LOVE WHERE YOU WORK
Is it reasonable to expect to enjoy your job? That's a question many have wrestled with, often as they lie awake with anxious thoughts about an occupation that causes them daily unhappiness. If we're getting paid, then maybe it's unreasonable to additionally expect personal satisfaction as part of the exchange.
It goes further than that. Steve Jobs famously once argued, "You've got to love what you do." For many of us, that's just a step too far. Much easier said than done. It's one of those casual exhortations (most easily made by a billionaire) that can leave people feeling inadequate. If we should expect to love our jobs, then who is to blame if we don't? Is it our fault? Could it even be used against us? "If you really wanted this job, you wouldn't be asking for more pay/saying you've got too much to do/complaining about stress. Maybe we should find someone else who really wants to work here."
Today, 83 percent of American workers report that far from making them happy, their jobs are causing them stress. Two-fifths of us have gone further and actually quit our firms to escape a stressful job. And this anxiety isn't just a nuisance frustration of our occupations; a 2015 analysis of over three hundred different surveys concluded that the health toll of workplace stress was comparable to that of secondhand smoke—stress is shortening our lives. The suspicion that "work used to be way more fun than it is today" really does seem to have a basis in reality. Many of us don't love what we do, and we feel exhausted trying. A national survey of the workforce conducted by the survey company Gallup suggested that only 32 percent of employees were "engaged" in their jobs, meaning that they were highly involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace. And this is often because our workplaces seem to treat us as voiceless pawns in the game—another Gallup survey found that only three in ten workers believed that their opinions even counted at work.
For many, the realities of work see us worn down by gnawing feelings of job insecurity and by work environments that seem to be impinging ever more on our free time as we battle to keep up with our email or glance at our smartphone on a Sunday morning in case that ping we've just heard heralds some minor emergency.
Living in a constant state of adrenalized stress can pretty soon leave us feeling depleted. In 2019, Anne Helen Petersen wrote an article that immediately became a viral sensation. In her BuzzFeed piece, she described "the Burnout Generation," who were experiencing symptoms such as "errand paralysis" in their private lives directly as a consequence of having "internalized the idea that [they] should be working all the time." As we will explore fully in this book, a growing understanding that our cognitive powers are both finite and inhibited by stress means that the way we're working today is the enemy of our aspirations to be the best versions of ourselves.
When this book was first published in my native United Kingdom, it became a Sunday Times number one bestseller. Many of my American friends told me that an evidence-based focus on fixing work wouldn't succeed in the United States. I was shocked. "Why?" I asked. "There's just too much focus on profit," one former colleague insisted. "No firm is going to encourage employees to work sustainably if it makes them less money." But in many ways, that's the point of this book. In so many ways, work is the lie we tell ourselves--you'll see clear evidence in these pages that working longer doesn't make firms more profit. Longer hours might make us feel like we're doing more, but we're achieving less with every second of extra toil. While we might hear business leaders such as Elon Musk boast that "nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week," when we delve beneath the bluster, it seems that evidence gives us a different answer. Zeynep Ton, an inspirational academic, found that retail businesses that set out to provide better working conditions for their employees were strategically hitting upon "the best and most sustainable way to provide superior returns to their investors in the long term." Providing good jobs was more profitable than treating workers badly. Many of us, if we were to use a fresh perspective and look anew at our daily lives, would see our jobs for what they truly are. We'll go on to see that average office workers are spending between two and three days a week in meetings, where they pretend to be paying attention. We waste our freshest hours sitting still in meetings, resisting the temptation to look at our phones, and then we have idiot bosses judging us for not clocking in another four or five weary hours per day to keep on top of our actual work. The evidence contained in this book can help you fix these things. In the same way that the evidence on the restorative power of sleep has transformed the argument on proper recovery in the past two or three years, the evidence on working is about to transform the way we work.
Creating a good working culture helps futureproof our workplaces. If we want to foster the creative environments that will be essential in a future world competing with and being assisted by artificial intelligence, then stress is something we need to strive to eliminate, as I'll demonstrate. Overwork isn't a competitive advantage in creative endeavors, and firms that rely on it will be swept away, shown up for their lack of inventiveness.