One of the infrequently acknowledged side effects of the recent economic downturn is the impact it has had on those who still have jobs. Previously, if you fell out of love with your work, or got saddled with a boss from hell, the solution was simple: move on.
There are fewer people in full-time employment now than at any time since September 1996. And, according to recruitment agency Reed, 19 people now apply for every job vacancy advertised, across all sectors.
So, if moving on isn’t an option, is there anything we can do?
Buying a weekly lottery ticket is one solution. But there are other, more reliable ways to improve your working life, and actually change how you feel about the job you’re in.
Not only that but, according to career experts, by learning how to reframe the way you think about your current situation, rather than bailing out, you are much more likely to flourish in your career – whether you find a new job or not.
Here’s how to fall in love with work again:
1. Identify what you have to offer
‘In order to feel more fulfilled at work, it helps to identify what you’re good at and what you most enjoy in your working day,’ says Psychologies' editor and life coach Suzy Greaves. ‘Ask yourself what do you do effortlessly? What do you enjoy? Are you good with people, or good with numbers? Do you love organising or are you an ideas person?’ Write a list of 10 talents and skills you know that you have. Now ask yourself – is your current role showcasing those assets? If not, what action do you need to take to change? Make a list of five baby steps to take in the next seven days – for example do some research on the internet or take a colleague in a different department out to lunch to pick her brains.’
According to philosopher David Whyte, author of The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self And Relationship, if you focus on the gifts you have to offer an organisation, rather than dwelling on what they should be giving you, your whole mindset will change. He believes this approach works no matter how mundane we think our job is. ‘It doesn’t matter what you do for a living, there is scope to make a larger commitment to the world by sharing your gifts. It’s about treating the work you do as a pilgrimage of identity rather than just putting bread on the table. There is poetry and dignity to be gained from honest hard work, a fact most religious traditions acknowledge, but which many of us have forgotten.’
2. Create a ‘play project’
‘When people get stuck in a rut at work, they tend to get moderately depressed, and lose interest in all aspects of life,’ says John Williams, author of Screw Work, Let’s Play. ‘I recommend taking up in your spare time one new thing that you love and really look forward to, something playful, creative or energising, be it a sport, a book group or a new class. By becoming positively engaged with one area of your life, that enthusiasm will start to filter into everything else, including your work.’
In addition, Williams suggests you pick an activity you dream of getting paid for, for example writing or public speaking. ‘Come up with a “play project” involving that thing for 20 minutes a day. For example, you might look into setting up an internet radio show or writing a blog. Two key things to bear in mind: you need to have something tangible to show for your efforts, even if it’s only one blog post. And don’t get tied in knots about having to do this thing for the rest of your life – you can repeat this with other ideas whenever you like.’
Deirdre, a 43-year-old accountant, had a play project to explore web design. ‘I put together a fairly basic site, but then uploaded some photos I’d done, another interest of mine. I showed it to my boss, and now I spend a day a week working on the company website. Before that, I’d been ready to hand in my notice and sign up for an expensive web-design course. But now my firm is giving me a bit of training, anyway.’
John Lees, author of Career Reboot: 24 Tips For Tough Times, observes that people sometimes use the recession as an excuse for not stepping out of their comfort zone. ‘No matter how tough the marketplace, that’s no reason to stop thinking about your career. Even if there isn’t anything you can do to change the job you’re in, you can use your spare time to research careers you’d find more fulfilling. Don’t, whatever you do, say, “I’m putting my job search on hold until the market picks up.” That day might never come.’
3. Recommit to where you are now
Once you’ve fallen into the ‘I hate my job’ mindset, it’s easy to become stingy about the energy you give to it – turning up late, taking bogus sick days and generally dragging your feet. ‘A cardinal mistake,’ says career coach Talane Miedaner, author of Coach Yourself To A New Career: 7 Steps To Reinventing Your Professional Life. ‘If you’re clock-watching and moaning, it gets you into hot water on all levels. Your boss is certainly not going to promote you – meanwhile, you feel even more bored and unmotivated.’
Greaves agrees. ‘Changing your attitude is essential if you want to create any lasting shift. Even if you do find that fantastic new job, if you take your same old mindsets and habits with you, you are likely to encounter the same challenges and difficulties that are making you unhappy in your current job.’
Miedaner suggests adopting an attitude of enthusiasm and perfection towards the work. ‘Pretend this is the only job you’ll ever have and make it your mission to do it perfectly. It will shift your attitude and your energy, and you’re far more likely to attract the attention of another employer if you’re in that state.’
4. Cultivate a sense of belonging
Even if you feel there is precious little you can do to make the work itself more satisfying, you can still enjoy the company of colleagues. Despair creates a sense of isolation; the antidote to this is building a sense of connection and community. Whyte believes many of us now view ourselves as a commodity in the workplace rather than as members of a team creating work for a collective benefit. ‘If you see yourself as just some piece of ammunition you’re firing out there every day to create profit, you’re not likely to find yourself in a place of much satisfaction.’
Miedaner agrees that great workplace relationships can transform an otherwise unfulfilling job. ‘Make an effort to connect with colleagues you don’t speak to very often – invite them to lunch, or after-work drinks, it doesn’t matter how you do it. Apart from anything else, getting to know new people at work will likely provide you with valuable inside information from other departments.’
Getting along with workmates can also make a seemingly dire situation bearable. ‘Our company was in the doldrums and they brought in a new CEO, who made all our lives a misery,’ says Carol, 32, who works for an investment bank. ‘We had to work longer hours under incredible stress. The weird thing was, our team all pulled together and adopted a sort of Blitz spirit. It was actually great fun, because we had a common enemy.’
5. Adjust your expectations
Part of the collective malaise we feel towards work can be attributed to the fact we now have very high expectations about our professional lives. ‘Part of being in a consumer-driven society means we feel we deserve the perfect outcome,’ says Lees. ‘In career terms, we believe there is a magic formula that will lead to this mythical “dream job”. It’s worth remembering that all work is a compromise. That is not meant to be negative – if the compromise is 80 per cent in your favour, surely that’s a pretty good deal.’
Whyte points out that we often expect our attitude towards our work to remain static, and this is unrealistic. ‘Work you loved in your twenties may turn to ashes in your hands in your thirties. The work hasn’t changed, but in all probability you have changed. It’s not a cause for despair, but rather a sign that it’s time to move on, to push your boat towards a frontier a little further from the shore.’