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How you can arrange your work so that you like it, in three steps


(CNN) – Our work-life balance, to borrow a term we all learned at the 2020 Olympics, has been feeling “the twists” during the pandemic. Many of us had to adjust to working from home, adjustments and accommodations, mass layoffs, career changes, and rehires.

Even if you managed to keep your job, it has likely changed significantly. And change doesn’t always mean for the better.

Even before COVID-19, more than half of Americans considered their work unsatisfactory, according to one annual survey of the Conference Board research group. The United States has been hovering around half of the respondents on the side of job dissatisfaction since at least 2000.

That statistic means that half of the people you work with every day lead a working life that Henry David Thoreau would have described as one of “quiet desperation.”

Happiness in working life

Many of us also uselessly mix our self-esteem with our career. Unhappiness in our work turns into unhappiness in life, increasing the stakes.

Wouldn’t it be nice to stop being envious of those who love your job and become one of those people?

There are many career tips on how to ask for a raise, get a promotion, deal with a difficult boss, manage others, etc. But very little addresses the fundamental issue of your daily happiness at work.

The factors that can tip the scales one way or the other for job happiness can come down to our innate desire for three things: control over our lives, positive daily connections, and joy and purpose in how we spend our waking time (half of which is at work, for most people).

The way to integrate our need for control, connection, and meaning, while on the clock, is through “job crafting”. That’s the term used by Yale University psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski and University of Michigan professor of business administration and psychology Jane E. Dutton. It is about “taking control or reformulating some of these factors,” they wrote in a study about the topic.

The problem is not work

People who don’t like their jobs – that is, most of us – can suffer and complain from day to day. They may even be chronically stressed, a state that has serious medical consequences, from hypertension and cardiovascular disease to declining mental health, according to a meta-analysis studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Harvard Business School.

There are also factors related to job happiness that we have little control over, like our boss. About half of the people who quit their job did so “to get away from their manager,” according to a recent survey by Gallup. Salaries are also important.

But we generally don’t decide who our boss is, and they can change suddenly (for better or for worse). As for money, studies have been shown to only have a short-term effect on happiness.

That leaves you with a powerful resource: take matters into your own hands.

Wrzesniewski and Dutton’s research focused on three major workplace satisfaction factors that are within your sphere of influence: 1) Refining your work to add parts you like and remove parts you don’t. 2) Build better relationships with your colleagues. 3) Reframe your work to add meaning and purpose.

Wrzesniewski distilled them very well on the excellent social science podcast The Hidden Brain. His research is not just theoretical. They wrote a manual on how to make the job.

And in my way, less scientific, more homemade, here are exercises that I have been practicing to get myself in better shape in terms of happiness at work.

1) Hack your work

Start by making three lists. (Do this with a good cup of coffee or tea in a quiet place, during business hours, even if it’s in your own living room.) A list is all the things you currently like about your job, big and small. The second lists all the annoyances and headaches of your work, from the smallest to the systemic ones.

And the third lists the things you wish you could do in your job that you don’t currently do, even if they have nothing to do with what you get paid to do. You can add “take more coffee breaks to brainstorm” if you’d like.

Now is the time to systematically attack the elements of the second two lists. First, look for some easy wins. You can start adding and subtracting some things today; others may take months. Some may require acceptance from your boss (who will hopefully be willing to increase your happiness in the workplace), but many will not. Some changes will be directly related to your job, while others will just be ways to increase happiness or reduce stress while you are there.

Everything is progress.

Be imaginative with these lists. Creativity is in itself a booster of well-being. Writing this column is something that I added to my work. It has benefits for the company that I can easily articulate, but it also makes me happy (and adds meaning to my work). I also try to exercise during work hours, run during lunch, or during a meeting where I just have to listen. Again, it has the benefit of reducing stress and sick days while increasing my energy at work, but it also benefits me personally.

Over time, your lists will grow, and as you cross out items, they will shrink. But make sure that when you remove an item from the second list (things you don’t like) and the third list (what you want to add), you record the change in the first list (things you like about your job). Every new item on that first list is another rung on the ladder of job happiness, and it’s good to look down every now and then and see how high you’ve gotten.

2) Enjoy your colleagues at work

You can’t do much to change the cast of characters you work with. But you can improve each of those relationships.

Learn more about what others want and help them achieve it, even if you are not their boss. Make meetings more fun or engaging. It helps to reduce the duration, compulsory attendance and frequency of these meetings. Try to insert humor throughout the day.

Simply getting to know your colleagues better, which is no more difficult than asking them questions, deepens your connection with them. The more connected you are, the more you want to work with them every day. And if you want to interact with your co-workers, as a result, you will like your work much more. You may not like what you do, but at least Michael, Jamie, Collin, Fiona, and Saeed will be there!

The added benefit of this second effort is that it also increases the happiness of your colleagues, perhaps helping them tip their scales to the “satisfying” side and beyond.

3) Create a new job title in your head

Wrzesniewski and Dutton’s research focused, in part, on a group of hospital cleaning staff. It is a job that most people, without having done it, could assume would be unsatisfactory. Cleaning bed urinals and interacting with the sick and dying is the dream job of few people.

But what they found was that a significant factor among those who said they liked their work was how they rephrased it cognitively. Work was the same for everyone, but while some thought it was comprised of non-creative tasks, those who liked work thought that they themselves played a critical role in healing patients. A hospital worker considered himself an “ambassador.”

And it’s not just about thinking differently, because that has a limited effect when nothing else changes. Thinking differently also altered the way they did work.

“It’s more than just a change of mind,” Wrzesniewski explained to me. “It’s a change in your behavioral approach at work. If you think ‘I’m an ambassador at the hospital,’ change what you do.”

For example, you may be cleaning urinals, but if you consider yourself a caregiver, you may be looking at what’s on the urinal for signs of health problems to alert a nurse. “You don’t think, ‘I can’t do that,'” Wrzesniewski said. “That’s where the action really comes in.”

By shifting the paradigm around your work and adding meaning and purpose, the hospital staff made the most difficult parts of their work tolerable, even important, and changed their behavior to support that purpose.

Can you do that with your work?

Think about the role you play in a larger framework that has a positive effect on others, the culture, or the environment. You can enter data in a cubicle, but what is that data used for? And how vital is your commitment to precision and detail to the effectiveness of that data? You can perform routine tasks in a factory, but are you helping to build something that people need or do you bring joy to others?

How might your actions change when you start to see it that way?

Beyond what the job itself accomplishes, there is also meaning and purpose to what you do with your salary. Supporting your family, for example, is fundamentally important to your ability to thrive. It is important, especially when you are stressed, discouraged, or unhappy in any other way, to remember the security and opportunities gained from your salary. That can only give you strength during difficult times at work.


“Onboarding” is the term HR people use when someone starts a new company, to prepare them.

Now is the time for you to embark on your new beginning. You are ready. You are the human resource you have been waiting for.

Here’s the final takeaway: These factors – improving the way you spend your time, connecting with those around you, adding meaning to your tasks – are equally vital to your non-work hours.

David G. Allan is the Editorial Director of CNN Travel, Style, Science and Wellness.


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