Commentary: Feeling 'blah' about work? Here’s how to get your mojo back
If you are languishing at work, here’s what you need to start doing, say Crystal Lim-Lange and Gregor Lim-Lange.
SINGAPORE: We’ve heard about burnout at work, we’ve heard about boreout, and now we’re seeing a new phenomenon which we have nicknamed “blahout”.
It’s when your job still makes sense for you, but it’s lost a bit of its sparkle and you’re finding it hard to get excited about going back to work in your socially distanced “no mingling” mask-on office.
“How do I get my work mojo back?” asked many of our clients.
There’s a sense of emptiness and purposelessness that many are looking to fill through coping mechanisms from Netflix binging, comfort-eating, to relentless journaling and social-media scrolling.
Renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel talks about the concept of “ambiguous loss”.
A miscarriage is an ambiguous loss. A parent with dementia is an ambiguous loss. It is when on one level it looks like nothing has changed, and on another level, everything has changed.
Ambiguous loss is sneaky and difficult to quantify, but it can be devastating. We are grieving the loss of our old world of work and life without a sense of closure, without having an opportunity to process and express how we feel about it.
While many others have decided to quit, the majority are asking: Is there an alternative to resigning? Can we find meaning in our jobs?
GO EASY ON THE COMPARISONS
When people think of ideal jobs, they think of jobs that are meaningful, aligned with their values, fun, and offer freedom or better salaries.
But a job that aligns with your values and offers flexibility may not pay well or may involve a high degree of risk and rejection before success. Both of us spent years in training or not drawing a salary to pursue our business ideas.
The point is, there are so many things we cannot see. People tend to post the best edited highlights of their experiences at work on social media. Getting awards, promotions, career milestones, are the exciting stuff which gets the clicks.
People rarely post about the mundane tasks they did, the mistakes they made or the long and painful hours they spent finishing a project or a presentation. Yet all jobs have these aspects to them.
One way to overcome this is to manage comparison triggers. Be intentional about social media use, curate your news feed to weed out people whose posts are demoralising, and set time limits.
It is also vital to be very clear why you have chosen your job. Was it because you wanted to learn new skills and gain experience? Were you leaving an old job that wasn’t working for you? Does this one provide financial stability, and does your work make a powerful impact on others?
GET BACK YOUR FLOW
Mihaly Robert Csikszentmihalyi, one of the founders of the positive psychology movement, researched the concept of “flow” at work.
In the past people enjoyed work that was relaxing and could be performed with ease, but Csikszentmihalyi’s decades of research showed that what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness he named “flow”.
When people are in flow, they experience a deep sense of enjoyment and engagement.
This is a state of high engagement and excellence which occurs when you are involved in a challenging task that stretches you to the limit, but you also have the corresponding skill level to engage with the task without feeling anxious or overwhelmed.
We once worked with a veteran events planner on a big conference. Throughout the event there were multiple unexpected changes to the agenda and surprises like missing speakers. However, her experience and skill allowed her to tackle these challenges with confidence.
Watching her and her team spring into action was like observing a master ballet performance. They were in such full concentration and in this exact “flow” state.
The formula then for getting into flow, is to make sure that the tasks you are involved with are just at the edge of your comfort zone so that you’re interested and engaged, and the skills that you have are similarly honed and growing to meet the higher challenges of your work.
If the challenge level is too high, and your skill level is too low, you end up in the anxiety zone - either you find a way to reduce the challenge level or increase your skill level to get back into the flow zone.
Conversely, if the challenge level is too low and your skill level is too high, this is the comfort or boredom zone. You’re not growing or learning so you disengage.
We may not be able to fully set every one of our KPIs or work tasks to be at optimal flow, but we can always aim for a balance. If you have six KPIs and all of them are in the anxiety zone or in the boredom zone, that’s not sustainable.
Use your performance review conversations with your boss wisely and share with them the areas where you need more skills training, and the areas where you feel like a new challenge is needed.
STOP PLAYING THE VICTIM
There are people who are in the same job with the same boss, but are perpetually unhappy whereas others find satisfaction in exactly the same conditions.
If every job you have worked in is a dud, and every boss is an idiot, at some point you have to look at the common denominator – you.
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In our experience, people who are stuck in a victim mindset can say things like: “I had no choice”, “Nothing will change”, “There’s no point speaking up or doing anything different” or “I am just unlucky”.
Experts say when this happens, people give up their sense of personal agency and go into “learned helplessness”, a term coined by psychologist Martin Seligman to describe how people start to behave in a helpless manner, since their past experiences have led them to believe they have no control over their situation.
In our leadership training classes, we often talk about the perspective shift from “I have to” to “I get to”.
For example, when we think “I HAVE to make that presentation today” – it puts us into a negative, “no choice” mindset.
But when reframed to “I GET to make that presentation today” – it means we didn’t choose to be in this position, but people trust us to deliver it and we have a chance to be visible.
When we move away from a victim mindset into one of ownership, we regain our sense of power over our lives.
YOUR JOB SHOULDN’T FILL ALL YOUR NEEDS
Finally, accept that work is just a means to an end. It is not your life. Your boss is not your parent and your colleagues are not your siblings.
As psychology professor Adam Grant said: “A company isn’t a family. Parents don’t fire their kids for low performance or furlough them in hard times. A better vision for a workplace is a community – a place where people bond around share values, feel valued as human beings, and have a voice in decisions that affect them.”
Should you be looking for love through your job in the first place? A job is about a professional exchange. In rare instances it can become a calling or a mission, but not without a lot of hard work, risk, and sacrifice.
Make sure there are other avenues of your life to derive satisfaction from – community work, mentoring youth, a supportive circle of friends or even that new spin class.
The hardest work we have to do is to set aside our romantic expectations of work. By taking ownership and responsibility for meeting our own fulfilment, we put ourselves in the strongest position to realise our dreams of a meaningful and happy life.
Crystal Lim-Lange and Dr Gregor Lim-Lange are co-authors of bestseller Deep Human – Practical Superskills for a Future of Success, and co-founders of Forest Wolf, a global leadership and talent development consultancy.