Be successfully happy at work

As more people say work is making them unhappy, Marie-Claire Chappet pinpoints the five things to do now.

The chances are that, while you sit at your desk in the office, this will be more relevant to you than ever before.

A report this year revealed that one in three “sick notes” handed out by GPs in Britain are now for mental health issues and, shockingly, more than five million workers are being signed off every year due to anxiety and depression.

More of us than ever now feel that our work life is actually affecting our mental health.

A not-so-cheering fact is that the UK currently has the lowest ranking for job satisfaction in the western world, with nearly a quarter of us reporting feeling deeply unhappy at work.

So why are we so down?
And, more importantly, what needs to change to fix it?

Enter Dr Annie McKee. The senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, and high-profile leadership consultant, has written a book called How to be Happy at Work.

After years spent consulting in the public and private sectors, McKee was alarmed at how unhappiness was such a consistent problem among her clients.

“There have definitely been times when I have been unhappy at work,” she says, relaying how, as a single mother at 27, she took herself to college to finally pursue her career.

“But part of the reason I wrote this book was that it didn’t seem to matter what size or type of company it was, so many workers said: ‘I want to do well at work, I really want to enjoy my work, but I’m miserable’.”

The ubiquitous alignment of misery with work is something that McKee thinks is within our power to change.

She believes that our unhappiness, beyond any particulars about our individual office cultures, is tied to three intrinsic work myths that we have blindly believed for years:

1. Work has to be gruelling

2. How we feel about work doesn’t matter

3. We cannot ask for anything more from work.

Ultimately, we believe we are not meant to be happy at work and this, she says, isn’t just bad for us, it’s bad for business, too.

“When we are unhappy and miserable and disengaged, we don’t give our best. Happy companies outperform their competitors by 20%.”

According to research by consultancy Robert Half earlier this year, workers in the UK highlighted three key factors affecting their job satisfaction: pride in their organisation, feeling appreciated, and being treated with fairness and respect.

Based on this, the onus for your happiness at work can, and should, lie with your workplace.

“If we can help leaders understand themselves better, and understand the power that they have to either create good, happy work cultures, or the opposite, then we can make a difference in the minds of individual people who get up and go to work every day, and to the companies as well.

“But companies strive for organisational success over personal success,” McKee notes.

“We’re in this hyper-competitive world where we are driving for short-term gain over long-term success.

“In that kind of environment, people learn that their boss will sacrifice them individually for the goal and target of the company.”

It may also be why the UK freelance economy is flourishing.

Since 2009, it has grown by 25%, and there are an estimated two million freelance workers.

“A survey conducted to coincide with World Mental Health Day by The Hoxby Collective, a global network of freelancers, showed that a third (33%) of workers surveyed claimed to suffer mental health issues as a direct result of working rigid hours.

And an overwhelming 90% suffered from stress, 78% from anxiety and 52% from insomnia.

Their conclusion was that the traditional “9-5” (which has shifted to 8-6 for many) is inefficient and taking its toll. However, our unhappiness at work is not all our boss’s fault.

This view forms the backbone to McKee’s book, namely that we have more control over our work-based happiness than we think, and the misapprehension that we don’t is only making things worse.

McKee advises a reframing of your perception of your job; asking yourself how unhappy you really are and whether or not you have the power to change things for yourself, instead of waiting for someone to do it for you.

Her book urges a heavy degree of navel-gazing, as she argues that by understanding what you want from work, you can better decide whether what you are doing is right for you.

Not recognising the need to make these changes is what McKee calls “Boiling Frog Syndrome”.

She says: “If you put a frog in boiling water it will jump right out. Work is like a pot of water that is gradually getting warmer and we don’t realise it.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people wait for it to become unbearable. They wait for that great big wake-up call: getting sick or getting fired – but if the water feels warm, it probably is. Pretty soon it will be too hot.”

Getting out of this hot water means breaking free of what McKee calls the “happiness traps” that work creates: overwork, money, ambition, “should” and helplessness.

“Overwork is overvalued,” she pithily remarks.

“People are lauded for getting into work at 8am and reading e-mails at midnight.

“Nobody can work like that, compromising sleep, health and family, without one day waking up and realising they are emotionally depleted.”

Prioritising money over health and happiness is, McKee notes, one of the primary reasons for work burnout, misery and the huge damage it can do to your mental health. Ambition can also fuel this.

“Ambition is good until it isn’t,” she continues.

“You need to be ambitious for what you want to get out of your job, not for what you think you should want.”

Which brings us to “should” – the socially constructed happiness trap that leads us to never view our own lives from our own perspective, but from what we believe we “should” be doing.

All of this ultimately leads to happiness trap number five: helplessness.

Interestingly, according to research, men are more likely than women to fall into these traps.

One recent survey showed that 80% of women placed workplace happiness over salary, compared with 55% of men.

Should we be worried about this? Is happiness a barricade to success? McKee vehemently disagrees.

“Happiness and success go hand in hand,” she says, and then pointedly adds: “And happiness comes first.”

Happiness traps and how to avoid them

Overworked? Set boundaries

Ask yourself why you are working so much. Is it really because you have to? Or is it a habit?

Put in some boundaries – when you want to work, how you want to work – and then discipline yourself to stick to it.

Chasing a pay rise over happiness? Check your insecurity

We all work for money . . . but the decision to choose money over happiness is fuelled by insecurity.

Money, we think, will fool people into believing we are deserving of our success. Instead, see money as an outcome that follows our good work, rather than a goal in itself.

Ambitious? Make sure it’s for the right thing

Ambition is good, but only if it is geared towards the right thing for you. Ask why you are doing what you are.

Success isn’t really success when we define it as a win-lose, zero-sum game. Do something for the wrong reason and it can hurt our ability to lead effectively.

Do something because you want to, not because you “should”

This trap is pervasive because it’s tied to how we learn to live in society and our organisations.

But some of the cultural rules that guide us at work are outdated and destructive.

One question to ask yourself would be: do these rules that I am following fit with who I am: yes or no. If no: why am I doing it?

Feeling helpless at work? Find a friend

It takes blind faith and courage to take action when we believe we are unable to influence our world.

Find a friend who will be able to give you back a confident image of yourself and who will support your beliefs and remind you of what you deserve.

How to be Happy at Work: The Power of Purpose, Hope and Friendship by Dr Annie McKee (Harvard Business Review Press) is out now. – The Daily Telegraph

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