Work, play or misery?

Mar 21 2011 by Peter Vajda Print This Article

In the current economy, it seems obvious that having a job - any job - is better than having no job at all. But is that really true?

Last week, the journal Occupational Environmental Medicine published a study by Dr Peter Butterworth, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Mental Health Research at the Australian National University. He found that as far as mental health is concerned, some jobs are so demoralizing that they're worse than having no job at all.

The study followed more than 7,000 Australians over a seven-year period. It found that people who had been unemployed felt calmer, happier, less depressed and less anxious after they had found a job. But not just any job. They only felt better is that job was rewarding and manageable.

In exploring individuals' mental state, employment status, and (if they had a job) working conditions they either enjoyed, or didn't enjoy, the survey respondents were asked to what degree they agreed with statements such as "My job is complex and difficult" and "I worry about the future of my job."

The research pinpointed four job characteristics linked with mental health: work complexity and demands, job security, compensation, and - crucially - control over one's job (the freedom to decide how best to do it).

Recently-unemployed people who rated their job positive in these areas reported substantial improvements in their mental health. However, those newly employed who felt overwhelmed, insecure about their job stability, underpaid, and micromanaged reported sharp declines in their mental health, including increased depression and anxiety. Interestingly, those who couldn't find a job fared better.

So the conventional wisdom, that "any job offers psychological benefits for individuals over the demoralizing effects of unemployment" – or any work is better than no work at all – is just not true.

What's more, Dr Butterworth also suggests that certain jobs and job environments (notably call centers) are more likely to adversely affect one' mental health.

Finally, the study suggests something that most of us know all too well. Namely, that managers have a direct impact on employees' mental health and well-being. "Bad bosses will make anybody unhappy…(and)…stress comes from bad managers."

And this brings me to a second, related point.

Marshall Goldsmith, the world-renowned executive coach, recently explored (in a piece on the Huffington Post site) "why folks work." He asked, " Do you work to live or live to work" (given the notion that most folks spend at least one-third to one-half of their waking hours at work)?

In this vein, Mr Goldsmith asked a number of leaders how they viewed their work. They had three choices; they estimated the percentage of work that fell into three categories (and you might want to give this a try yourself):

Play - work is fun; would do this regardless of whether or not you were paid to do it; it provides an outlet for creative energy or self-development and self-actualization.

Work – not play, not fun but work which you would do if you were reasonably compensated for it and work towards which you are committed.

Misery – not fun and no amount of money could make it fun; often tasks or activities you would attempt to avoid.

Here's what Goldsmith found.

  • 15 percent of what professionals do is considered play;
  • 75 percent of what professionals do is considered work;
  • 10 percent of what professionals do is considered misery.

So if our mental health can be put at risk depending on how we spend our time at work, what should we do about it?

Generally, when you explore your life at work (and you might also consider at home, at play and in relationship), consider those activities that bring you fun (real fun, not faux, a "make-believe-this-is-fun" appearance of fun) and those that bring you some flavor of misery.

To do so, first clarify your natural tendencies related to how you interact with your world, so you can make better life and work choices and decisions.

Second, reflect on whether you are a good fit for what you choose to do in your life – both at work and at home. Do you ever make choices that really don't fit you very well because you feel that you have to make them - and then resign yourself to living a life of quiet (or not so quiet) desperation?

Some questions for self-reflection

  • What proportion of your work would you define as "fun," "work" or "misery." Are you OK with these?
  • What proportion of your relationship would you define as "fun," "work" (in the sense that it "works" you and you "work" it to keep it conscious and healthy) and "misery?" Are you OK with these?
  • If you're uncomfortable with any of the above, what steps can you take to move in a direction that would make you more comfortable?
  • How much freedom do you have on your job? How about in your relationship (really, do you ever wish you had more freedom)?
  • Is your mental health suffering due to your job or your relationship?
  • Are you worried about your job? About your relationship? If so, why?

Third, do you know yourself very well - over and above your "packaging" and "trappings?" Do you understand your personality, your motivation, your triggers and the values that underpin your choices, actions and behaviors?

Often, "fun," "work" and "misery" are functions of one's personality or inherent traits. And being a square peg in a round hole is a recipe for misery, not fun - anywhere. Moreover, often the "square peg" is not ready, willing or able to adapt in order to make work more fun and less miserable.

So, does your life at work (and, yes, even at home, at play and in relationship) really, really fit your personality and style? Does your life at work (and at home) tend towards the "misery" side of the equation more than it does the "fun" or even "work" side? ("Work" in the context of a relationship meaning is it worth the effort to be in a relationship.) Every (worthwhile and healthy) relationship demands "work" - you work it; it works you.

Your mental health and well-being depend on how honestly, sincerely and self-responsibly you explore these questions and discern how much of your life is fun, honest "work", and how much is just misery.

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About The Author

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.