Work can be dehumanizing. I’m not only talking about truly hard work, like laboring in a coal mine or on an oil rig. A 9-to-5 job, despite its privileges, is a vestige of a time when corporations treated workers as static resources rather than people capable of decision-making and trust. In advanced economies, people spend more than a third of the day working, yet most jobs offer limited opportunities for autonomy and self-expression. It doesn’t surprise me that more than half of employees in the U.S. are dissatisfied with their work.
I believe in eliminating the false dichotomy of work versus life and instead infusing work with humanity. As I’ve seen in partnering with companies such as NBC Universal, this shift can dramatically impact people's happiness and engagement with their work. All of us, and especially leaders, play a role in this process. Here are a few ways to get started:
1. Bring human moments to your daily routine.
A powerful way to find meaning in work is by strengthening interpersonal connections. Humans are social beings -- research has shown that social pain neurologically overlaps with physical pain. Being close to a colleague and feeling emotionally supported are proven to be stronger indicators of job satisfaction than the work itself.
Don’t underestimate the significance of small exchanges, like making eye contact when you walk in the office and genuinely asking a coworker what's going on in his world. Instead of jumping right into a meeting agenda, can you start by sharing something from a place of vulnerability? Daily interactions build relationships, which make up the fabric of a company’s culture.
I like to take time at the end of every day to reflect: Did I truly listen to my colleagues -- putting aside my judgments, my interruptions and my phone? Was I patient and attentive? Did I hold space for what needed to emerge?
The ripples of these interactions go beyond the workplace. One of my colleagues at Live Grey, a couple of months after joining the team, said she noticed a change in her relationships at home. She found that the language she had learned and the practices she engaged in at work had helped improve her communication with her husband of 10 years.
2. Meditate on what's distracting you.
It’s human nature to bring extra “stuff” into the workplace. Research on attention shows that it’s normal for the mind to wander about half of the time. Distraction comes in the form of external interruptions (loud conversations, emails or Slack notifications) as well as inner dialogue. These emotional distractions can impact your ability to be present for other people and do your best work.
Many businesses are prioritizing their employees’ health and well-being; nearly three-fourths (72 percent) of companies in a recent survey said they provide a wellness program in some form. These programs need to go beyond physical fitness and address emotional, mental and spiritual well-being. In my experience, practices such as yoga, meditation and somatic body awareness are a big part of holistic wellness.
When I sit in meditation, I can start to work through psychological and neural patterns formed in early childhood that affect how I show up at work. These patterns need to be felt rather than intellectualized. I ask myself questions like, What emotions are present in my nervous system? What’s preventing me from being present? What ideas from the past can I let go? The answers come from my nervous system, not from my thinking mind.
3. Be curious about the differences between you and your coworkers.
What if we were to understand differences between people as sources of possibility rather than categories that separate? In my experience, this shift in thinking can open up new ways of solving problems, communicating with others and coming up with ideas.
I do this by looking for ways to encounter stories, perspectives and habits that don’t match my own -- for instance, by making a point to have lunch with someone new and asking about their life outside of the office. I listen with the goal of empathizing with their experiences rather than comparing them to my own.
If empathy isn’t accessible for you, play with curiosity. A simple thing anyone can try is to recall a time when you were judging someone or something in any way. Next, ask yourself, what if instead of meeting that particular thing or person with judgment, you were to meet them with curiosity? The more you reflect on this, the more likely it will start to show up in the moment and you will be able to forge connections through difference.
These practices -- paying attention to daily interactions, focusing on your well-being and embracing differences -- are connected. They're all part of breaking down the barriers between work and life, a process that takes time and tenacity. It can be inspiring, difficult and sometimes messy because it requires us to be our most human to succeed -- living our imperfect, emotional, undefined existence.