It all starts with waking up… to what our bodies are expressing and our minds are suppressing.Dr. Gabor Maté
You’re unhappy at work, but not ready to quit
A recent study by Mckinsey & Company found that people are quitting their jobs at a high rate, not just in the US, but around the globe. There are different reasons driving people to quit, with the top four being lack of development, inadequate pay, uncaring leaders, and lack of meaningful work – all fair reasons for leaving a job.
But what if you don’t have the luxury of being able to quit your job? What if you’re the sole provider of your family, with a mortgage to worry about? What if you’re taking care of an elderly parent? What if you have student loans?
The bigger-picture view is that no one needs to dedicate their entire life to a job that brings them misery. There are ways to transition out of that situation while still paying life’s bills.
What if there are things you can start doing right now that will allow you to begin that transition and also be happier at work even if your job is less than ideal? Would you be open to experimenting?
What’s your relationship with work?
If you are open to start making a change, take a moment to be truly honest with yourself. You don’t have to tell anyone else how you feel; this is only for you.
On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 1 being “not at all”, 3 being “half the time”, and 5 being “completely”) ask yourself the following question in relation to the bullet points below:
How much does your industry, organization, title, or role do the following for you?
- Validate your personal worth
- Give you social status
- Define your identity
- Make you feel good about yourself
- Support your growth and well-being
You might have to sit with these ideas and reflect if you’ve never considered them.
If you find the reflection to be difficult, another way to assess your relationship with your work is to imagine a world where you’re no longer associated with your current work, company, title and role. All of your bills are magically being paid. You have no immediate financial worries, yet you’re not employed. In this imagined world, ask yourself the following series of questions:
- Who are you?
- How would you introduce or describe yourself when meeting someone new?
- How would you feel in the morning when you wake up?
- What are you proud of?
- How does it change the way you grow as a person and experience life?
Now for the results. If, on average, you:
- Rated yourself 3 or above for many of those five areas, or
- Found it difficult to imagine introducing yourself stripped of work identity, or
- Were unsure about how you would feel each day when you reflected on your well-being and growth without your job, then…
…you might have over-indexed the significance of work and maybe even neglected other areas that create a sense of worth, value, identity, and well-being within you.
If this is your result, know that you have the ability to change this – especially if you have a desire for something different. I’ve witnessed this countless times.
Awareness is the first step to transformation. If this describes you, read on to consider a different perspective that can shift your mindset and relationship with work, making you happier inside and outside of work.
But first, how did you get here?
It’s not just you. As a society, we have been socialized to prioritize work. The gist of the model is Do well in school so you can get a good job so that you can buy stuff that will make you happy. This is an oversimplification of a more nuanced system in which our culture merges our identity with our job title. In an instant, our job communicates to others what we care about, our values, our training and discipline, our privilege, the neighborhoods in which we can afford to live, the schools to which we can afford to send our kids, where we vacation, how safe our environment is, and the influence of our social network.
However, when we over-identify with our work, it creates a troubling dynamic, described below.
We over-index the importance of work
This occurs when we give work priority over other areas of our lives in our decision making, including enjoying our interests and hobbies, building community, spending time with loved ones, volunteering, cooking and being present at meal times, being out in nature, moving our bodies, sleeping, resting and practicing self-care, or planning personal trips and life goals. Instead, our entire existence becomes dedicated to work.
We do not invest in other areas of our lives
Logically speaking, when we spend the majority of our waking hours at work, planning for work, or thinking about work, we do not have enough hours in the day to devote the same amount or quality of attention and energy to other things. The less we invest in other areas of our lives, the more we feel compelled to put all of our proverbial eggs into the work basket.
Imagine what would happen if our entire existence is invested in work and, one day, there’s a reorg, or we get passed over for a promotion, or we inherit a new dysfunctional team, or our colleague slights us, or our boss asks us to work over the weekend, or the project plan falls apart. That’s going to be a lot more devastating to our nervous system because it’s a threat to our identity, worth, value, and existence – all at once. With a life built around our job, it’s going to feel more devastating if all of our eggs are shaken up or broken at once, making emotional regulation at work much more difficult.
We have unrealistic expectations for what work can do for us
In our current culture, we’ve bought so much into the fantasy of the company brand and its espoused employee value proposition that we forget the primary mission of all companies is to generate profit for shareholders and investors, with year-over-year growth. This means companies will always prioritize profit over people in their decision-making when it impacts their bottom line. When companies invest in their people, it’s done with the expectation of a return on their investment (in profit) not out of the kindness of their hearts. That’s not good or bad; it’s just companies fulfilling their purpose. This is also true for institutions outside of the for-profit model – serving the organization’s mission will always trump individual well-being.
All of this is to say, there’s a reason you might be over-identifying with work, and it’s not all on you. This cultural paradigm is bigger than you.
How is it impacting you?
Just because it’s common, that doesn’t mean it’s not harmful.
By over-identifying with work, we give our power away, allowing companies to dictate our identity, worth, and how we live our lives, as well as how we spend our time and how much we pause, rest, and enjoy life. There comes a point where we don’t own our time anymore. We’ve relinquished control over our time – and, with that, our lives – to these institutions. That will inevitably impact the human spirit, psyche, and well-being.
Unfortunately, as a culture, we’ve expressed a desire for our workplace to be more than a place of work for us. Secretly, we hope our work will fulfill the parts of us that feel incomplete. Companies are clued into this wish and have been selling our fantasy back to us – and we’ve bought in.
Let’s look at an example of what this thought process could entail:
If I join this company, I’ll instantly belong to a community of friends who care about me as a person and my team will function like a family that supports each other’s growth and well-being. My employment will signal to the world that I matter, that I’m smart, creative, talented, special, and irreplaceable. Since my company has a rigorous career path, I don’t have to worry about my own growth and development as an individual or what I ultimately want to do with my life, as the path will be dictated to me. In fact, I’m also going to trust my company to take care of my health given all the perks around lifestyle and work-life balance. I am guaranteed to be healthier and fitter the same time next year!
Companies try to sell us a better life holistically, and it’s so tempting to accept their offer.
The trouble with buying into this fantasy is that we set unrealistic expectations for what work means and what it should do for us. This sets us up for a huge disappointment.
Not only that, but it also handcuffs us into an implicit agreement with this social contract we have with work. It becomes nearly impossible to leave, even when every fiber of our being wants to, because, for us, leaving not only changes our job, it changes our identity, our sense of belonging, our worth in society, our social status, our community, and our entire life. All of this is very scary for humans who find security and safety in certainty, belonging, and clarity of role.
As a result, people stay in jobs that feel meaningless and harmful to their souls and well-being much longer than what’s helpful to them. While in these soul-numbing jobs, people anesthetize their misery with more work (If I can just do more, prove myself, and get to the next level, things will get better), endless shopping, emotional or stress eating, other kinds of substance abuse, or mindless media consumption, all with the goal of just getting through another day, another week, another year with a little less pain.
I say the following from a place of compassion since I’ve experienced this firsthand personally and have also seen this play out countless times with clients.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
Shifting your mindset about work: An experiment
A conscious workplace is a two-way street. The company has a huge role in establishing the work culture and norms, and we have a role in keeping companies accountable and calling out bad behaviors that aren’t aligned with their espoused values.
As an employee, you have the right to ask for what you need in order to do your best work and the right to communicate what’s not working for you.
Organizations that want to thrive and be sustainable should continue to listen and solicit candid feedback from their staff, invest in their employees’ development and well-being, and adjust as our culture and the needs of workers evolve.
However, irrespective of whether your workplace adjusts based on your feedback, stepping into the following mindsets will empower you to own your life, your career, and your day-to-day experiences.
1. You are a sovereign individual
You are your own person. You are the boss of you. You are free to make decisions that serve your best interests and highest good. Don’t give that power away.
This means that you own your life – your time, energy, attention, presence, growth, style, relationships, preferences, values, health, and well-being and that you can choose a different experience if it serves you.
This also means you take responsibility to:
- Define your life vision & strategy
- Articulate values that drive your decision making
- Pursue what energizes you
- Be with people who inspire & support your growth
- Communicate your needs
- Define and protect your boundaries
- Advocate for your well-being
- Do work that aligns with your values
Imagine how you might approach work differently if you entered the workplace already knowing who you are and what you’re worth, inspired to create and skilled at communicating your values and needs.
You don’t need your boss, colleagues, or the next project to validate your worth, because you are already grounded in your identity and what you bring to the table. You don’t need to rely on someone to protect your well-being or feed your growth, because you prioritize your learning and can advocate for your own well-being and take action when boundaries are crossed. And when the work arrangement no longer serves your life vision, you seek out another workplace that better mirrors your values, how you like to be treated, your preference for autonomy, and your work-life flexibility and alignment.
This mindset based around owning yourself allows you to bring a refreshing energy that’s contagious while also allowing you to do your best work because you’re no longer the victim.
2. Less work, more inner work
Growth requires our curiosity, attention, and practice.
Becoming whole doesn’t happen on its own for most of us. The more personal growth and development you invest in yourself, the more grounded, present, and effective you are wherever you choose to work.
What does inner work look like?
- Inner work includes articulating your purpose and vision – what matters to you, energizes you, replenishes you, comforts you, inspires you, motivates you, and calls out to you
- Inner work is becoming self-aware of where you feel incomplete, insecure, or incompetent and getting curious about those areas
- Inner work is developing the ability to self-regulate – how to attend to triggers, resolve conflicts, and communicate your ideas and needs with clarity
- Inner work is recognizing when you need support – acknowledging you need help, and reaching out for a different perspective
- Inner work is fostering self-compassion and self-care so that you can learn, heal, grow, and uncover your potential
When we do our inner work, we show up with our whole selves ready to do our best work instead of the insecure, traumatized, and unskilled selves that look for work to “complete” us and make us whole. We don’t need our jobs to give us a sense of identity, validate our worth, or take responsibility for our growth and well-being.
3. Divest your eggs
Reconnect with the parts of you that remember interests and hobbies you once enjoyed, social causes that you’re passionate about, experiences that you’ve been dreaming about (e.g., dance class, traveling, writing a book), relationships in which you’ve been meaning to re-engage, and the focusing on your physical health.
We’re not talking about totally overhauling your life overnight. Just start with one thing that you enjoy and do more of that. Commit to moving just one egg from the work basket to another basket in your life. See how you feel. Who knows? You might surprise yourself and be inclined to move a few more eggs after that.
When we work on ourselves and show up with our whole selves, we unleash our potential and deliver at our best. We also naturally become better leaders who can inspire, influence, advocate, mentor, coach, and develop others in a psychologically safe manner. Circling back to the study reference at the top of this article, such leaders are needed now more than ever based on the reasons people are quitting work.
Everyone has a different relationship with their work. Every work environment is unique. This is a complex issue with no standard how-to guide for improving every work struggle.
The three mindset shifts offered in this article can be helpful starting points. If you would like additional support, tell me more about your situation to schedule a complimentary consultation.