We’ve already talked about what makes people happy at work. But a lot of those factors, like having a good boss and a high salary, can feel out of your control. What about solutions you can enact on your own? You have more power over your happiness at work than you think. Sometimes it’s just a matter of approaching the problem differently. If you’re unhappy at work, see if one of these strategies changes how you feel.
1. Have friends at work.
Everyone needs friends to live a happy and healthy life, and workplace friendships are no different: according to one Gallup study, employees with a “best friend” at their job were seven times more likely to be engaged at work. Some people might reasonably be anxious about maintaining “professional” relationships with their colleagues, or not seeming too emotional or wasting time at work. But it’s worth taking the time to get to know your colleagues, whether you’re starting a new job or just haven’t had the chance to get to know your coworkers.
We suggest: Make it your mission to find out something about everybody in the office, from the person who sits next to you to the person with the most distant desk in an unrelated department. Small talk might not be your forte, but it’s imperative for the office. (Try out some tips from the chief content officer of Shondaland, who has struggled with it herself.) It might feel awkward at first, but people always appreciate being asked questions about their lives, and soon enough it won’t feel so awkward anymore. You may find that someone you’ve never spoken to is obsessed with your favorite TV show, or shares one of your obscure passions, be it Cold War history or Ultimate Frisbee. If you don’t make the effort, you’ll never know.
2. Check in with your boss.
Your boss may be the single most important factor affecting how happy you are at work, and establishing and maintaining a positive relationship with your boss is crucial to succeeding in your job both professionally and personally. If you’re lucky, you already have an attentive boss, who meets with you regularly and gives you feedback on your performance. But if your boss is distant, you might find yourself adrift.
We suggest: If your boss doesn’t schedule feedback with you, try initiating meetings yourself. Your manager may be surprised by your suggestion because it might never have occurred to them that you might actually want more meetings and feedback. You might also be surprised by what you hear. Maybe they were generally satisfied with your performance, and thought you’d prefer being left to your own devices. Or maybe there was something they always wished you’d do differently, and you never knew. Those surprises are why feedback is good in the first place — constant discussion prevents problems from snowballing until they’re brought up during performance reviews.
3. Set goals.
We all have professional goals, and most of us can describe a dream job we’ve been fantasizing about and working toward for years. But reality doesn’t always give us what we want: sometimes, we wind up in unfulfilling jobs that can make us feel like we’re just treading water. Or it’ll be a job that we know is an important stepping stone, but actually gives us information about what we actually don’t want in a career. Or it may be a job we’re really grateful for — but we aren’t sure how to move forward in it. A lack of passion, understanding, forward momentum — whatever it is, It can be hard to get excited about your job when you’re feeling stuck. But getting into the habit of setting short- and long-term goals for yourself at work is the perfect way to stop treading water and start swimming.
We suggest: Setting yourself a combination of long- and short-term goals on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. This might range from “stay in your current job for at least one year” or “talk to manager about company goals.” Having a long-term goal in mind can motivate you through less-than-inspiring tasks, and setting short-term goals will allow you to pat yourself on the back for a job well done every time you complete one of those tasks. Something as simple as a to-do list can make a huge difference: if you still actually use paper at work, nothing beats the satisfaction of writing down a list and then triumphantly striking one task after another out once you’ve completed them. If you prefer digital, there are plenty of apps that provide a similar thrill. This might be a small pleasure, but you should take pleasure in that little rush of self-satisfaction, and let it power you through the day.
4. Structure your time.
Any job can become frustrating when it feels full of busy work; slogging through hours’ worth of data entry or firing off near-identical emails is enough to make anybody feel sluggish. That’s why it’s important to structure your time in a way that makes your day as stimulating as possible. By staying alert and engaged, you’ll feel less bored, and your productivity and quality of work won’t suffer.
We suggest: Alternating tasks if you can, although that’s not always possible—sometimes, the data just has to be entered. Either way, to keep you focused and alert, give this tried-and-true time-management strategy a shot: using your phone, set a timer for fifteen or twenty minutes, work for that span of time, and once the timer is up, take a five minute break and do something else. You could reply to an email, go to the bathroom, check Facebook, chat with a colleague, or just stretch for a few minutes to clear your head. Then set the timer again. Fifteen or twenty minutes doesn’t sound like a very long time, but these concentrated bursts of focus with breaks to relax can actually help you get work done. And if this approach doesn’t work for you, try to find another structured system that does: breaking your days up into chunks of time instead of one long, eight-hour stretch always makes them go by faster.
5. Get a hobby.
We all know that turning off our phones from time to time is a good way to decompress, but that’s easier said than done. In fact, overwork doesn’t lead to greater productivity, and only makes employees less happy and healthy. It’s important not to invest your entire self-worth in your job: Phyllis Korkki writes that workaholics “can be devastated, not just financially but psychologically, if they are suddenly fired or laid off.”
We suggest: Why not take up a hobby to get away from the daily grind? After a long day or week at work, focusing on something that isn’t work can be a great way to clear your head. The possibilities are endless: maybe now is the time to finally learn how to cook, like you’ve been telling yourself you would ever since you graduated college, or to take up photography or pottery at a local studio. If you’re not creative, you could join an intramural sports league, or sign up for a yoga class to schedule yourself some enforced relaxation time. Whatever you choose doesn’t have to be a big commitment, as long as you do it because you simply like doing it.
A lot of things contribute to your happiness at work: your boss, your colleagues, and the tasks you have to achieve each day. You can’t always control what you’re working on, or whom you’re working with, but you can control how you approach them. And at the end of the day, it’s important to remember that while work is a crucial part of life, it doesn’t have to be a “slog,” a “grind,” or “necessary evil.” If you’re unhappy at work, you don’t have to just roll with it. You spend the majority of your time at work; you’re not wrong for wanting more out of your time there.