Work is a vital part of our lives, and even if we want to be more than our jobs, it’s hard to get away from something that consumes at least 40 hours a week – or more, if you count the time that we spend commuting, thinking, planning, and decompressing.
When our job is going well, it can be a vital, fulfilling element of life that contributes to overall feelings of wellness and yes, even happiness. But when a job is less than ideal, the stress can bleed in other areas of life and become a mental burden.
A recent survey found that more than 70 percent of workers in America are unhappy at work and do not feel connected. (1) No job is ever going to be 100 percent fun or easy, but a majority of a person’s work should feel fulfilling and purposeful. Even on rough days, we all need an overall sense of belonging and accomplishment. This is true for any job, no matter how seemingly mundane.
Regardless of what your job is, employees have a higher chance of feeling connected and content in their work if they’re relating in a positive way to coworkers, employers, and other aspects of the company – not just the actual tasks they complete.
How Our Need for Community Extends Into the Workplace
While some might write off workplace engagement as emotional, it’s quite normal to want to feel connected at work and to have that satisfaction of making a difference. Jobs comprise a rather large portion of our existence, and even if we get a paycheck in return, that’s a lot of hours, days, weeks, and months spent on something that disregards another basic need of human nature: community.
People want to know that they matter, in work and in personal life. They don’t want to feel invisible and replaceable. If you go to work each day and feel as if no one notices you’re there, it can contribute to feelings of depression and discontent.
There’s a classic episode of Friends where Phoebe is selling paper toner as a telemarketer, and she ends up speaking to Earl (a.k.a. George Costanza!). He’s miserable, depressed, and working in an office where no one knows who he is and wouldn’t even notice if he were gone. Phoebe ends up convincing him that his life matters in spite of the fact that his coworkers are too wrapped up in themselves to notice.
While that’s a 90s sitcom, the principle remains: we need to not only feel like our jobs matter, we need to feel like we personally have a unique place in our job. Not only does this increase satisfaction in life, but it also helps us do our best work.
Building Healthy Relationships at Work
It’s great to want to make a difference at your job and have healthy relationships with coworkers, but that’s also a vague concept for many. How do you take an impersonal, unfulfilling job situation and make it better, short of finding a new one?
The thing is, even if you leave your current job, you’d still need to build relationships at your new workplace to make it a more fulfilling environment. How do you practically but meaningfully engage with coworkers – without feeling forced?
Ask about their life outside of work. It might seem small or obvious, but showing an interest in your coworkers as fellow human beings can go a long way in building rapport. Yes, even with coworkers who you may not get along with. Perhaps understanding aspects of their lives beyond the workplace will help to provide a fuller picture. You don’t have to get too personal here. Ask if they have pets, what their hobbies are, favorite places to travel, etc. And then really listen to their answers!
Give words of encouragement. Don’t use empty words and don’t say something you don’t mean, but finding something to praise about their work is a great way to engage positively. Plus, many people find that their jobs are more about being criticized than being encouraged. The world can’t have enough kindness and encouragement, so bring more of it to your workplace.
Lend a helping hand. If you’re a member of a team, pull a little more than your share of the work. Be the person who’s ready to step in and problem solve and slow to blame. This builds camaraderie and also shows that you’re genuinely interested in working as a team.
How to Turn Conflict into Stronger Relationships
If you already find yourself in a rough work environment or situation, there are still ways to improve your environment and change your workplace culture.
One of the most effective ways to engage authentically with other people, in the workplace or not, is to practice humility. Apologize when you do something wrong and admit if you make a mistake. But here’s the thing: this doesn’t mean saying that you’re a failure. Too often in the workplace, we feel that if we aren’t perfect, then we’re expendable. No human is perfect, in work or personal life, and we’re going to make mistakes at work, miss deadlines, or just perform worse than we’re capable of. Everyone has an off day.
In addition to humility, be kind. If someone admits a mistake or has a rough day, don’t rub it in their face. Yes, workplaces can be competitive. Yes, we need to prioritize our career. But do we really want to do it at the expense of someone else?
Maintaining a balanced perspective about work is essential, and this is best done by having a mentor – probably someone not in your company, who can serve as an outside voice of wisdom, advice, and reason.
If you’re working through conflict in the workplace, it’s not unlike resolving it in personal areas of life.
- Be willing to admit when you’re wrong.
- Be kind and listen to what the other person is saying. Really listen – and don’t have an instant comeback ready. Sometimes taking a few moments, or even a day or two, to process or cool down can help to produce a balanced solution.
- Bring in a third party. Having someone who is objective can help to focus the discussion. Maybe you’re mired in details and have lost sight of the big picture.
Set Realistic Expectations
No job is going to be perfect, and even if you put in the effort to focus on greater aspects of community and belonging, you might be met with resistance and negativity. You might even face the realization that your goals don’t align with the job or company that you’re a part of. While this can feel unsettling, understand that it’s never too late to inspire change.
Try to make some focused changes on engaging with co-workers and perhaps even expressing your workplace desires to your boss.
Remember that different personalities engage with life in different ways. Introverts, extroverts, and many categories in between can shape a person’s desires and views of the workplace. Relationships start with communication, and understanding happens as relationships develop.
Asking yourself what you desire from your workplace relationships – and having clear answers – is the starting point to improving your work life, but also your overall existence. Work might not be the only thing we do, but it’s virtually impossible to separate something that makes up a large part of our existence.