Ever heard the phrase ‘This job is killing me’?
It could be truer than you think. Studies on work satisfaction show that over the past 20 years we have become increasingly unhappy at work for a variety of reasons, including long working hours, job uncertainty and, for younger people, a higher expectation of what our jobs should provide. Now research shows that it can have a serious impact on our well-being – from depression to increased risks of heart disease. “We put a huge amount of energy, around 80 per cent, into work and rely on it for a large chunk of self-esteem,” says John Lees, author of How To Get A Job You’ll Love. “So it can have a significant effect on our sense of fulfilment if we’re not doing the right job, or feel dissatisfied with a career choice.”
While it might seem obvious that workplace unhappiness could lead to emotions related illnesses such as depression, analysis by UK researchers of 13 existing European studies covering nearly 200,000 people found job strain was linked to a 23 per cent increased risk of heart attacks and deaths from coronary heart disease. It’s just as common in the UAE. “I routinely see clients with work-related problems,” says Dr Tara Wyne, psychologist and clinical director of TheLighthouse Arabia in Dubai. “While emotional and psychological issues such as stress and anxiety disorders are common responses to workplace difficulties, many people’s distress is manifested in physical ways.”
Physical symptoms can include chronic headaches and migraines, stomach and digestive problems, repetitive-strain injury, ulcers, chronic fatigue syndrome and insomnia. “When we are unhappy or stressed, we tend not to look after ourselves as well,” she explains. “This can lead to lowered immunity and increased vulnerability to a number of physical complaints.”
UAE employees are particularly susceptible to work-related health issues, says Dr Wyne. “It’s a country that primarily attracts expats to join the workforce. When people come for the sake of employment, it places a significance on being successful in your work and retaining your job. Expats’ lives are not necessarily as rounded and supported as they are in their home countries, thereby magnifying the importance of work and everything connected to it.”
Working for your health
As doom and gloomy as this may sound, there are steps you can take to avoid the health issues connected with a difficult working environment. “In my experience, the most common mistakes people make are to assume that dwelling and ruminating on what is going wrong at work may somehow lead to relief or solutions,” says Dr Wyne. “People too often keep replaying their issues at home, thereby never really getting any respite, without which there is no repair. People in these situations need to recoup their energy and build their resources.”
Your inclination might be to work harder and longer to try to solve the problem, but this has a self-destructive element, says Dr Wyne. “People often attribute work problems to themselves and their inadequacies and rationalise that if they work harder, longer and please more people, this will surely lead to change.
“The problem with this is that internalising responsibility for the job being bad creates strain and an unfair burden on the individual to do something to fix it. In reality some situations cannot be fixed and simply must be endured.”
At the same time, just ignoring the issue has its own dangers. “A proportion of people become far too resigned to their situation, triggering apathy and passivity. This response style leads to being shut down, numb and vulnerable to emotional and physical breakdown.”
So what should someone who’s not enjoying their job do to protect their health? “One needs to be able to see positives, solutions and to trigger effort to salvage whatever goodness they can from both work and life,” says Dr Wyne.
Rather than forming a clique of demoralised workers who simply regurgitate the issues and problems time and again, instead try to focus on any positives such as strong supportive relationships with colleagues.
Work hard to try to find some aspect of work – your performance, talent or skill – that you can take pride in. It’s also important to have interests and activities outside the workplace. “People should still experience pleasure, accomplishment and mastery in their lives despite their work situations. The dividends we yield from these investments in ourselves and our lives outside of work will compensate for the impact of an unhappy job situation.”
And the good news is that while every job and every employer is different, there are ways to make any job healthier without having to take any drastic decisions such as quitting. “You don’t have to wait for the ‘perfect’ job to come along – it’s all about making better compromises,” says career expert John Lees.
“People can usually be perfectly happy with enjoying three-and-a-half days at work and coping with the other day-and-a-half of aggravation, boring meetings or paperwork. It’s when it gets below that ratio that it can lead them to be demotivated and de-energised, which can have long-term effects on their morale, and negatively affect the way they’re perceived at work, which could result in a bad situation becoming worse.”
John warns: “It’s all too easy to believe that the only solution to dissatisfaction at work is job change. Often, all that work dissatisfaction can show you is that there’s a mismatch between who you are and what you’re doing.” We’ve gathered some top tips on how to make you current job healthier and happier:
Transform that job:
1. What’s wrong? Acknowledge your real feelings about your work, says Dr Wyne. “Work on accepting your feelings and stop wasting energy dwelling on them or fighting something you cannot change.”
John agrees: “Think about what is making you discontented about work,” he says. “If the job hasn’t turned out as you’d hoped, maybe you didn’t ask the right questions before accepting it, or the company, or your post has changed. Look back over your career history before you make a hasty move, so you avoid repeating mistakes of the past.” Research data shows that people leave managers, not organisations.
“Ask yourself, ‘Is it the job, the organisation, or the manager you don’t like?’ You may find it’s possible to change your job or transfer to a new department,” he says.
2. Analyse: “Work may not be universally bad. Try to find aspects that are more tolerable and focus on them,” says Dr Wyne. John says, “Review your progress every three months, making a personal portfolio of work you’ve done, problems you’ve overcome, value you’ve added to the company and how you’ve made a difference.
“This will give you a basis for knowing your true worth and marketability and you’ll also be able to assess your skills and development needs.”
3. Learn: Master new skills so that you’re adding to your knowledge base and your contacts inside and outside the company. This will make you feel as if you are at least achieving something and you will be better placed if you eventually decide to move.
4. Success speak: “Act as if you are convinced things can and will change,” says Dr Wyne. “This will release and encourage solution-focused thinking, create hope and trigger resilience.” Think from the employer’s point of view, says John. “Make any achievements known at work; explain how you achieved them, and give three ways you could work more effectively to create new opportunities for your employer.”
5. Negotiate: “Look for solutions in areas that you can control and from which you can take pleasure,” says Dr Wyne. Once you have these, consider consulting those in charge of your working role. “Putting forward a plan to your boss or HR department to adapt your job – perhaps building on what you’re already doing and negotiating a package so you do more of the things that energise you – you could not only improve your working life but also feel more in control,” says John. “There’s no point relying on an employer to solve your career problem. It’s about you giving a boss ‘win-win’ solutions and making positive suggestions rather than simply saying, ‘I’m not happy’.”
6. Time to go? If you’re still dissatisfied and you’ve made attempts to fix the job you’re in, and the attraction of something new on offer is greater than the repulsion of the old, it could be time to leave, John says. “If you have positive reasons for going somewhere else – maybe you have outgrown a job – then it’s not a bad thing to move on when you feel you’ve achieved as much as you can. Just avoid the panic actions taken on the basis of, ‘I just want to get out of here’,” he says. Most of all, remember that however much you value your job, your health is always the most valuable thing you have.