What’s Good About Work?

Let’s face it, most of us hate our jobs, and if you ask us what we hate about them, we’d be happy to tell you the stories of lazy coworkers, miserable conditions and asshole bosses.  Gallup researchers suggest that “presenteeism” (the act of showing up to work but not truly contributing to the productivity of the company) costs American companies hundreds of billions of dollars.  Gallup polls show that only about one third of American workers are engaged at work, and a large portion are “actively disengaged,” a pretty sad state when you consider that the workplace is where we spend most of our waking hours.

It would be easy to look at this data and conclude (as most of us seem to) that “work sucks.”  We tend to think of work as an obligation that we must fulfill in order to survive and so that we have the means to enjoy the few hours left in the day after quitting time.  People strive to maintain a healthy “work life balance,” a popular term which clearly makes a distinction between the hours we spend at work and our “real life” which happens when we’re not on the job. 

I’d like to suggest that work may be better than most of us are making it out to be, and rather than accepting the dismal statistics and the negative gripes around the water cooler, we should take a moment to ask ourselves, “what’s good about work?”

For one thing, the Gallup research is not as damning as you might think because it doesn’t really compare against those who are not working.  My guess is that although everyone dreams of pursuing their passions when they finally have the time, if you measure those without work, you might well find that most of them are just as unengaged as their buddies who are still slaving away at the office.  In fact, additional Gallup research shows that the unemployed are just as bad as disengaged workers in terms of their psychological and physical wellbeing.

Mihalyi Czikszentmihaly, the world’s foremost expert on engagement says that surprisingly, much of people’s optimal levels of engagement (“flow“) occur while they are on the job.  Work is a place where people are challenged and forced to learn, grow, and develop new skills.  His research found that most people outside of work were somewhat listless and apathetic, more likely to be watching a soap opera than pursuing their personal passions.

Work is not the worst thing in the world, even for those who are not fully engaged in their job.  They could be having a grand ole time goofing off at the company’s expense.  The workplace environment, while easy to poke fun at in a Dilbertesque way, also provides opportunities to establish relationships, make friends or meet someone to start an illicit office romance (almost 60% of people admit to having had an office romance and 19% say they met their current spouse or partner at work.)

It is possible that the biggest problem with work is our attitudes towards it.  We expect it to suck and it does, we look for the negative and we find it, we celebrate “Thank God Its Friday” and revel at having “made it through” another week of drudgery. 

Don’t get me wrong.  There is potential to improve work.  Huge potential.  I think we should work shorter hours, get more vacation time, have better insurance coverage, and have bosses that appreciate us and care for us.  But let’s not wait for our bosses to improve.  What if every worker in America brought a different attitude to the office next week? 

I like the idea of “job crafting” as a way to create more flourishing in your working hours.  You can create opportunities for positive emotions by seeking out projects that you enjoy and connecting with people that you like.  You can create more engagement by challenging yourself to grow and learn new things.  You can relish the personal relationships that form at work, some of which extend beyond the 9-5 shift.  You can find a sense of meaning in the work that you do, either because of the contribution you are making to society, to customers or to your co-workers or because you are working to support your family and provide the best possible life for the people you love.  And finally, work is a place for great accomplishment.  You can feel satisfaction with the achievements you are able to make while working.

Rather than thinking about “work-life balance” or trying to figure out how we will thrive on the weekends to make up for the sucky week at the office we have, we could think about “work-life coherence” (a great catch phrase I got from coach and author, Bruce Elkin) or how to live our best possible life whether we are at work or not.  Life is happening at work, and we shouldn’t relegate those hours to a second class experience.

References and recommended reading:

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.  New York: Harper & Row Publishers.

Elkin, B. (2003). Simplicity and Success: Creating the Life You Long For. Trafford Publishers.

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6 Responses to What’s Good About Work?

  1. Niki Glanz August 16, 2011 at 6:57 pm #

    Thanks, Jeremy! I’m one of those who has been lucky enough to have had wonderful jobs over the years. Some more so than others, of course, but even the really rough ones enabled me to learn and go forward. So I appreciate your positive take on what is, realistically speaking, one of the major components of our lives. And who hasn’t noticed the vibrancy of people who enjoy their work in other areas of their lives, as well?

    Just read a book review of “The Happiness Equation” by N. Powdthavee, which the reviewer knocks for putting too much emphasis of the relationship between relative income and happiness. As the reviewer, B. Caplan, says: “A small increase in wages has but a small and ephemeral effect on happiness. A small increase in unemployment, by contrast, has a massive and – unlike most other factors – durable effect on happiness.” That’s the impact of work, or, conversely, the lack of it. Let’s hope more people around the world get the opportunity to hold down a job,

  2. Lisa Sansom August 16, 2011 at 10:19 pm #

    Although no job is likely to be a perfect fit all of the time, I do wonder how much of the griping about work is cultural? A way to fit in? It’s sort of like complaining about the weather or the losing sports team. If complaining about the stupid boss or the boring project or the lazy co-worker is a way of fostering community and creating some sort of cohesion, then does it (in a weird and warped and twisted sort of way) actually have some benefit?

    In the Gallup Q12, the most controversial question is likely “I have a best friend at work”. There is, to my knowledge, no assessment of the quality of that relationship – it could be a “best friend” that you celebrate and capitalize with, or it could be a “best friend” who consoles you and you commiserate with. Both are clear requirements for the title “best friend”. Yet people who respond “yes” to this question are more likely to be engaged and productive at work – with all of the benefits that entails.

    Just a thought… .

  3. Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) August 16, 2011 at 10:47 pm #

    Hi Niki, Thanks for your comment. I hadn’t heard of “The Happiness Equation” so I’m going to look it up. But your citation from the review is exactly the point I was trying to get at. People love to complain about their work but they don’t realize the devastating impact to wellbeing that comes with being unemployed. Appreciating the positive aspects of work is, I think, an important step in reforming the work experience.

  4. Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) August 16, 2011 at 11:03 pm #

    Good questions Lisa! I do think the social aspects of complaining about work have an adaptive purpose. Think of it as a social expression of the negativity bias. Since we are all predisposed to want to be sure we are aware of dangers in our environment as a protective mechanism, then aligning ourselves with other people who will “spread the news” of potential problems can be a successful survival strategy.

    Regarding the link between having friends at work and engagement, this has been a driving force in Tony Hsieh’s strategy with Zappos. For this reason he literally pushes his co-workers to get to know one another socially. He encourages socializing outside of work, asks employees to identify photos of their co-workers to log in to their computers and encourages impromptu interactions by forcing everyone to walk in and out of the building through the same area. A large part of his work culture is based on creating an environment where the employees will get to know each other and have some things in common on a deep personal level.

    Thanks for your comments!

  5. Dan Bowling October 6, 2011 at 8:59 am #

    Good post, Jeremy. As you suggest, work-life balance is false construct. It assumes time at work is a miserable slog through one of Dante’s middle circles, and time outside of work is one of joy and bliss. Neither is true, of course. The happiest people bring the same thinking and emotional skills to both domains, and yes, hunt the good stuff wherever they are.


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