By Rebecca Newton
Sept. 13, 2021
“I just want to feel joy at work again. I want to feel like myself,” Susan shared in our first coaching session. “I used to be fairly energized. I like what I do, but now on Sunday evenings I feel flat and I’m almost dreading the week ahead.”
Susan is not alone. Across different locations, industries, and roles, my clients — driven professionals who have always loved their vocations — are telling me that they just want to feel joy at work again. This isn’t just an idle need for something fluffy; research has shown that joy is an emotional response and outlook that’s vital to our well-being, cognitive functioning, and our performance at work.
To bring this positivity back into your life, it helps to understand why it has disappeared. The obvious answer is “the pandemic,” but it’s worth taking a closer look at what specifically is amiss. As a psychologist who studies how ambitious professionals thrive in organizations, I’ve observed four root causes of this current malaise:
First, we’re all burned out from almost a year and a half of sustained stress and sadness. Even in organizations that have fared well through the pandemic, necessary changes meant pressure increased. We’ve faced continual uncertainty and hunkered down in survival mode in response. Though we’ve all experienced the pandemic differently, we all have been affected by losses and grief.
Many of us have also struggled with feeling inauthentic at times throughout these months as we’ve needed to show up like we’re okay even when we’re not. That’s especially true for leaders, who have bucked themselves up knowing that their people depend on them. A sustained disconnect between our inner self and the behaviors we exhibit to others can diminish our psychological well-being.
We also haven’t always been able to play to our strengths: We’ve had the pressure of just doing what needs to be done and getting on with it as efficiently and practically as possible. This has disconnected us from the joy we’ve naturally found in our vocations.
Finally, research indicates that perceived social isolation may contribute to poorer cognitive performance and executive functioning, including reduced cognitive flexibility and ability to deal with novelty. This can increase negativity, making you feel bad about your reduced performance and ability and kicking off a negative spiral that may rob you of the joy you once felt upon doing the same work.
The pandemic and its effects are dragging on, and it may seem that joy isn’t possible when we’re experiencing pain or being challenged — so why bother pursuing it now? But the strange thing about joy, as psychologists note, is that it doesn’t require the absence of suffering; in fact, it may even be a route through which fulfillment arrives as we note what is meaningful in difficult times.
So how do we go about getting our joy back? It’s not about striving for perfection. Instead, the research (and my work with clients as a psychologist and coach) tells us that it comes from taking advantage of our strengths, being courageous, authentic, grateful and connected. Here are four ways I recommend to get your joy back at work starting right now.
Build your strengths into your day.
Some positive psychology scholars posit that our strengths can be catalysts to cultivating joy. These strengths are your natural energizers, and building them into your working day can give you a big boost.
The first step is to identify what these are for you. What energizes one person is different from what energizes another. Ask yourself: “When are times recently that I have felt energized at work? In these situations, what was I doing?”
Once you’re clear about your strengths, consider ways to build them into your day. For example, you might be jazzed by coming up with new ideas. So how could you create more opportunities for this? Or you may feel energized when you’re able to get head down into the detail and knock some important projects off your list. How can you carve out time in your schedule when you won’t be interrupted? Even half an hour of playing to your strengths can make a difference for the whole rest of the day.
One of my clients, for example, recognized that strategic thinking was one of her core strengths: She loves thinking about the future and long-term opportunities. But as the pandemic stretched on, she was concerned that daily pressures left little space for this kind of thought; it felt like she was always fire-fighting small, urgent tasks. So she created a two-hour window for strategic planning in her weekly schedule — some to be spent alone and some with her team. Just these few hours have re-energized her: She reports an increase in joy at work not only in those strategic planning sessions but more generally across her week.
Focus on your professional growth.
After a season of giving so much of yourself to defend your business and support others, it’s likely your own development has taken a back seat. But one of the best things you can do to lead others well is to spend time on developing yourself.
Ethnographic research into how children learn shows that the joy of learning results from the effort they put in — from persistent work through difficulties that leads to success in achieving meaningful goals. I’ve seen the same effect in the adults I work with: Working hard towards important goals and courageously overcoming impediments can fulfill a need to learn in the context of your profession and refresh your passion on the job.
When I ask my clients about moments in which they experience joy in their work, they tell me about a range of learning experiences, from short but intensive online courses to improve technical skills, being part of management development cohorts that share challenges and ideas, or three-month virtual leadership courses that require hard work on the road to achieving meaningful leadership goals.
Share with a trusted colleague.
Research suggests that authenticity is integral to psychological well-being. But living authentically isn’t only about understanding yourself, it also requires being in an environment where we feel able to safely share how we’re thinking and feeling. For many people, work has not been that place over the past year and a half, as we’ve been called upon many times to appear more resilient than we may really feel.
To restore some of that sense of authenticity, identify a few people you trust to open up to at work. Reflect on what’s happened and how you’ve experienced the last year. Reveal what was challenging but also what you’re grateful for. (Some evidence suggests that gratitude and joy may mutually enforce each other.) Share your aspirations and hopes for the year ahead, noting what will help you move closer to achieving meaningful goals.
One coaching client was reluctant to open up to his colleagues to share that he was struggling. But now he has found the right people to reflect on the last year with and has asked for their support as he moves forward. He has reported in subsequent coaching sessions that he is experiencing more joy again at work. He also feels he is leading more effectively and is receiving positive feedback from others.
Rebuild relationships through work.
Joy is not just an individual phenomenon; it’s also what psychologists call “affiliative,” which means that it has to do with strengthening our bonds with others through positive behaviors such as being kind and friendly or actively peace-making. Some psychologists even conceptualize joy as our response to being in a situation that we feel will bring us closer to people who are important to us.
To combat isolation, as we come back to the office, find ways to engage in meaningful collaboration. Try a “walk and talk” with colleagues to understand what is most important for them, their big opportunities and challenges as well as your own, and areas of mutual interest and value. This connection will not only bolster your own sense of energy and but also improve team results. The trust built through such connection fosters a collaborative culture which in turn enhances team creativity.
Coaching is another way to connect meaningfully with others. Researchers suggest that both the person being coached and the coach themselves may experience positive psycho-physiological changes from coaching with compassion. And these changes may mitigate psychological and physiological effects from chronic power stress experienced by leaders.
One of my clients told me that in the past year she would engage in team tasks but still felt increasingly isolated from her coworkers. Based on our work together, she began weekly walks with different colleagues, chose to create time to coach a team member each week, and sought out a mentor in the firm who she meets for monthly catch ups. Since then she has reported feeling more energized at work overall.
These past 18 months have been challenging for most people, both personally and professionally. At times, joy is understandably far from reach. As the economic, business, societal and personal consequences of the pandemic continue to unfold, simple practices like these may help us prepare for and pursue joy in the season ahead — whatever it may hold.
Rebecca Newton, Ph.D., is an organizational and social psychologist and Senior Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science and faculty member on the Accelerated Leadership Program at Harvard Law School. Newton is the CEO of CoachAdviser, with 20 years’ experience coaching and advising leaders and teams globally. She is the author of Authentic Gravitas: Who Stands Out and Why.
c.2023 Harvard Business Review. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group.
This HBR article was legally licensed through AdvisorStream.