4 Ways to Feel More Fulfilled at Work

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Unfortunately, not every workplace offers an ideal, perfect environment. So what can you do to make a day at work just a little bit more fulfilling? Here's some advice.

A recent Gallup survey found only 29 percent of Millennials feel engaged at work, with 71 percent either not engaged or actively disengaged—meaning they were doing just the minimum to get by. More than 20 percent changed jobs in the last year—three times higher than the number report by non-Millennials, Gallup found.

Engagement is when someone connects with their company emotionally, recognizes what they need to do to add value, and is willing to put in the extra effort to get there, experts say. Workers feel more engaged when they understand what’s expected of them, know how to prioritize it and report to someone who holds them accountable for their performance, Gallup found. In short, we all want to feel like what we’re doing matters, is effective and is recognized by leadership. We want opportunities to be creative, to learn and grow.

“Flow” is the phenomenon that occurs when someone is so deeply immersed in a challenging activity, he or she forgets the passage of time.

Unfortunately, not every workplace offers this environment. So what can you do to make a day in the trenches more fulfilling? Here are five ideas.

1. Restructure your work to maximize flow.

Psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, director of the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University in California, has spent a half century studying creativity and happiness. He coined the term “flow”—the phenomenon that occurs when someone is so deeply immersed in a challenging activity, he or she forgets the passage of time.

In a study of 20 different occupations, Csikszentmihalyi found workers spent less than a quarter of their day on flow-producing tasks. “The rest of time was spent on things they needed to do to prepare to do the work they like,” he told me in an interview. “What happens is you are chomping at the bit, because you are not doing what you like to do.”

In his book “Good Business,” Csikszentmihalyi suggests workers closely track each step involved in the work day and ask: Is this step necessary? Can it be done faster or more efficiently? Can I delegate it, and spend time on something that makes my contribution more valuable? Match your skills to the challenges; if you’re overwhelmed, figure out how to get training or help; or transform the task by breaking it into smaller parts, he advises.

2. Reframe work to give it more meaning.

Another strategy to boost engagement is to reframe work so it has more meaning. Amy Wrzesniewski, professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, has found the highest levels of engagement among employees who view their jobs as a calling—versus those who are working for a paycheck or career advancement.

“People who see work as a calling generally have significantly higher job and life satisfaction,” Wrzesniewski says. “Some findings suggest there are health benefits.”

Research by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Center, for instance, found clergy, firefighters and physical therapists ranked highest in fulfillment.

But a sense of calling can occur in low skill, low status professions as well. Along with University of Michigan researchers Jane Dutton and Gelaye Debebe, Wrzesniewski studied hospital cleaning staff. “We found some people who were incredibly engaged and find it deeply meaningful,” Wrzesniewski says. “They see their work as very important to the healing of patients. They notice patients who seem to be upset as they are in the room cleaning, and will finish their work and double back to have a conversation.”

Researchers call this “job crafting”—taking liberties on the boundaries of tasks and relationships, to instill more meaning in work. “If you are not engaged, think about something you could be doing differently, so you can change the meaning of the work,” said Wrzesniewski.

3. Focus on the beneficiary of your work.

Look to the beneficiaries of your work for inspiration in making work meaningful. Adam Grant, professor of management at the Wharton School of Business, did one experiment with student-telemarketers who were paid to seek donations from alumni.

Grant had one group of workers meet for five minutes with a scholarship student who talked about how their efforts funded his education and changed his life, and he thanked them. Over the next month, on average, the callers who met the student rose 142 percent in weekly minutes on the phone and 171 percent in weekly revenue.

“Even a trash collector can see what they are doing as beautifying the community or making the world work,” Wrzesniewski said. “Without that job, the health of the community would suffer. It’s crucial work and everyone is the beneficiary.”

4. Find a place where you can be authentic.

If you can’t connect with beneficiaries, think about the last environment in which you felt you could truly be yourself, and look for a similar work setting. People who experience work as an extension of their identity are more likely to be engaged, said Suzanne Coshow, a Ph.D. and researcher, who has worked with health care organizations looking to improve service quality.

Coshow has conducted studies of 190,000 workers at 300 health care facilities. Employees who reveal their true selves, rather than playing a role, are more involved, more connected, try harder or give more while carrying out work-related tasks, she found.

“It’s a meshing of true self and work self,” Coshow told me in an interview. These employees typically work in a supportive social setting, where they’re comfortable taking risks and speaking up.

Finally, to feel engaged you may also want to redouble your efforts. “Most people say the smart thing is to do a job with as little thinking and effort as possible, to cut corners,” Csikszentmihalyi said. “But if that’s the attitude you take you’ll get bored and frustrated. It’s kind of counter-intuitive, because it means working harder is what makes you feel good. But after a while it doesn’t feel like working hard—it feels the same as an athlete trying to beat the record.”


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