Does work make you unhappy, or is unhappiness at work merely a symptom of something bigger? Is it time to challenge some of the out-dated attitudes to work in order to save our mental health? When will we reach a tipping point so that what the research tells us about the link between happiness and productivity actually leads to action?
Setting ourselves up to fail
The idea for the eight-hour working day is 200 years old this year. It was introduced by Robert Owen, a social reformer who wanted to make the working lives of the poor better in a time when 10-16 hours of work was the norm. He recommended eight hours of work, eight hours of leisure and eight hours of sleep.
Despite the advent of technology and smart working practices, the 40-hour working week is still the norm – some might say the minimum expectation – in most Western organisations, even though our working habits – such as commuting – are indescribably different. Recent research showed that a ratio of 52 minutes of work and a 17 minute break is the optimum for productivity – and with other research showing that happy workplaces are 20% more productive, why are employees and companies settling for a working culture which is both intrinsically ineffective and likely to make us unhappy?
As a coach I get many clients who come to me for support because they are unhappy. As we spend so much of our waking life at work, it’s no wonder it can have a huge impact on our happiness and on our mental health.
Very often my clients think they have identified the cause of their unhappiness, but during the course of our work together uncover many more layers affecting the way they feel.
In her book, Dr Annie McKee describes what she defines as happiness traps – things that we think will make us happy, but which eventually trap us in unhappiness.
The happiness traps are:
- Overwork – a symptom of our presenteeism culture; people are rewarded for working long hours (but not necessarily for being productive). It compromises sleep, health and family
- Money – trapped in a golden cage, earning too much money to be able to do anything different. Money can fool you into believing you are deserving of your success – making you think you are successful because you earn lots of money, rather than money being the outcome of your success
- Ambition – not intrinsically unhealthy, but can become a bad thing if you start sacrificing those around you for your own goals. Whose ambition are you actually fulfilling – yours, or someone else’s? Are you compromising your values for the next promotion or achievement?
- Should – a reflection of other people’s (often unrealistic) expectations; usually has negative emotion attached to it. The question really is – do the things I think I should be doing really fit in with who I am? If not, why are you doing it?
- Helplessness – you may not feel you can make a
difference,and are likely to be busy fitting in with everyone else’s should. Try sleeping in a room with a mosquito (as pointed out by the Dalai Lama) and see what a difference it can make
Escaping the traps
Revelations for my clients often come when they realise they can direct their own happiness. While we may start by focusing on work, happiness very quickly ripples out into every aspect of their lives.
Many clients misdiagnose the cause of their unhappiness. Challenge and support during our sessions together help them explore, discover and validate the things they most need to work on.
I believe Western culture has a problem with the way our working lives are set up. From unrealistic expectations – such as a minimum 40-hour working week – to cultures which actively make our organisations less productive by not focusing on employee engagement and happiness, it’s no wonder UK productivity languishes near the bottom of the league table.
Why, in a world with more technology and connectivity than ever, are we no more productive and not significantly happier? We are still working hard, not smart, and that’s a product of our culture.
And yet, like the mosquito, we each as individuals can do something to help effect change. Research shows that pride in their work, respect, and being treated fairly are the three things that employees seek. What can you do today to help people around you feel that way? While there’s no magic wand, helping others to feel happy is the ticket to feeling happier yourself. Time to make a start then!