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How To Thrive, Not Just Survive

Reconfigure your job to make yourself happier


by Eilene Zimmerman

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Feeling uninspired at work? You’re not alone. Only 30 percent of employees in the U.S. feel engaged at the office, according to a 2013 Gallup report.  Research shows engagement—being involved, committed, passionate, focused and energetic—has a clear impact on job performance as well as life outside the office, says Christine Porath, an associate professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of business. When we are excited and energized about going to work—and enjoy what we do—those positive feelings translate to our personal lives as well, wrote Porath and two research colleagues in a paper they published in the journal Organizational Dynamics.

Although it might seem that happiness at work is the key to overall work/life satisfaction, Porath says being happy actually isn’t the goal. Thriving is. Thriving, she has written, means “being engaged in creating the future,” both your company’s and your own. Thriving employees have a bit of an edge, she wrote. “They are highly energized but they know how to avoid burnout.”

See also: The New Rules for Career Happiness

Energy and Learning

“Thriving individuals have a spark that fuels energy in themselves and others too,” wrote Porath. Thriving has two crucial components: vitality and learning. Vitality is the sense of being energized and feeling alive at work. Learning means growing through new knowledge and skills. Across industries and job types, Porath and her colleagues found that employees who fit the description demonstrated 16% better overall performance (as reported by their managers) and 125% less burnout (the employees reported) than their colleagues.

To thrive, you’ve got to have both elements.  If people lack vitality at work but are learning they will likely hit a wall and feel depleted. On the flip side, if someone has lots of energy at the office but no opportunities to learn and grow, they are likely to feel stagnated.

And yes, there are things we can do individually, says Porath, to make our work more enjoyable and meaningful. 

Chunk your work

Start by examining at the way you work. Research has shown that the ideal way to work is in very focused, 90-120-minute increments. “After that we see diminishing returns on performance,” Porath says. “Think strategically about focusing in an absorbed way while you’re working. Try not to multi-task. Most of us tend to toggle in between projects, but if you can plan your work out in those shorter increments, you’ll perform better.  Think sprinter, not marathoner.”

In order to feel energetic physically and cognitively, research suggests we have to recover from intense demands of work. Take a break. Even if your organization doesn’t offer formal avenues for renewal like on-site exercise classes, it’s usually possible to schedule your own breaks. “Step outside the office, get back in touch with someone who was looking for you, take a walk, a bike ride or just eat lunch away from your desk,” says Porath.  Exercise is one of the best ways to build up vitality. “One thing I try to teach our MBAs at Georgetown is that we get a cognitive performance boost after exercise.”

Avoid energy suckers

Invest in relationships that energize you, and limit contact with people who sap your energy, says Porath. “I’ve done a lot of work on incivility. De-energizing people have four to seven times the impact on you as energizers, so if at all possible, stop or minimize your interactions with de-energizers. Communicate through secretaries if possible, and don’t choose to be on projects or teams where you might be involved with them.” Instead, find relationships at the office that help you grow.

See also: Burned Out? Or Just Bummed?

Seek out challenges

Learn a software program, volunteer for a new role or responsibility at work or take a management course. If those opportunities don’t exist at your organization, seek them outside the office. Look for leadership opportunities in the community that allow you to hone your management skills. “Keep looking for the next challenge,” says Porath.

Find meaning in your work life

Getting your emotional and psychological needs met counts too. That usually happens when we believe that our work—or that of our company—is meaningful and contributes to the greater good. Not every company serves a grand purpose, so you may have to create the meaning yourself, says Porath. “If your job doesn’t naturally have a strong purpose or mission, get involved with an organization that impacts your community positively and bring that into the office,” Porath recommends, pointing to an office products firm in Chicago that created a program to deliver backpacks filled with school supplies to some of the poorest, most disadvantaged schools in the city. “These folks were selling office and packaging supplies, but the employees had also created this backpack program and it became a huge initiative at the company,” she says. “It wasn’t part of their every day job but it still gave their work lives meaning.”

Porath says bringing projects like this into your company and involving colleagues makes everyone feel “a stronger sense of relatedness. That’s a basic growth need of people. And it helps you individually to be more thriving,” she says.  “You will feel happier being at the office and more supported by your organization.”

Early in her career, Porath learned the importance of a meaningful, enjoyable professional life. She worked in sports management and describes it as a toxic environment. “Now my whole life—but especially my work life—is far healthier,” she says. Porath knows her work as a teacher and researcher has an impact. “I absolutely put into practice what I learn, that’s why I became a part of this field.  If you are disengaged for too long, it will affect your health and well being. People take that home with them and it has a negative carry-over affect on the rest of your life.” 

Photo credits: Office: Jasper White/Stone/Getty,Man: Jasper James/Stone/Getty