Are you happy at work?

Photo by MCML ➖XXXIII (steal my _ _ art) on

Photo by MCML ➖XXXIII (steal my _ _ art) on

Are you happy at work? Great if you are. Many aspire to be, and in the process can get trapped. Could that be you?

Annie McKee, academic and author, writes about Happiness at Work. She suggests that it is not always work that makes us unhappy. Sometimes we do it to ourselves. We allow ourselves to get “trapped”.  She suggests:

… happiness traps [are] … destructive mindsets and ways of working that keep us stuck, unhappy, and ultimately less successful …
(McKee, 2017)

According to her, there are three common happiness traps that people fall into. They are reasonable in moderation. However, harm comes when they are taken to the extreme.

The traps are:

  • Ambition
  • Doing what’s expected of us, and
  • Working too hard

The drive to achieve career goals can be a good thing when it is energises people to achieve their aspirations. When achievement becomes competitive, dysfunctional behaviours can result. This happens when there is an over-focus on results without due consideration to the impact on others.  Consequently relationships can be damaged and collaboration suffers. Chasing goals for the sake of hitting targets means work loses its meaning. The meaning, or the “why” is important. Losing sight of it, over time, means losing a sense of purpose which ultimately undermines happiness.

Are you in the ambition trap?

(Over) Doing what’s expected of us
This is the “should” trap. The trap of doing what we think we should do rather than what we want to do. Everyone has the potential to fall into this one.

Workplace norms …  shoulds … force us to deny who we are and to make choices that hinder our potential and stifle our dreams. 
(McKee, 2017)

What are the workplace norms that impact you? Are they about how to dress at work? How to talk? Are there other expectations about marital status, gender, race or religion? Perhaps it is about the school you went to? These can take a toll of people personally if they feel they must hide who they are or pretend to be someone they’re not, in order to fit in.

These shoulds can affect how we project ourselves at work and can dictate what kind of job and career we aspire to. Downplaying who we are (in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion) to fit in, is not a psychologically healthy way to be at work.

Are you in the “should” trap?

Working too hard
In the current world of work, there are expectations that you will be available. The “always on” workplace has expectations that you will respond to calls, emails and other demands on request. The result: people think about work all the time. That means, not having time for others things – friends/family, exercise, healthy lifestyle or sleep.

How this plays out in our personal lives is a reduction in the quality of life – not spending time with a partner, not playing with children or not staying home when sick. Overwork leads to a negative spiral. More work = more stress.  More stress leads to brain overload/slow down which compromises emotional intelligence, creativity and people skills.

Overwork is seductive. It is lauded in many workplaces as a demonstration of commitment and hard work. However, over-workers believe that working more will alleviate stress. If they finish a project/report/e-mail they’ll feel less out of control. The work never ends though and the emails keep coming. The good work ethic intention can turn into an addiction.

Are you in the working too hard trap?

Escaping the traps
Escaping these traps is possible, according to McKee. She suggests that the first step is in accepting that you deserve to have happiness at work. She suggests:

 … that means giving up the misbelief that work is not meant to be a primary source of fulfilment.  

Work can be a place where happiness is experienced. It can provide an avenue for “deep and abiding enjoyment of daily activities fueled by passion for a meaningful purpose, [with] a hopeful view of the future, and true friendships“.

Competencies to break free from the happiness traps
McKee suggests there are 12 emotional intelligence competencies that are important to avoid or break free from these happiness traps. Of these, three critical competencies are:

  1. Emotional self-awareness
  2. Emotional self-control, and
  3. Organisational awareness

Emotional self-awareness refers to the ability to recognise and understand your feelings and moods, and to recognise their impact on your thoughts and actions.

Emotional self-control is the ability to tolerate the feelings that come up when you understand what you are doing to yourself.

Organisational awareness is about understanding your work environment, It is about being able to distinguish between your perceptions and what’s coming from others or your company.

Happiness first, then work satisfaction
The key to avoiding these traps is to know real happiness, outside of work. First be happy, then strive (and achieve) the work/career goals you aspire to. McKee suggests we need to update our beliefs about expectations of work and the people we work with. Alignment of values with the organisation we work for is important to be able to invest in the entity’s vision and commit to helping achieve that. In so doing, our commitment is voluntary in nature rather than obligatory.

McKee, Annie. 2017. “Happiness Traps” in Harvard Business Review. Sept-Oct, 2017.

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