How to Find Joy at Work
by Phillip M. Perry

Doors and Hardware

September 1, 2001


A HAPPY MANAGER AND CHEERFUL WORKERS--WHAT a great combination for boosting profits! Enthusastic employees go out of their way to satisfy customers, accomplish higher quality work in less time, and generate new ideas.


But why is a happy workplace too often an unachievable dream? If you're like most employers, the reason is obvious: griping customers, back-stabbing co-workers and nasty supervisors are just some of the reasons workers get the blues. Boredom with the daily routine usually scuttles any good will that might be left over.


Unhappy employees wreck your bottom line, because customers avoid organizations with apathetic service. So how can you retool your own team into an engine of enthusiasm? A big part of the answer lies with you, the manager--your own attitude toward work is "catching" with your staff. So take a look at these techniques for recharging your own battery and putting some fire under your team.


1. Emphasize the value of your job.


Rather than viewing your job as a money-making activity, look upon it as a mission to help other people. "Sometimes we get so caught up in our work we forget its purpose," says Kathie Hightower, president of Hightower Resources, a consulting firm in Tacoma, WA. "We need to acknowledge the huge impact we have on people's lives." That impact happens when you fill customer needs.


True, it's hard to concentrate on work value when your daily schedule is crammed with meetings, paperwork and other uninspiring activities. The secret is to consider these tasks as small but necessary steps to reach your real goal: filling customer needs. "Our work activities can be quite mundane, but it's the value, or the interpretation, we put on them that makes the difference," says Beverly Potter, a trainer and speaker on motivation based in Berkeley, CA. "Happiness results from having a sense you are doing something great, that you're doing more than processing orders and shuffling paper."


Absent a sense of mission, many of us fall back on salary as the goal of work. That can lead to feelings of being trapped in our jobs, helpless to improve our situations. Fact is, many people who reach the payroll mountaintop live in the valley of despair. "If your attitude is predicated on climbing the job ladder, jumping over others and getting higher salaries, you are glossing over what you are doing and why you are doing it," says Michael Fogler, a Lexington, KY-based workshop trainer on career and job fulfillment.


Get back on track with your mission by recalling the purpose your job was created to fill. Try imagining what would happen to the business if no one were doing your job. Then develop your personal work mission around what you see yourself accomplishing with your team.


For your staff Encourage people to concentrate on the value of their work by reminding them of the impact they have on customer lives.


2. Break your work into its parts.


The complexity of modern work can overwhelm anyone's sense of mission. Hightower suggests breaking down your job into components, then analyzing each. "Ask which parts are raising and draining your energy level," she suggests. "For each task in the latter group, ask if there is a way you can hire it out, delegate it, or transform the procedure in a way that makes it fun."


Sometimes making a task more pleasurable is simply a matter of playing some favorite background music, getting the job done while enjoying a favorite treat such as tea or habitually scheduling a walk or work break following its completion. Hightower recalls a school crossing guard who perked up her job by wearing outrageous outfits. Out of ideas? Ask youngsters. "Kids are good at making things fun," says Hightower.


Avoid focusing on the parts of your work environment that you cannot control, such as an individual with whom you do not like working or office politics. "If you focus on what you can control, the other things will seem less significant. Lighten up on the things you can't." says Kim Goad, a Westminster, MD-based seminar leader who specializes in workplace issues.


For your staff: Encourage your personnel to make improvements in the procedures they use to accomplish their tasks.


3. Deal creatively with people problems.


When other people cause problems, the resulting stress can sap your happiness level. Here's how proactive problem-solving can help.


Your employees:


Communication skills can reduce unpleasant performance surprises. "Set clear expectations in terms of the goals you expect your staff to achieve," says Goad. "Make sure you do not assume a lot of things. This alone can make your life a lot less stressful."


Conversely, beware of what Goad calls "the hero syndrome." This refers to thinking you can be everything to everyone, solving all of the problems of your staff, "If you fall into that trap, you end up being overwhelmed when you can't meet everyone's expectations," says Goad. "Learn how to delegate and hold people accountable for their own jobs. Say no to requests for changes that would impact your team performance."


Finally, says Goad, acknowledge good work. Especially effective are accolades regarding performance such as, "I like the way you handled that particular interaction with the customer." And put it in writing; people will save the notes and reread them to inspire them further.


Your immediate supervisor:


What can you do if you report to a supervisor who tends to exert power through manipulation, humiliation and anger? It's an important question. Left uncontrolled, your reactions to your bad boss will sap your energy and destroy any ability to inspire your team.


"You need to find a way to get control of the situation, without resorting to a reaction such as bossing your own people around," says Potter. "One solution is to adjust your mental state." When looking at your boss, says Potter, don't think, "You are a bad person," but rather, "You are my teacher--you are teaching me to put up with a person who is the worst boss in the world." This returns you to a position of personal power that is the foundation for happiness.


Your customers:


Got problem customers? Who doesn't They need addressing, too, because they can sap your happiness and put you into a funk that impacts your perfomance. Here's suggestion from Potter: "Make each problem customer a challenge to turn around, or to help. Tell yourself: 'I'll practice on this person to solve their problems, and the experience will help me deal with more customers.'"


For your staff: Encourage your team members to confront one another, using constructive communication skills, to resolve simmering conflicts.


4. Introduce humor at work.


A sense of humor goes a long way toward reducing the tensions that can otherwise sap the energy of you and your staff. "It's so important today to maintain a sense of humor and play at work." Says Goad. "One woman I know started wearing Groucho glasses to meetings to add spark to a routine day. The people at another workplace dress up for Halloween."


For your staff: Goad recommends establishing a "joy box" in which all staff members are free to contribute trinkets that will make everyone smile. This can be scrunchy toys, chocolate treats, positive affirmation notes, or anything else that will add fun to workplace.


5. Find fulfillment outside of work.


Look at the way you are spending your time outside of work. Do you have an out-side interest in which you find joy? There's probably something wrong if you just go home every night and do chores.


"Sometimes we except work to do everything in our life, and then we wonder why it doesn't," says Hightower. "If you spend every waking hour working, you are missing out on daily joys."


Your outside activities affect your work performance. "If you schedule time in the week for an enjoyable activity, it will not only add happiness and joy to your life right then, but it will also carry over into your work," says Hightower. "People often say they don't have time. But we all make conscious choices on how we schedule our lives. Perhaps they need to cut back on a meeting or a group to which they feel an obligation."


For your staff: To encourage your staff to schedule their own outside interests, emphasize that finding joy in outside activities will help them be more creative and valuable staff members.


Throughout this article, the common theme has been the power of the individual to create happiness. "Whether we are supervisor or staff, we all face the same challenges, encouragements, and boredom," says Glen Van Ekeren, an Omahabased workplace performance trainer. "Position doesn't matter. What does is the realization that happiness in our work is a conscious choice. It's not an automatic response."


Neither is it a one-time commitment. You need to constantly redirect yourself onto the happiness track. Says Van Ekeren, "I give myself a mental reminder every hour, with a statement such as, 'I'm going to be excited about today, and I will make all go well."'


Customers will return time after time to a helpful organization where the staff is happy to serve. But everything starts with you. "If you want an environment that produces the best in people, you need to set the example," says Van Ekeren. "You can't light a fire without a match."


What Is Happiness?


We all want to be happy at work. But what exactly is happiness?


"Many people in modern times would take the position that happiness is the same as pleasure, understood as a subjective feeling," says Dr. Richard Bett, interim executive director of The American Philosophical Association, University of Delaware, Newark, DE.


"To achieve happiness, in this view, is to obtain as much pleasure as possible," says Dr. Bett. "It becomes a matter of 'how do I get more of this commodity called pleasure?' And one answer commonly given to that question is 'by accumulating more worldly goods."


That sounds familiar, all right. But maybe it's time for a reality chuck. Not all people with big yachts are happy. Dr. Bett describes an alternative theory: "Some people--the ancient Greeks among them--take a more objective view. We


secure happiness by being able to point to our concrete achievements in the world."


Perhaps the second definition is more useful in terms of achieving happiness at work, where achievements are the order of the day. Solving customer problems, creating value, increasing profits, and improving the business environment are among the host of accomplishments that can lead to a state of inner joy.


Special Challenges for Women


Society has always encouraged the woman's role as nurturer, and that has ramifications for work expectations. "In the past few decades, women going into the workplace have felt they were responsible for everything from their own career to management of the household," says Kim Goad, a Westminster, MD-based seminar leader who specializes in workplace issues. "Most women have allowed this attitude to develop, and they need to proactively turn it around for themselves."


"Women are generally nurturing to other people and not as nurturing to themselves," says Goad. "If you want to be effective in all the roles you play as mother, spouse, community member and employee, you need to take care of yourself first, not last. Then you will come from a place of happiness and you will have so much more to give other people."


A lot of women, says Goad, say they cannot put themselves first because of the demands from so many people. "I draw an analogy to the emergency instructions you get on an airplane," says Goad. "Put on your own oxygen mask before you assist other people."


When Does Sadness Become Depression?


You can't be happy all the time at work. But when does unhappiness become depression-a condition that needs to be treated professionally? Identifying the tipping point is net easy, since feelings of unhappiness are on a continuum of severity.


"A great majority of the working force is not happy with their work" says Dr. Michael S. Broder, a work place psychologist based in Philadelphia and former chief psychologist at that city's police department. "For many people, a happy thought is one of retirement."


Widespread discontent tells us more about the nature of the modern workplace than about an individual's mental health. "Someone can be unhappy at work but be perfectly happy in other parts of life." says Dr. Broder. "Depression is more widespread, carrying over into life outside of work."


There is a kind of depression that is related to chronic unhappiness about not being connected to your purpose, says Dr. Broder. "Signs of depression include a low grade feeling of joylessness, when things that would normally make you feel happy don't have an impact. Lack of enthusiasm for things you used to be enthusiastic about is another example."


Other symptoms cited by Or. Broder:


* Irrational feeling that you are not up to the job.


* Uncharacteristic lack of energy.


* Sudden unexplainable increase in irritability or impatience.


No single symptom by itself indicates depression. But if you have more than a few such symptoms extending over a couple of weeks, it may be time to seek professional counseling.