How to be happier at work: Endure what you have to do to enjoy what you want to do

Phil Castle
Phil Castle

I’m usually no less suspicious of email pitches than carnival barkers. As editor of a business journal, I see more pitches in a week than a big league batter sees in an entire season. But the subject line of this particular email was just too enticing to ignore: how to be happier at work.

I consider myself pretty happy at work as it is. After all, I get paid to learn things, to talk to people and tell stories. I get paid to write this column, for heaven’s sake. But who doesn’t want to be even happier? Come on, make me ecstatic already.

The email offered a link to the New York Times website and a compelling piece by Tim Herrera offering tips for finding more joy and fulfillment on the job. His premise was straightforward: A few small changes can make a big difference in the way people feel about work.

Herrera cited a study conducted at the Mayo Clinic that found physicians who spend 20 percent of their time doing what they consider meaningful work are less likely to suffer burnout. The 20 percent constitutes an important threshold, as it turns out, because the study determined anything beyond that proportion results in only marginal improvement.

The implications extend beyond clinical settings and harried doctors to every workplace and every business that wants to increase employee satisfaction and, in turn, performance.

According to the results of a Gallup poll, the proportion of employees in the United States engaged in their work — involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to what they do —  climbed in 2018 to its highest level since 2000. That’s the good news. The bad news: That proportion isn’t exactly a majority at 34 percent. Meanwhile, 53 percent of employees fell into the “not engaged” category of those who show up and do the minimum required and 16.5 percent were “actively disengaged.” Here’s one more number, a big one, to ponder: Disengaged employees cost U.S. businesses an estimated $550 billion a year.

Herrera’s piece resonated with me because I’ve long believed most jobs include a mix of things you have to do and things you want to do. I suspect I’m no different than most people who endure those tasks they have to do to enjoy those activities they want to do.

I’m not a big fan of rewriting news releases, for example. But it’s an important function in tailoring copy to fit a local audience and ultimately assembling the best product time and space allow. The payoff comes in other duties that afford me the opportunity to interview remarkable entrepreneurs and write what I hope are equally remarkable stories about their ventures. How cool is that?

It’s the same thing at the gym. I run on a treadmill and lift weights not only because my trainer tells me to, but also to maintain the fitness that ensures my safety on scuba diving vacations. Oh, right. That whole health thing is pretty nice, too.

To use yet another metaphor, I’m willing to dig through a pile of manure to find the pony.

Quoting the authors of the book “Nine Lies About Work,” Herrera asserts enjoyable jobs are made, not found. Forget that commencement speech chestnut about choosing a job you love and never having to work a day in your life. People who love their jobs have transformed their duties over time. They’ve discovered what makes them the most energetic and creative. In other words, those things they want to do. Then they do more of those things.

For some, it’s easy to distinguish between the things they have to do on the job and the things they want to do. For others, though, the distinction isn’t as evident. I’d also make the argument the tasks people initially deem unpleasant or even tedious could be, on further reflection, not that bad. Maybe even fun. Especially if they become good at it.

Herrera suggests an exercise to find out. Keep a notepad handy at work for a week and write down how you feel about your tasks as you perform them. Create two columns — one for “loathe” and another for “love.” The process offers insights and reveals nuances that ultimately make people happier at work.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything I loathe about work. Disagreeable perhaps. But not loathsome. On the other hand, I can think of lots of things I love. Like writing columns.

The good definitely outweighs the bad — which is what, I guess, makes me happy at work.