Early in my practice I did an operational assessment of a customer service center for a company where the turnover rate was going through the roof. One of the biggest lessons I learned was that humans bring all their emotions with them wherever they go. You can’t suppress one kind of feeling without suppressing all kinds, and since you can’t be a complete human without your emotions, you always travel with a full set.
At the customer service center, people were told they couldn’t speak negatively with customers, or even more drastically, about customers; they had to sound positive no matter how they felt. But people’s genuine feelings were so important to their work that when they couldn’t express them, or when their feelings were too negative to contain, they either became rote and robotic, or felt they had to leave the company. So the costs of turnover, recruitment, training, and learning curves were all enormous.
You might assume that most businesses would want people to feel happier as a way of counteracting the normal levels of annoyance and frustration that employees experience during the workday. Just think how infuriating it can be to encounter traffic or mass transit breakdowns on the way to work, and then have to deal with cantankerous customers, stupid systems, dysfunctional infrastructures, or an otherwise unpleasant work environment — not to mention the naturally antagonistic situations that can arise out of the fact that one set of human beings (management) holds power over another set’s livelihoods!
And yet for too many businesses, if management thinks about happiness at all, it’s as a function of perks and spiffs, and not as if it pertains to working conditions or the quality and nature of the work that needs to gets done — it’s as if any benefit is supposed to be separate from the work, and the work couldn’t possibly provide benefit in and of itself.
Some of the best examples of how to make work feel good are not just “in the literature” (think about Daniel Pink and his book Drive, for instance). They’re also in Disney movies.
Now it’s true that Disney movies often have missing or crackpot parents (typically mothers or step-mothers) and other unrealistic portrayals of life, whether human or animal.
But think of the song “Whistle While You Work” from Snow White, or “A Spoonful of Sugar (Helps the Medicine Go Down)” and “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from Mary Poppins. Both of these movies demonstrate that there are ways to enjoy the actual process of work, and that there’s value in helping yourself to feel good as you do it. Being productive helps you feel good. Making progress helps you feel good. Successful work can create meaning in your day, and in your life.
The concept of “mindfulness” — whether as part of a classical Buddhist practice or used as a technique for cognitive health and stress reduction — emphasizes paying attention and being fully present as a way to enhance and enjoy the act of work itself, not just work’s extrinsic rewards.
Why wouldn’t businesses try to support mindfulness and explore the joyful possibilities of work instead of making work more mindless, more denatured? This potential applies to all types of workers — from ditch diggers who are grateful for the sun on their backs, the strength of their arms, and the satisfaction of a perfect corner dug “neat and square” (a reference to the children’s book Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, another paean to quality work) to data entry clerks who love to watch a pile of papers shrink as their fingers fly nimbly over the keys.
Okay, so maybe my examples are a bit idealized. Maybe the best parts of your work are actually the friends you meet for coffee breaks and the fact that you can listen to your tunes on your headphones. But whatever makes you feel better also makes the day go faster — for you and for your colleagues. And the work gets done.
Onward and upward,
More from this series:
- Can You Be Happy at Work? Part I: Should You Be?
- Can You Be Happy at Work? Part III: When You’re in Charge
- Can You Be Happy at Work? Part IV: When You’re Not in Charge
- Can You Be Happy at Work? Part V: Things Going Well Is the Pancake; Happiness Is the Syrup
- Can You Be Happy at Work? Part VI: When You Need Extra Support