Finding purpose at work

You’ll spend about 90,000 hours of your life working. Leah Weiss, PhD, a lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business, suggests you make the most of them. HealthySteps to Wellness spoke with her about how you can use research-based insights to create a thriving work environment.

Are the traditional boundaries between “work” and “personal” still relevant?

No; the two can’t be divided. You can’t turn off your personal life like it is a switch. We need to recognize that the challenges that people are experiencing in their personal lives are part of who they are at work. And this isn’t a bad thing. This can make us much more compassionate: more authentic, more relatable, more approachable. If we have an ability to transition between our roles as one integrated person, we’ll be more effective at work and healthier when we get home.

Managers who understand this about employees will be better poised to serve them in meeting their personal and professional goals, increasing their commitment to the organization, and achieving higher engagement levels. Organizations that acknowledge the humanity of employees and provide the compassion and flexibility to let them play their various roles to the best of their ability have less absenteeism (skipping work days) and less presenteeism (being there physically but not mentally).

Work and the rest of life are all life. Separating them artificially hurts everyone and negatively impacts the bottom line.

 Why is this dichotomy destructive to mental health and professional success?

Attempting to push life or work stresses aside simply adds to our overall stress. Your work colleagues should know what is happening in your life and your family should understand your work culture as well. Suppression is not healthy in any respect. Our cognitive resources are hijacked when we spend so much of our energy suppressing.

Furthermore, suppression negatively impacts our health. We would be much better off learning how to relate to emotions and tackling head-on any challenging relationships or circumstances — whether at work or outside. This path will lead not only to greater productivity, but also to enhanced well-being and a more purpose-driven life. This approach of openly dealing with challenges as a part of both personal and professional growth transforms the headaches of our lives into a journey filled with meaning, growth, and learning.

We’ve been conditioned to leave our feelings out of work. Is this worth reconsidering?

Indeed, we should consider that the two cannot be separated. In reality, there is no work/life balance. All of it, ideally, is part of the rhythm of life. Compassionate leadership comes from recognizing and understanding the things that your employees or colleagues are facing and taking those things into account during any given work day. And doing the same for ourselves.

What practical, evidence-based strategies can you offer to improve both my work and my relationship with work?

My number one recommendation is to find your purpose: think about why your work matters to you, to the world. Also, think about the bigger role that you play on a project or within an organization. Without you, that project or company could not move forward. As soon as you realize that the part you play is significant, your workday (and your relationship with work) will improve.

Is there one small action I could start taking today?

Try to be aware of the quality of your attention as you approach the tasks in your day — both at work and beyond. Punctuate your day with rituals/habits that anchor you in this intention. That coffee break or walk to the next meeting/patient can be an opportunity to anchor your attention in the present moment rather than cultivate distraction. Monotasking throughout our day — on the task or conversation at hand — allows us to rise above previous unhealthy habits of fractured attention and mind wandering that undermine not just our productivity but also our sense of value in our work. There is a real contentment and sense of accomplishment in a day lived with intention, attention, and recognition of the many opportunities for learning/growth.

… any final thoughts?

We can reclaim our work and lives, and we don’t need to sleepwalk through life. There are evidence-based approaches to purpose, relationships, and stress — and our mindset is the starting place. There are simple techniques that we can learn and use, starting today.

Remember that these actions are best thought of as practice. We don’t need to expect perfection and get uptight about our efforts, which would be counterproductive. We don’t have to give up or beat up on ourselves when we make mistakes. Better to keep our aspirations for greater mindfulness, purpose, compassion — all of which make us human and keep us humble. Best to just start again, ideally reflecting on what set us off track, so that we can learn along the way.

By Julie Croteau
March 2018