I recently talked to two different women in my life who are stressed at work. In both cases, a combination of factors, including some workplace toxicity, the need to manage their bosses without looking like that’s what they’re doing, and misaligned communication styles, have all come together to create a stressful working environment.
Stress at work is never going to go away completely. (Take it from the woman who works from home in her pajamas. I still get stressed about work!) But using the building blocks of mindfulness at work can help reduce that stress, no matter where you work.
Here’s how you can bring the lessons of mindfulness into your workplace so you no longer get the Sunday gloomies thinking about going back to work each week:
Know If Your Work Expectations Are Realistic
Work expectations are out of whack in our culture, in part because of conflicting messages. On the one hand, we are told that if we follow our passion, we will never work a day in our lives. On the other, we learn that we must buckle down and suffer because work is serious business and we need to be strong enough to handle it.
These mixed messages lead to a terrible pattern, wherein unhappy workers dream of a Job Charming that will solve all of their work problems, while cursing their current Evil StepJob that is keeping them from true happiness. But if you believe that Job Charming will make you happy, you will inevitably be disappointed when you start a new position and find that there are just as many crazy-making problems there. This is why you need to recognize that there will always be aspects of work (and life in general) that will not be interesting, fulfilling, or to your taste.
Similarly, you are also much more likely to accept toxic work environments if you believe that hating your job is normal and that powering through toxicity is a kind of strength. So knowing what you are unwilling to accept from work is just as important as knowing that work cannot solve all your problems.
Ultimately, you need to prioritize what is most important to you from your work life. This will help you find the balance necessary for work to just be part of your life, rather than the place where you hang all of your expectations for fulfillment, or the place that causes you round-the-clock dissatisfaction or unhappiness.
Figure Out Your Work Priorities
Imagine a perfect day at work. Ask yourself the following questions to help you get in touch with this vision and let it play out in front of you like a movie. Remember not to judge or react to your answers, but instead regard them with openhearted curiosity and compassion.
· What time do you arrive?
· What are you wearing?
· What are you working on?
· What do you spend the majority of your time doing?
· What work do you delegate?
· Who do you interact with?
· What does your environment look, sound, and smell like?
· How and when do you take breaks?
· What have you accomplished by the end of the day?
· What time do you leave?
· What aspect of work do you take home with you, if any?
· How much are you getting paid?
This work vision can become a kind of yardstick for making the best decisions about your work life. As you make decisions about work, you can ask yourself if your choices will help you reach a work life that aligns with your vision of an ideal day.
For instance, in Juanita’s work vision, she feels most accomplished when she arrives at work at 7 a.m. and leaves at 3:30 p.m. She loves the quiet, focused work she can get done in the morning before her co-workers arrive, and leaving work while there is still daylight available to walk her dog or go hiking is something that helps her feel centered.
Juanita has just been offered a promotion, however, that will require her to be at work from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. so she will be available for her company’s suppliers on the West Coast. The promotion comes with a 10 percent raise, which will certainly help Juanita get closer to her goal of financial independence.
But since Juanita has taken the time to envision her ideal work day, she knows that she will be less satisfied with her life if she changes her work schedule. Though a 10 percent raise is tempting, she knows it is not worth the loss of her early morning productivity or her afternoon exercise.
If Juanita had not figured this out about herself, she might have taken the promotion and raise and found herself spending more money to numb the dissatisfaction she feels with a work schedule that doesn’t align with her needs and preferences. For Juanita, the mindful financial choice is the one that will maintain her current level of work satisfaction, even if it means turning down additional money.
Career Advancement and Mindfulness
It is likely that there is an amount of money that would be worth you sacrificing some life satisfaction. For Juanita, that amount may be well north of 10 percent of her salary, but there may be a dollar amount or percentage that would make a schedule change feel worthwhile to her.
However, it is important to remember that money often represents less life satisfaction than you think it will. Giving up something that is working for you in exchange for more money can often cost you more financially because you feel the need to chase satisfaction.
Take some time to think through how much money your employer would need to offer you for you to willingly give up some aspect of your life satisfaction. Keep in mind the context of how you may end up spending your extra money if you are feeling dissatisfied with your life. Imagine yourself as having more money but a little less contentment, and try to figure out what would make that tradeoff worth it.
Aligning Your Current Workplace with Your Vision
It’s likely that your current workplace does not exactly fit your ideal vision for work. Some of this misalignment is inevitable, since it’s next-to-impossible to have a workplace align perfectly with any one employee. However, the better you can align your priorities to those of your employer, the more satisfying your job will be, and the more pleased your employer will be with your performance.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you determine how well your work priorities currently align with your employer’s goals and expectations:
· What is your workplace’s mission? Do you believe in that mission?
· What do you love about your workplace? Is this what your co-workers and your boss love about your workplace?
· What do you wish were different about your workplace? Do others identify the same issues as places for improvement?
· When do you feel most energized by work? Does this coincide with others feeling energized?
· When are you most frustrated by work? Does it coincide with others feeling frustrated?
· What do you want from work? What does your work want from you?
· How do you spend your work days? How does your boss expect you to spend your work days?
· What long-term goals do you have for yourself at work? What long-term expectations does your workplace have for you?
You may not know how to answer some of the questions about your workplace’s mission, goals, and expectations, but going through this exercise can help you to identify where the biggest mismatches are between your work priorities and those of your workplace. If there is a way to bring those mismatched priorities closer together, that can help you feel more comfortable and satisfied with work.
What Vision Alignment Looks Like in Action
For instance, Jess gets frustrated by the fact that his workplace, an engineering firm, is plagued by “information silos,” where crucial information is not shared by various departments. This results in each department having to re-invent the wheel or use
One of Jess’ priorities at work is engaging in inter-departmental teamwork to make sure that all of their work is error-free. While the managers at Jess’ workplace claim to have the same priorities, the regular turf warfare that occurs between departments over various types of important information indicates that the managers are more interested in withholding information than sharing it.
Information silos are the kind of hair-pulling frustration that can prompt anyone to dream of an early retirement, in part because it is next to impossible for someone outside of upper management to break these silos down. For this sort of information hoarding to end, a company must operate under a unified vision and create a culture of sharing.
However, that doesn’t mean that Jess is stuck living with this frustrating reality forever. He can honor his goals of engaging in inter-departmental teamwork and creating excellent work even if his workplace’s turf wars remain in place. To do this, he begins creating outward-facing reports on the portion of the work his department takes care of. This not only directly benefits the entire inter-departmental team and helps create error-free work, but it also models to other departments what information sharing can and should look like. It impresses Jess’ boss that he took this initiative, as well.
Doing these reports does mean more work for Jess. However, he finds the additional work helps him feel more satisfied on the job because the work aligns with his priorities and helps to (slowly) make his job less frustrating.
There are a number of actions you can take to improve alignment at work. Many of these are easier to do if you are in a position of authority, but you can initiate aspects of all of these actions even if you are lower in the workplace hierarchy. All of the following workplace alignment options can help you apply your work priorities to the task of making your job a more satisfying place to work.
1. Set Goals
Misalignment often occurs when goals are either unclear or not agreed upon. You can help make sure you are on the same page with your employer or team by asking for goals to be explicitly stated or by re-stating what you believe the goals are.
2. Remember Context
Everyone is coming to your workplace with different experience, knowledge, and history. That collective wisdom can help to solve whatever problem you are facing if you are willing to recognize the context each person is bringing to a project. Listening to what others have tried in similar situations can help minimize knowledge gaps.
3. Define Parameters
Without knowing what parameters are constraining a project and what parameters offer flexibility, it can be difficult to come to a consensus on how to proceed.
4. Embrace Feedback
Taking the time to solicit and give feedback on what is working well and what is not can help to streamline processes and improve performance.
That’s Why It’s Called Work
When I was new to the workforce, anytime I complained about a job, my father used to tell me “That’s why it’s called work. If it were FUN, they’d call it play.”
Despite my eye-rolling at the old man whenever he’d drop this wisdom, he had a point. Work is never going to be stress-free, and your priorities with your workplace’s priorities is neither simple nor easy. Dreaming of Job Charming or early retirement is a lot less work.
However, engaging in this kind of realignment can offer the kind of satisfaction that you only feel when accomplishing a difficult task. It also puts you in a better position to ask for more from your employer.
I think Dad would approve.