One lesson from the pandemic is that everybody deserves to live and work at the intersection of purpose and meaning. Unfortunately, work is broken for far too many people around the world. The most a job can offer is a steady paycheck and core benefits — and maybe not even that.
It seems like fixing work might require someone with a Ph.D. in psychology to work with toxic leaders and poorly trained supervisors and conduct intensive therapy sessions to eliminate racism, sexism and general bias from the workforce. And that needs to happen as soon as possible.
But fixing your job, where you show up every day and give your total effort, requires deep personal work to look for the root cause of unhappiness. Why did you say yes to this role? What interested you in this company in the first place? How did you end up here when you could’ve worked elsewhere? And why have you stayed so long?
If you’re struggling with work, join me on an exercise to fix work within the next six months.
How do you do this? First, you audit your job and understand what you have. Then, you determine if it matches what you want.
Why Do You Go to Work?
Years ago, I worked for a major pharmaceutical company with great values. But I was a terrible hire and a poor cultural fit. Not a day went by that I didn’t complain about somebody.
One of my colleagues pulled me aside and said, “I know you’re miserable. But, do you know why you choose to show up every day?”
Honestly, I had no idea, so I made a list of reasons I went to work. You can do this too. Use a sheet of paper, scribble in a notebook, or create a list in Google Docs. I don’t care where you write it. Just give me ten solid reasons why you go to work every day.
If you need some ideas, try these:
Student loans. Rent. You can’t find another job that pays more. You need new clothes. You send money to your family back home. You dream of retirement. You are saving for a new home. Your kid plays an expensive sport, and you want to support her.
Don’t overthink it. Sentence fragments are OK. If you struggle to get started, set a timer for five minutes. When it dings, walk away — even if you have written nothing — and try again tomorrow.
What Does Work Give You?
Every job has benefits. When I worked at the pharmaceutical company, my health insurance was super affordable. Also, they paid for my mobile phone.
Once you know why you go to work, write down how you get paid — beyond your salary. Examples can include your health insurance or retirement contributions. Paid time off. The satisfaction of providing for your family. A higher credit score. A possibility to shadow your boss during client visits and learn something new. Work travel to exciting cities. Access to new and emerging technology. Fun co-workers who always know when you’re feeling blue. Meaningful work that fuels your soul.
Now, here’s the fun part. Even if you’re miserable, you can pull this all together and craft a clear statement on why you work and what you gain from the system.
Fill in the blanks:
“I go to work to_______________, and my job gives me _______________.”
Here is my example from the pharmaceutical company.
“I go to work to pay off my student loans, and my job gives me a paycheck. I go to work to fund my future somewhere else, and my job gives me the autonomy and freedom to ﬁgure out my path. I go to work to earn enough money to donate to animal rescues, and my job matches my contributions 100%.”
Earning a decent salary and volunteering with a local animal rescue were noble reasons for me to accept a job and continue my employment. Instead of seeing myself as a victim, I understood exactly why I made specific choices in my life and career.
Auditing your job alone won’t fix work, but it’s a good first step to changing direction in the next six months.
You’re Not Done
Congratulations on auditing your job. Now that you understand your primary motivation for working at your current terrible job, how do you fix it?
That’s more existential, and it requires a final step. Fill in the blanks:
“In the next six months, I would like to _______________. So I need to _______________.”
Most people write, “In the next six months, I would like to quit my job. So I need to work on my resume.”
But I want to know this: When has a resume ever changed someone’s life? You fix work by fixing yourself first, so this exercise may require you to talk to your employee assistance program (EAP), a partner or even a trusted friend.
An EAP is a benefit program that helps workers with personal or mental health problems affecting their job performance, physical health or mental well-being. These programs are confidential, free for employees to use and one of the most underutilized benefits in the entire organization. It’s therapy-lite, and it’s confidential.
There’s no excuse not to call them today. An EAP can help you formulate a plan to support you during the next six months as you probably and inevitably quit your job.
But the EAP might even help you to stay.
I have a client named Leila who hated work, clashed with her CEO, and always got late-night phone calls from her team. She was angry — at herself, her career choices, the people around her — and wrote, “In the next six months, I would like to take a vacation and turn off my phone. So I need to plan a trip and take that much-needed break.”
That’s not terrible, but I asked her to dream bigger. How do you build a life where people know your boundaries and give you the space to enjoy your life outside of work?
After reflecting, she said, “I have no idea.”
So, Leila wrote: “In the next six months, I would like to be happier. So I need to call my employee assistance program and explore what’s missing in my life.”
I’m happy to report that Leila’s EAP connected her with free training to shore up her communication skills, a career coach who taught boundary-setting and an online platform that taught meditation skills.
Leila still works at her job, continues to work on her anger management, and now she proactively schedules time off — six months in advance. She takes her paid time off and lives an unapologetically full life outside of work. And because she’s not curing a major illness, she turns off her phone in the evening.
Now that’s someone ready to bet on herself!
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