden thread that provides the central focus for all we do and are in this life. For example, my why is to help other people find out what their why is. I have fulfilled this why in many different ways, from leading training programmes in different humanitarian aid settings, to 1:1 coaching.
Another way of stating it is what is your onlyness, your uniqueness, what can only you do? One book defines onlyness as the intersection of gifts, talents, experiences, strengths and passions. (Merchant, The Power of Onlyness) To help you think more about your why, ask yourself the following questions:
What are you passionate about? What would you do if money wasn’t an object? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What are you good at and love doing? What experiences bear this out? What is the purpose, or the golden thread, that emerges from all the accomplishments and experiences of which you are most proud?
People also flourish more and experience more joy at work when they are consistently living out of their values. If not, they will feel spiritual dis-ease or cognitive dissonance. This is what it means to have authenticity and integrity. Are you being true to yourself in your work life? For example, if one of your primary values is the climate and you’re passionate about doing something to address climate change, you may experience this dis-ease or cognitive dissonance if you’re working for an oil company that does not make this a primary value.
What are your main values? What are the values that motivate you? Are you living according to those values? Have they changed in light of the pandemic? If so, how have they changed
2. Psychological and Physical Safety
The second ingredient is physical and psychological safety.
In terms of physical safety, the key thing to ask yourself is whether you feel that your employer is looking after your physical safety, especially with respect to the challenges you are facing personally during the Pandemic. Have they genuinely listened to and addressed your concerns for altered working arrangements, whether through virtual, hybrid, or full-time physical working in the office?
Does your employer have plans in place for returning to work that are equitable and fair, that are sensitive to your unique situation (health, home life, age) as well as to your fears and concerns?
In terms of psychological safety, do you trust your boss, your co-workers and senior management? Trust is paramount to feeling safe at work. Do they deliver on their promises? Do they genuinely listen to you and respect your opinion? What are the power dynamics like? Are bullies tolerated? Is diversity genuinely celebrated? Are they committed to treating people fairly? Do you really feel that you can bring your whole self to work or is this something that the organization says, but doesn’t really model?
Is your organizational culture one where it is safe to fail or disagree? Or are disagreements and failures swept under the carpet, the ever-present elephant in the room. Can you be a whistle blower, what happens to whistle blowers? Is fairness an issue?
3. Job Autonomy and your ability to contribute fully to the organization
As employees, we have a responsibility to create to joy at work by proactively doing everything we can to make our workplace better. Instead of complaining or being passive, we are responsible for speaking up where things aren’t working and where things can be better. If you notice an area that needs improvement, ask yourself what can you do about it? What change, large or small, could you or your team initiate?
This only works however, if you feel that your job autonomy, the space to have ownership of your job and how you implement it, is respected by your leaders. If your leader is micro-managing you, this will impinge on the capacity you have to suggest and make incremental changes in your job and in the workplace.
What scope do you have to innovate or to suggest changes in processes and procedures? To what extent do you have the space to do implement your work in a way that gives you job satisfaction?
Deep down we as employees long to make an impact and to contribute to our organization. In fact, it is painful not to be allowed or able to fully contribute, or to not have our contributions recognized and valued. Brene Brown, social researcher and author, discusses this with Liz Wiseman, author of the new book, Impact Players: How to Take the Lead, Play Bigger, and Multiply Your Impact in her October 18 podcast, Dare to Lead.
Below is an excerpt from the podcast transcript about this need for individuals to contribute to their work
LW: I’ve learned that people come to work, desperately, desperately wanting to contribute everything they have. Like I can’t find the people who don’t want to show up and play big, I just see people who come to work with this hope of, “I want to be smart, I want to contribute, I want to be part of a team, I want to do something amazing.” But then I’ve watched how leaders can get in their way, how they can get in their own way, and how desperately they want to contribute and how painful it is when they can’t.
BB: I would say I’ve learned the exact same thing. And it is heartbreaking, in a way, because there is a grief attached to not being able to make good on that goal of wanting to contribute. There is real grief, and people don’t understand what’s happening.
LW: It’s grief and it’s exhaustion as well, and it’s one of the things that has been so interesting to me, is people describe this experience of being busy but bored or working hard but being under-utilized, not having their gifts and their talents utilized.
If you are not currently experiencing joy at work, it may be because you’re being kept from making meaningful and significant contribution at your workplace.
Is it possible to address this with your boss? Or is it time to find new work where you can contribute and make an impact?
4. Team cohesion and camaraderie
As human beings, we are born interdependent on people. We flourish in relationship to other people. Many people may not come to work because they necessarily like the work or the organization, but they love their team. They will not let their team members down. At work, it’s important to feel that you are part of a community.
Team cohesion was first discovered as being important to individuals flourishing at work by the military. In the trenches, soldiers became quite close in the face of a common enemy. They had each other’s back. And this has been born out by hospital workers in the Pandemic. The situation is horrific and stressful with too many Covid-19 patients occupying ICU beds, but as tired and discouraged as many doctors and nurses are, they show up to work for their colleagues. There’s a sense of being in it together.
Do people in your organization have each other’s back. Do you experience a sense of belonging at work? What is your relationship with your team like?
5. Choice and necessary endings
Today may be the enemy of your tomorrow, (Henry Cloud, Necessary Endings)
Throughout this article, I have stressed your responsibility to act and choose to find ways to experience joy at work. However, there may come a time where this becomes impossible in your current workplace, and you need to leave. That is also a choice and a responsibility. There is nothing worse than staying too long in a job that no longer brings you joy and then being fired or made redundant. Or storming out and quitting in a fit of rage. Far better to leave before this happens. Believe me I know! I have stayed in jobs far too long in the past and after the last time, have vowed never to do it again.
Knowing when it’s time to leave is an art.
Assuming you’ve done all that you can and still are not experiencing joy at work, what do you do? How do you know it’s time to begin looking for another job? How do you know that it’s time to cut your losses and move on?
Some of the signs that it may be time to move on are:
- Boredom—you no longer feel challenged by your work
- Restlessness—a sense that you know there’s more out there for you to do and you’re not doing it
- Resentment–you feel like you’re giving more than you’re getting back
- Overwhelming dread of Monday mornings—to the point you don’t want to get out of bed
- Irritability—everything about your current job irritates you whether something is reasonably irritating nor not
- Irrational Bursts of anger—comes from repressed resentment and a sense of being unfulfilled and a sense of frustration that people in your organization can do no right
It may be time to transition into another role or possibly make a career change if:
- Your meaning and purpose are not sufficiently aligned with that of the organization
- You are not being able to fully contribute, your contributions are not valued—you’re not able to fully give from your talents, passions, experiences etc.
- The relationships and teams in the organization are toxic
- Trust has broken down
- Bullying is endemic and power is regularly being abused.
Finally, ask yourself is your job soul destroying or does your work nurture your soul?
Don’t be a slave. Discover what work will bring you joy.
If you’re not experiencing joy at work and would like the opportunity to reflect and work through the questions in this article in more depth with a coach, you can book an initial free 30-minute clarity session with me. It is confusing, emotional, and fraught to think through these things on our own.
You can email me on email@example.com
Bibliography and Resources
Brown, Brene 2015 Daring Greatly, Penguin Life, London
Brown, Brene Podcast, October 18, 2021 Dare to Lead, interview with Liz Wiseman, author of Impact Players
Cameron, Julia, The Artist’s Way
Cherry, Kendra Locus of Control and Your Life
Cloud, Dr Henry, 2010 Necessary Endings, Harper Collins, NY, NY
Hogan, Nanci, “Covid-19: An existential crisis? June 2020 for Thrive Worldwide. https://thrive-worldwide.org/blog/covid-19-an-existential-crisis/
Kauffman, Scott Barry, 2020: Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, Tarcher Perigee
Merchant, Nilofer, 2017 The Power of Onlyness: Make your wild ideas mighty enough to dent the world, Viking, New York.
Reese, Kevin, “The Shift: Welcome to the YOLO (You only live once) Economy,” New York Times, published April 21, 2021 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/21/technology/welcome-to-the-yolo-economy.html
Sinek, Simon 2017 Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team, Portfolio Penguin
Southwick, Steven M. MD and Dennis S. Charney, M.D. 2012 Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenge, Cambridge University Press
Wiseman, Liz, 2021 Impact Players: How to Take the Lead, Play Bigger, and Multiply Your Impact.