Are you engaged at work?
If not, don’t worry—87 percent of people worldwide report not feeling engaged on the job. Many of us don’t expect work to be something we enjoy; it’s called work for a reason, right? We feel it is normal to “check out” during the day and head home without feeling fulfilled or accomplished.
Engagement at work is a kind of authentic vitality or contented immersion in work that enables progress and growth. Studies suggest that it has four main aspects: having a sense of autonomy; making regular, meaningful progress; readily feeling positive emotions; and experiencing flow—that is, periods when you are so deeply absorbed in what you’re doing that you lose track of time.
If you are among the majority of people who don’t feel engaged at work, it’s possible to change that. You can revitalize your work life by following the science-backed steps below.
1. Exercise autonomy and self-determination
People who feel actively engaged at work have jobs that align with their core strengths and personal values. But what can you do when the tasks on your to-do list do not match your strengths? How can you feel engaged when the goal of your organization doesn’t speak to your own priorities or sense of purpose in the world?
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Research from Amy Wrzesniewski suggests that “job crafting,” a way to reflect upon and redesign your job to fit you better, leads to more engagement at work. There are three aspects of your job that you can redesign: your tasks, your relationships, and your thoughts.
In “task crafting,” you adjust the time spent on certain tasks and redesign aspects of tasks that are flexible. You may ask yourself, What are my strengths? How can I tailor my effort to leverage these strengths? For example, if you have a keen attention to detail, you might take on more operational tasks or spend time sharing your more granular input with colleagues, and let others tackle the big picture.
In “relational crafting,” you dedicate more energy to forming meaningful connections with others, and spend less time in situations that make you feel bad at work. For example, in a 2003 study, Wrzesniewski and her colleagues instructed hospital cleaning staff to relationally craft at work by interacting with patients and families in nurturing and benevolent ways. While investing in these relationships was outside the scope of their official job duties, it strengthened their sense of meaning and purpose at work.
Finally, in “cognitive crafting,” you try to think about things differently, including day-to-day tasks and social interactions. For example, a barista may reframe his job task from I brew coffee to I make something that brings people joy and gives them energy as they start their day. Another approach to cognitive crafting? Consider certain tasks at work as learning opportunities and approach them from a place of curiosity. Could you think to yourself, What can I gain or learn from this? instead of I have to do this, as you go down your list of things to do? One study found that when people are motivated by curiosity, rather than fear or obligation, they feel more satisfied about their accomplishments.
Three decades of research suggests that people who engage in job crafting are more satisfied with their jobs, perform better, experience greater happiness, and are less likely to take days off or quit. Moreover, this proactive approach to reshaping your work life fuels your sense of ownership and self-motivation, which makes you more engaged at work.
2. Celebrate your progress
The progress you make each day also contributes to engagement. When researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer analyzed almost 12,000 diary entries from 238 employees about their work days, they found that the most important predictor of a good work day was making progress. According to Amabile and Kramer, when we make progress towards goals that matter to us, we feel motivated to continue; they call this pattern of progress-furthering-progress a “progress loop.”
“Even ordinary, incremental progress can increase people’s engagement in the work and their happiness during the workday,” they say.
This means that even “small wins” can make us feel good and inspire us to get more done. Conversely, they also found that small setbacks can stifle motivation, spur a loop of negative feelings, and reduce progress the following day.
While setbacks can easily dominate our perception of the day, each day likely has many small wins, such as finishing a task on schedule or your colleagues being receptive to your innovative idea. Focusing on the headway you make promotes positive emotions and progress, and one effective way to do this is to start a three small wins journal for work. Celebrating your progress reminds you that what you do is making a difference at work, which fuels your progress loop and makes you feel more engaged.
3. Prioritize activities that feel good
While making progress makes us feel good, there are many other research-backed approaches to bringing more joy and fun to work. Most practically, you can spend time doing what makes you feel happy. For example, you might allow time for lighthearted conversation with colleagues about off-work activities. Or you might take a moment to email a colleague expressing your gratitude.
Another way to enjoy more of your time at work is through humor. Shared laughter introduces levity to a situation by signaling safety, a willingness to cooperate, and shared humanity, which can make us more motivated to invest in the organization’s larger goals. Laughter itself calms the body, and engages dopamine circuits that drive novel and innovative thinking. While funny moments can feel temporary when they occur, we can accentuate their benefits by resharing funny stories with friends or taking a moment to write about them at the end of the workday.
According to research, positive emotions at work make people more creative and friendly, better at problem solving, and more resilient to workplace challenges. While it may feel unproductive to spend time on enjoyable activities, rather than jumping right on our to-do list, the boost of happiness we get provides us with the energy and capacity to be more productive and engaged the rest of the day.
4. Create space for flow
Flow states are arguably the pinnacle of engagement at work. Flow, coined by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, occurs when a person is completely immersed in an activity—they lose a sense of time and forget about demands from the outside world that are not related to the task at hand. In a state of flow, we love what we are doing; we feel invigorated, in control, and appropriately challenged.
What steps can you take to achieve this state? First, it is important to choose a task that requires your full concentration and is meaningful to you. You will want to work on this task when you experience peak energy during the day. Some people require a quiet environment, and others find that listening to music helps increase their focus.
Regardless, it is important to take measures to prevent interruptions by working in a secluded place or shutting your office door. You may want to turn off or put away your smartphone to minimize distractions, as research suggests that the mere presence of a smartphone will make you less productive. Lastly, you may find that hiding the clock that’s typically in the corner of your computer screen, by adjusting display settings, can help you lose track of time.
Achieving flow is not always easy, and it may take time to find the right environment or the right kind of task. With practice, you can achieve flow and significantly increase your overall engagement at work.
We all want to feel happy and engaged at work, and leave the office with a sense of meaningful accomplishment. While achieving this takes effort and you may not see changes overnight, improvement in even a single component of engagement will help you move closer to that goal.
Originally published in Greater Good Magazine.
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