Work, it’s something most of us do though it isn’t always enjoyable. Whether it’s long hours, gruelling tasks or just the repetitive nature of a day-to-day routine, work can sometimes be something we have to do rather than something we want to do.
But given that the average person will spend 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime it makes sense to try and enjoy it if you can. So what can you do to be happier at work and reduce stress?
I was the lead scientist in a government project that looked at how our wellbeing and emotional resilience can change over a lifetime.
As part of this project, the team, with help from think-tank the New Economics Foundation, identified several things that can reduce stress and enhance wellbeing and happiness – all of which can be applied to the workplace. So what helps?
1. Be active
Exercise and other physical activities won’t make your problems or stress disappear, but they will reduce their emotional intensity and give you mental space to sort out problems – as well as keep you physically fit.
Walking to and from work is a great way to create separation from the working day. If that’s not possible you could get off the bus a stop early, make your lunchtimes active or maybe find an exercise class to do before you start work for the day.
2. Connect with people
During the pandemic, many people found their wellbeing suffered due to a lack of social contact. Indeed, a good support network of friends and family can minimise your work troubles and help you see things differently.
It’s also worth getting to know your colleagues. The more you invest in your relationships at work, the more enjoyable you may find your day.
3. Learn new skills
Keeping “cognitively active” is critical to your psychological and mental wellbeing and can provide you with new opportunities in terms of your career development. So try to keep learning – take a course, develop some new skills or learn a new hobby, it all adds up.
Having things going on in your life outside of work is also important for your emotional and mental wellbeing. In the UK we work some of the longest hours in Europe, meaning we often don’t spend enough time doing the things we really enjoy. Don’t work excessive hours. And ensure you make time for socialising, exercise, along with activities you find fun.
4. Stay present
This is all about “being in the moment” rather than in the past or looking too far forward. Enjoy the present and you will appreciate it more. Indeed, there is plenty of research on the positive aspects of mindfulness and how it can help with mental health.
You don’t have to sit down for hours meditating either. Being in the moment is more about bringing your brain back to the now. A more mindful approach to life is something you can practice at any time of the day, it’s just about being aware, noticing your surroundings – the sights, sounds, smells. You can do this while you’re walking, in a meeting or making a cup of tea.
5. Recognise the positives
Accept there are things at work or in life you can’t change and concentrate on the things you have control over. Remind yourself to feel grateful for the positives in your life.
6. Avoid unhealthy habits
Given what we know about their long-term consequences, using excessive alcohol or coffee consumption or smoking as a coping strategy for work stress is ultimately likely to have a negative impact on your happiness, even if they seem to provide a quick pick-me-up.
7. Work smarter, not longer
Prioritise your workload during working hours and you will have more disposable time to do the things you enjoy. Accept that your in-tray will always be full, so concentrate on the important things first.
The more you take control of your work life and get the balance you need, the more likely you will be happier at work. Indeed, given that in the UK stress-related illness accounts for nearly 60% of all long-term sickness you must prioritise your wellbeing and try to reduce work stress where possible.
Cary Cooper is a professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester.