Open-plan offices are a favorite among business owners and managers, due to their low cost. In fact, open-plan offices have been shown to reduce building costs by up to 20%.
They’re also touted as being beneficial for spontaneous connections with coworkers and encouraging collaboration.
But talk to employees who work in open-plan offices and you’ll hear a different story. For workers, these spaces are noisy, lack privacy, and encourage germs to spread among colleagues.
Open-plan offices are bad for employee health
Regardless of whether employees enjoy working in open-plan spaces or not, research shows these offices can increase health risks.
A report in the Medical Journal of Australia found a man with tuberculosis put his co-workers at risk and spread the disease, partly due to working in an open-plan office and sharing a desk with others.
Other research has found when a sick employee comes to work, around half of shared surfaces such as the office fridge, photocopier, and door handles are infected with the virus by lunchtime.
Studies have also found employees working in open-plan spaces tend to take more sick leave than those working in traditional offices or from home.
Being in an open space might encourage collaboration and camaraderie, but it also makes it easier for germs to spread, costing businesses in sick leave and lack of productivity.
Employees need more privacy at work
Beyond getting sick, open-plan offices simply make employees more unhappy, on average.
A survey of employees in the U.S., Australia, Canada, and Finland found those working in open-plan offices were no more satisfied with the ease of collaboration available to them, but were less satisfied with their office space in terms of privacy and comfort.
Employees also rated open-plan offices low for satisfaction related to privacy, space, and noise levels.
As Quiet author Susan Cain says, introverts in particular need to have privacy so they can be alone to recharge after spending lots of time around other people.
There’s no perfect office setup
Unfortunately, there’s no perfect answer to the downsides of open-plan workspaces.
They do have benefits, including increased opportunities for collaboration, increased team camaraderie, and lower building costs. But the lack of privacy, increased noise levels, more opportunities for distraction, and increased health risks make them less than perfect for employees.
According to some, the answer may be to look for a balance between open-plan and private workspaces, rather than going all-in on one or the other.
Susan Cain, working with Michigan furniture manufacturer Steelcase, has developed private spaces that can be installed in offices to give employees a better balance. Cain suggests employers find ways to allow workers to move between open spaces and smaller, private rooms for a better balance between small group collaboration, private focused work periods, and more social periods.
Donna Flynn, director of Steelcase’s Workspace Futures research group, agrees:
The harder people work collaboratively, the more important it is to also have time alone—to be free from distractions, apply expertise and develop a solid point of view about the challenges at hand. People also privacy to decompress and recharge.
Finding a balance between open and closed spaces, says Flynn, is imperative for your team to achieve success:
There is no single type of optimal work setting. Instead, it’s about balance. Achieving the right balance between working in privacy and working together is critical for any organization that wants to achieve innovation and advance.
Cain says removing all opportunities for small groups of workers to connect and collaborate also weakens social ties among team members by inhibiting personal bonding:
The currency of a friendship is to exchange confidences with people but if you feel like you can be overheard, it’s a lot harder to do that.
This is a problem, says Cain, because it stops us forming strong relationships with our colleagues.
Intimacy carries with it negative implications. But part of a satisfying workplace is the ability to form relationships with each other in a more relaxed, human-scale settings. [sic]
Whether your workspace is set up as open-plan or closed offices, if you’re all-in on one or the other you may be missing out. Finding a way to balance open spaces and small, private areas can bring the best of both worlds to your team.
It wasn’t too long ago that more leisure time was seen as a sign of success. The more wealthy you were, the more you could afford to spend time relaxing or engaging in hobbies, rather than working for someone else.
The assumption was that this trend would continue, and people with more privilege and higher status would end up spending little time working and lots of time relaxing.
It hasn’t turned out that way, though. While America’s levels of overworking keep climbing, research points out that overworking is actually linked to privilege. Those of us with the highest status jobs and highest salaries are more likely to be overworked.
And overworking isn’t just bad for our hobbies or our efforts to keep up with Game of Thrones. It’s bad for our health, too. And, perhaps even worse, it doesn’t even help us get ahead.
Most of us are wasting our time working extra hours that don’t help our careers but hurt our health and keep us away from our family and friends.
Why overworking won’t help you get ahead
Perhaps the most shocking example I found of the futility of overworking was from a study that found managers couldn’t tell which of their employees worked 80 hours per week and who just pretended to work 80 hours. So if you’re overworking in the hopes of impressing your boss and landing a raise or a promotion, you may be wasting your time.
On the other hand, maybe you’re just pressed for time and your to-do list is never-ending, so you’re working long hours to get everything done. Unfortunately, even this unselfish reason for overworking is futile.
Studies have shown that working more hours increases your productivity only to a point. That point seems to be around 49 hours. So if you’re working 60-, 70-, or 80-hour weeks, it’s very unlikely your output is actually much more than you’d get done in a 50-hour week.
This is because we eventually hit the point of diminishing returns, which means everything we put in after that point results in a smaller and smaller output. Research shows if you’re working 70+ hours per week, you can reduce your hours to around 50 and get almost the same result. But on the upside, you’ll get more sleep, be less prone to burnout, and have more time to spend with friends and family.
I mentioned earlier that overworking is dangerous for our health. In case working longer and not getting more work done isn’t enough to convince you to cut back the late nights at the office, perhaps the health implications will change your mind.
While causation hasn’t been proven, research does show a link between employees who are overworked and a higher risk of both stroke and coronary heart disease. Other studies have also found working long hours is linked to an increased risk of fatigue, general poor health, and cardiovascular disease.
And since long hours tend to go hand-in-hand with fewer hours of sleep, overworking also tends to correlate with making more mistakes at work. Depending on your job, these mistakes could be costly to yourself, your company, and your customers.
Shorter working hours aren’t necessarily the answer
While it might seem like I’m arguing for shorter workdays or workweeks, that’s not necessarily the answer. Researchers are exploring the idea of shorter working hours, and a study in Sweden showed promising results in both worker happiness and health, as well as productivity. But while this experiment reduced the cost of sick pay and created new jobs, the costs of hiring more employees to cover the missing hours makes this approach somewhat prohibitive.
Dr. Aram Seddigh from Stockholm University’s Stress Research Institute says a six-hour workday might be best suited to particular industries:
I think the six-hour work day would be most effective in organisations—such as hospitals—where you work for six hours and hten you just leave and go home.
It might be less effective for organisations where the borders between work and private life are not so clear.
Economic security could also reduce the incidence of overworking, and thus the downsides that come with it, as many people work longer hours when they’re worried about the stability of their employment. As the economy struggles with higher numbers of job seekers than available jobs, more employees feel the need to work overtime simply to keep their jobs, regardless of the health risks or lack of appreciable output that results.
But the best answer may not even be related to the actual number of hours we work.
Flexible hours could be the solution
Other options could include more flexibility in working hours, allowing employees to choose working hours that suit their lifestyles better, and to work when they’re at their mental peaks. The downside of this approach, however, is that flexible working hours and working remotely can lead to overwork just as easily as regular office hours. As freelance marketer Claire Autruong says, “the same technology and mindset that lets us stay flexible can also compel us to flex right back into work at any time.”
When she started working as a freelancer from home, Autruong found she ended up working far more than was healthy. The answer, ironically, was to schedule a regular 40-hour work week, even though she had the flexibility to work whenever she wanted:
… when I switched back to the dreaded 40 [hours], I felt like I was betraying all the workers ahead of me who blazed the trail leading to flexible work schedules and remote work.
But that’s why you’re looking for flexibility: to create the schedule that works for you.
Research has shown employees with options for flexible working arrangements show greater job satisfaction and commitment to their companies, as well as being less likely to turnover. On the other hand, flexible working arrangements have also been shown to increase the likelihood of work interfering with family commitments.
As I’ve said before, “the flexibility that allows us to be the masters of our own schedules also allows us to never fully turn off, even when it’s in our best interest to do so.”
While we might think we’d like to have more time off, when it comes down to it, we tend to spend more of our spare time working than we need to.
Whether you’re doing it to get ahead in your career, to impress your boss, or just to keep up with an ever-increasing workload, working more than 49 hours per week is unlikely to help you achieve those aims. Not only will you not get more done beyond this point, you’ll be putting your health at risk, as well.
If you have trouble heading out the door when your workday is done, keep in mind that overall you’ll be less likely to take sick days if you’re not overworked, which cost your company and put pressure on your colleagues. You’ll also be at less risk of serious health issues and you’ll be more productive in less time.
Whichever way you look at it, working a regular 40-hour week is the best approach to a productive and balanced working life.
Every time I read something about how much notifications are taking over our lives, I tone down my phone and turn off alerts for all my social media accounts. But somehow, by the next time I come across an article or study about our addiction to notifications, a bunch of them have crept back into my life.
Why is so hard to turn off—and keep off—notifications? Why can’t we stop picking up our phones and checking social media, even when we know there’s nothing new to see?
And what can we do to make a toned-down approach stick?
We’re addicted to our phones
As our phones become smarter and more powerful, our dependency on them only increases. In fact, when completing interviews for her book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, author Catherine Steiner-Adair found many people shared experiences that showed symptoms of psychological dependency. For instance, many of the interviewees said they couldn’t leave the house without their phones or go to the bathroom without them, and they felt anxious when separated from their phones.
Other research has found, similarly, that we tend to feel more uncomfortable and anxious without our phones, or when we can’t access social media.
Just to prove how little we know about what’s good for us, research shows that people who rely on their phones most, and feel anxious without them, don’t actually feel better when they do have their phones nearby. Those who rely most on their phones and/or social media tend to have higher levels of stress, aggression, distraction, and depression, have lower self-esteem, and get less sleep on average.
Further research has shown that push notifications from email are a “toxic source of stress” for many UK workers. This study also found a strong connection between the use of push notifications and perceived email stress, according to lead author Dr. Richard MacKinnon:
The people who reported it being most useful to them also reported the highest levels of email pressure.
Another study also explored how connecting with people online affects our emotional state. The researchers found connecting with others via Facebook left people feeling sad and dissatisfied, but following up with a phone call or a face-to-face exchange left people feeling uplifted.
According to psychologist Susan Pinker, online relationships without face-to-face contact fail to create the trust needed for authentic personal connections.
So if email, social media, and mobile notifications are so bad for us, why can’t we give them up?
Software is designed to make us addicted
While some might say it’s up to users to take responsibility for our reliance on our phones, Tristan Harris, former product philosopher at Google and co-founder of advocacy group Time Well Spent, says this assessment isn’t fair:
… but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.
Harris’s goal is to have product designers sign a kind of hippocratic oath, swearing to design products that don’t take advantage of users. “There is a way to design based not on addiction,” he says.
Joe Edelman, who helped Harris with the research for Time Well Spent, compares the tech industry to Big Tobacco before the link between cigarettes and cancer was proven: giving customers more of what they want, even if it’s harmful.
Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, explains that software, especially social media, is designed around an idea described by researcher B.F. Skinner in the 1950s: variable rewards. Skinner, experimenting with mice, found that providing the same treats every time a mouse pressed a lever was less motivating than varying the rewards. Mice who received either a big treat, a small treat, or no treat when pressing the lever pressed far more often than mice receiving the same treat every time. Mice receiving variable rewards also kept pressing the lever for much longer after the treats stopped coming than the mice receiving consistent treats, who stopped pressing almost immediately.
Though using this research in software design might seem sinister, Eyal says it can be beneficial when used in the right way:
If used for good, habits can enhance people’s lives with entertaining and even healthful routines. If used to exploit, habits can turn into wasteful addictions.
Eyal disagrees with Harris’s idea that software designers are consciously building products we’ll become addicted to. There’s nothing wrong with using this research in human behavior when designing software, says Eyal. He says it’s simply new and unknown, making people like Harris wary:
Saying ‘Don’t use these techniques’ is essentially saying ‘Don’t make your products fun to use.’ That’s silly. With every new technology, the older generation says ‘Kids these days are using too much of this and too much of that and it’s melting their brains.’ And it turns out that what we’ve always done is to adapt.
But Harris doesn’t buy it. The onus is on software designers, he says, to avoid making us all addicted to their products:
Never before in history have the decisions of a handful of designers (mostly men, white, living in SF, aged 25-35) working at 3 companies [Google, Facebook, and Apple] had so much impact on how millions of people around the world spend their attention. We should feel an enormous responsibility to get this right.
Making notifications and social media manageable
While Harris is making some progress in getting software designers on board with the idea of designing products that don’t rely on user addiction to succeed, there are plenty of products we use every day that are already built around addictive behaviors.
Using Eyal’s “Hook Model,” products use triggers such as notifications to encourage us to take actions—opening the app, looking at a photo, etc. Variable rewards encourage us take action more often: opening our inboxes, refreshing our social feeds, and so on, in the hope of a treat, just like Skinner’s lab mice.
Eyal’s model also includes investment: a step where the user, having already interacted with the product, is asked to invest time, money, data, or effort to make the product more useful to them and make it more likely they’ll come back in the future. Inviting friends to a social network or learning to use new features of an app are examples of the investment stage, that only increase our reliance on these products and make us more likely to keep using them.
So until Harris can successfully get all software designers on board with his hippocratic oath, it’s up to us to fight the addictive design of the products we use every day.
Let’s look at three ways to do this.
Adjust your notification settings
Rather than completely culling all notifications—which, if you remember the research I mentioned earlier, could make you more anxious than having them all turned on—Davide Casali suggests only keeping notifications turned on for the apps you really need to stay on top of.
Casali split his own app usage into three groups:
- Instant: Anything he wants to know about as soon as it happens
- Relevant: Anything he wants to know about when he’s open to new updates, but not immediately
- Kill: Anything he really doesn’t need to know about
For the first group, Casali left notifications on as usual. For the “Relevant” group, he turned off all notification and alert options except for app icon badges. This made it obvious which apps had new updates when Casali took the time to check their icons, but didn’t interrupt his day with updates whenever they were available.
For the final group, Casali turned off all notification and alert options completely.
Fine-tuning your notifications in this way may be a better compromise than turning them off completely, because being completely cut-off tends to make us anxious. Try putting just one or two apps or services into the “Kill” and “Relevant” sections, and adding more over time as you become more comfortable with getting fewer notifications.
Check your email less often
A study of 124 workers tested the difference between allowing workers to have email notifications turned on and check their email anytime, and having workers turn off notifications and check their email just three times each day.
While checking less often was tough on workers, keeping their email use restricted reduced stress:
Most participants in our study found it quite difficult to check their email only a few times a day. This is what makes our obvious-in-hindsight findings so striking: People find it difficult to resist the temptation of checking email, and yet resisting this temptation reduces their stress.
So while it might be difficult to adjust to, try turning off email notifications and setting just a few specific times aside for checking your inbox. You might find you feel better overall, even if the immediate change is tough.
Make rewards less variable
Since our addiction to our phones and social media tends to be a result of the variable nature of the rewards we get, making those rewards more predictable can help us cut down on our obsessive behaviors.
For any service that offers a daily digest of updates rather than immediate notifications, try turning that on. You’ll get a predictable daily roundup of everything that’s new, so you’ll stay in the loop without checking several times a day for a new reward.
For services that don’t offer this feature built-in, you can use Zapier’s Digest feature to create your own. For any of Zapier’s 750+ connected apps, you can use Digest to create a daily roundup of updates you care about. You can even decide where to have your digest sent, so if email isn’t your thing you could use a Slack channel instead, for instance.
If you’re struggling with notification overload or addiction to your phone, rest assured you’re not alone. Not only is this a common problem, but it’s a tough one to solve because many product designers want to keep us in this state.
Being aware of the behavioral research used by product designers can help us understand why we’re so addicted to notifications and checking for updates online, but we need to take further steps to overcome those behaviors.
The more we can reduce the variability of rewards offered to us by social media and mobile apps, the easier it will be to reduce our reliance on technology and focus more of our time on doing meaningful work.
I once worked at a company that held positivity as a core value. Employees were so encouraged to remain positive all the time that I was once reprimanded by my boss at this company for posting a personal tweet about wanting to stay in bed one cold weekend morning. Apparently, positivity extends so far as always being happy to get out of bed, even when it’s cold outside, it’s not a workday, and your bed is toasty warm.
I thought I was a fairly positive person in general before I joined that company. But that experience made me think I’m more of a cynic. Being positive about everything all day long just didn’t come naturally to me.
In fact, it turns out few of us can be positive every minute of every day—even if it’s just while we’re at work. And the side effects of a workplace that enforces positivity (and, as a result, the suppressing of any negative emotions) can be downright dangerous.
Why suppressing negative emotions is worse than venting them
Perhaps the most dangerous effect of a workplace culture focused on positive emotions is that none of us are positive all the time. Which means to fit in at work we end up suppressing our negative emotions.
Much worse than venting, suppressing negative emotions is bad for our health. One study found people who suppressed anger had a three times higher risk of heart attack than those who let their anger out.
Studies of people in rehab and addiction treatment facilities have also found suppressing negative thoughts can be harmful. Those who suppressed thoughts relating to their addiction and cravings tended to harbor more of those thoughts overall. Suppressing addiction-related thoughts also made study participants have stronger stress reactions to cues relating to their addictions.
Other research has found suppressing negative emotions can lead to emotional overeating, and emotional exhaustion. And suppressing thoughts tends to lead to an effect called dream rebound, where the more those thoughts are suppressed, the more likely they are to show up in dreams later.
The downsides of positivity
It might seem counterintuitive to talk about the downsides of being positive, but there are two main ways positivity can lead to negative effects: when we’re overly positive, or when we’re trying to be positive always. And though studies have shown benefits to a positive attitude, experts say the link between positivity and better health or wealth is generally undemonstrated, and we’re lacking any proof of positive emotions causing any related benefits.
On the other hand, research has shown too much positivity can lead people to be less motivated, pay less attention to detail, be more selfish, and indulge more in risky behaviors like binge drinking and overeating.
One reason positive emotions lead to risky behavior is because we tend to equate happiness and safety. When we feel happy and connected to others, we’re also likely to have higher oxytocin levels—often called the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin makes us feel safe, and tends to peak when we’re feeling close to others emotionally and physically. With higher levels of oxytocin in our bodies, we feel more safe, and thus pay less attention to danger. While that might have meant being vulnerable to predators for our ancestors, today it’s more likely to mean indulging in risky behaviors like unsafe sex or binge drinking.
Other studies have found we’re more gullible when we’re in a good mood. Researchers used films to put people in good or bad moods before surveying them on their thoughts about common urban myths. Those in positive moods tended to be more likely to believe urban myths, rather than questioning their validity.
This shows there could be negative effects on employees’ critical thinking skills if they’re always suppressing negative emotions.
It’s not just feeling positive that has downsides, either. Forcing people to feel happy when they don’t can also have bad side effects.
Research has shown positive affirmations (e.g. saying “I am loved” or “I am strong” to yourself) actually backfire when used by people with low self-esteem. Rather than buying into the affirmations, these people tend to believe the opposite even more strongly than they did before.
So if being positive all the time is a bad idea, what benefits can we get from negative emotions?
The benefits of negativity
While negative emotions can obviously hinder our performance and communication in some cases, they exist for a reason. Negative emotions alert us to danger, whether physical, emotional, or social, and help us solve problems.
Anger, in particular, has also been shown to improve creativity. When researchers put subjects into an angry or sad mood before testing their creativity, they found angry participants came up with more creative solutions (and more solutions overall) when given problems to solve.
When we’re feeling a little down, researchers have also shown we pay more attention to social cues, helping us get along better with others. We also tend to treat others more fairly when we’re not feeling at our best.
And pessimists have the upper hand when things go badly, too. One study showed pessimists are less prone to depression when dealing with a negative life event, such as the death of a friend.
Finally, negative people have been shown to have better negotiation and decision-making skills, more stable marriages, lower risk of heart attack, longer lives overall, and even more wealth.
None of this is to say there’s anything wrong with positive emotions. We all love to feel happy, excited, and motivated.
The issue is the growing tendency for workplaces to force constant positivity on employees. To be human is to have negative emotions, and if we try to suppress them, nature has a way of making sure they get out somehow—even if they have to pop up in our dreams.
At RescueTime, our mission is to increase the amount of meaningful work that happens in the world.
As part of that mission, I’ve been diving into research on what makes work meaningful, and ways to use this research in your own job.
Before we dive deeper, it’s important to decide what we mean when we’re talking about meaningfulness. When psychologists talk about feelings of meaningfulness, they tend to separate these feelings from happiness, though the two can go together.
Happiness and meaning aren’t the same
There’s a clear difference between feeling happiness and feeling meaningfulness in your life. And the difference is important, because they each produce different results long-term.
So what is the difference? A happy life is about seeking pleasure and enjoyment, avoiding discomfort, and doing what’s best for you as often as possible, whereas a meaningful life is about connecting with and helping others, and contributing to something beyond yourself—such as family, nature, or your work.
Because meaningful lives are characterized by contributing and connection, rather than pure enjoyment, they often include more stress, effort, and struggle than happy lives. But research shows meaningful lives tend to produce more positive feelings long-term than happiness alone, so the effort may be worth it.
Feelings of meaningfulness and a sense of purpose can even lead to more wealth. But to create a sense of meaningfulness at work we first have to understand what makes work meaningful.
What does meaningful work look like?
Interviews with 135 people in 10 different fields and reviews of existing research into meaningful work can give us an idea of what meaningful work looks like, and how we can achieve this ourselves.
Existing research has shown that meaningfulness in our work can improve our performance, commitment, and job satisfaction, and that employees find meaningful work more important than salary, working conditions, or opportunities for promotion.
Finding meaning in our work, however, is “intensely personal and individual.” There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to meaningful work.
According to the researchers behind the interviews mentioned above, meaningful work arises when “an individual perceives an authentic connection between work and a broader transcendent life purpose beyond the self.”
The interviewees who did find their work meaningful often talked about their work in relation to significant family members, bridging the gap between work and their personal lives. Meaningfulness was also associated often with a sense of pride and achievement, a feeling of fulfilling one’s potential, and finding one’s work creative, absorbing, and interesting.
Even for those of us lucky enough to find all these aspects in our work, we don’t tend to feel meaningfulness as a consistent feeling. It’s more likely to be episodic, arising out of particularly challenging situations in which our skills and experience enable us to help others.
And we don’t even feel meaningfulness in the moment, usually, but rather when we reflect on those challenges after the fact. Here are the interviewers again:
Meaningfulness was rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospect and on reflection when people were able to see their completed work and make connections between their achievements and a wider sense of life meaning.
What increases feelings of meaning in our work and what can kill those same feelings are quite different. Our leaders and managers, for instance, have very little influence on increasing our feelings of meaningfulness, but the way we’re treated by our leaders is the most common cause of decreasing meaning at work.
Through these interviews, the researchers found seven particular acts that managers most commonly take which increase feelings of futility and meaninglessness in their employees:
- Creating a disconnect between personal and company values
- Failing to recognize and appreciate employee contributions
- Giving employees work they see as pointless (e.g. bureaucratic work or filling out forms)
- Treating employees unfairly
- Overriding employees’ judgement, leading to feelings of disempowerment
- Ostracizing employees or creating a disconnect between colleagues
- Creating unnecessary risk of harm to employees (e.g. putting them in situations where they feel unsafe)
While all these actions by management were associated with lower feelings of meaningfulness at work, a disconnect between personal and company values was the most common cause for feelings of futility and meaninglessness at work.
Managers pushing their employees to cut corners or focus on profits over quality of work or customer service, for instance, eroded feelings of meaningfulness in those employees.
To sum up the interviewers’ findings, managers can’t help us increase how meaningful our work is, but they can all-too-easily undermine those same feelings:
… our research showed that quality of leadership received virtually no mention when people described meaningful moments at work… but poor management was the top destroyer of meaningfulness.
So your boss can bring you down, but you’re the only person who can build yourself back up.
How to make your work more meaningful
Since your boss isn’t going to be much help, what can you do to increase your feelings of meaningfulness at work?
You could simply look for a new job that offers more meaning for you, but you can also work on adjusting your current job. This approach is called “job crafting,” a term coined by psychologists Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane E. Dutton in 2001.
Job crafting is the strategy of turning the job you already have into the job you love. It’s a process of adjusting your job description to create a role that provides more meaning in your life, and those who do it tend to be more satisfied and engaged in their work.
Job crafting comes in three parts, but any one will help with improving your enjoyment and sense of meaning at work.
The first part is task crafting, which is the process of picking up or dropping particular tasks to adjust the day-to-day of your role. Though this isn’t feasible for everyone, in many roles you’ll be able to do this more once you’ve proven yourself and been granted some leeway from your boss.
You might offer to pick up a task not in your job description, for instance, in order to learn a new skill and expand your abilities.
The second part is relational crafting. This is the process of purposely creating or deepening relationships at work, and changing who you spend time with. For instance, you might take some time to teach new team members, or get to know colleagues in different departments whom you normally wouldn’t interact with.
Finally, cognitive crafting. This is essentially changing the way you think about your job. Thinking differently about what you do and why it’s important can imbue your existing role with more meaning, due to a simply cognitive shift.
For instance, changing your title to reflect the most meaningful aspects of your role can help you think differently about how your work has an impact and why it’s important.
Job crafting has been shown to create a greater sense of autonomy, which in turn tends to correlate with greater job satisfaction.
Since many of us spend the majority of our time at work, it pays to think about how we can improve the way our work makes us feel. With a little effort to craft our current jobs, and a little luck to find a boss who won’t undermine those efforts, we can increase how meaningful our work feels—and in the process, become more engaged in our work and improve our output.
I’ve been journaling on and off for years, but I’ve never been too good at sticking with the practice. It can easily begin to feel like a chore, and fall off until I get another burst of enthusiasm to pick it up again.
But recently I’ve come across a plethora of evidence that I could derive some serious benefits from instilling a regular journaling habit. From physical and mental health benefits to stronger feelings of belonging and better grades, journaling is proving its benefits in studies all over the world.
The benefits of journaling
Researchers generally use the term “expressive writing” to describe the kind of journaling used in studies. Most often study participants doing expressive writing are asked to write about thier feelings related to an event, though sometimes they’re also asked to write more thoughtfully about the facts related to the event. As we’ll see, this distinction is important.
Expressive writing studies have found that the practice may improve working memory and sport performance, lower blood pressure, and even improve lung and liver function It’s also been linked to improved immune function in people with HIV/AIDS, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis.
A study of cancer patients found expressive writing correlated with better sleep quality, and another study of patients undergoing a biopsy found those who spent 20 minutes on expressive writing for three days in a row before the biopsy healed faster.
The benefits of expressive writing go beyond physical health, though. Journaling has also been shown to improve learning and performance in various settings. One study found people working a stressful fundraising job increased their hourly effort by 29% over the following two weeks after journaling for a few days about how their work made a difference.
A different study focused on the performance of new employees. In this case researchers found the employees who spent 15 minutes at the end of the day writing and reflecting performed 22.8% better than those who didn’t.
According to Harvard Business School psychologist Francesca Gino, this is because reflecting on our work reminds us we’re good at it.
When people have the opportunity to reflect, they experience a boost in self-efficacy. They feel more confident that they can achieve things. As a result, they put more effort into what they’re doing.
Other research has focused on the benefits of journaling exercises for students. In one study seventh graders were given assignments to reflect on and write about the things that were most important in their lives. The writing exercises were handed out during the most stressful times of the year: the start of a new school year, before tests, and around the holiday season, when home life can be particularly stressful.
While white students in the study didn’t benefit in any meaningful way, students in racial minorities did, and the worst-performing students benefited most. For the worst-performing kids, grade repetition and remediation rates dropped from 18% to 5%, and overall the racial achievement gap among the students was reduced by 30%.
How to get the most from your journal
There’s no right or wrong way to journal. It’s an entirely subjective experience and your approach should suit your preferences and needs.
But if you care about reaping the benefits research has found, there are some things you’ll need to keep in mind.
Use your journal to process emotions and events
There is emerging agreement… that the key to writing’s effectiveness is in the way people use it to interpret their experiences, right down to the words they choose. — Bridget Murray, American Psychological Association
Just writing how you feel about events, rather than thinking about the meaning or lessons learned in those events—and vice versa—won’t provide you with the benefits seen in all this journaling research. The benefits arise when we use journaling to express our emotions and to work through them by thinking through things that happen and why they make us feel a particular way.
Traumatic or stressful experiences are often used in expressive writing studies, as they involve a lot of strong emotion.
According to health psychology researcher Susan Lutgendorf, “an individual needs to find meaning in a traumatic memory as well as to feel the related emotions to reap positive benefits from the writing exercise.”
While it might be easier to simply write about your emotions related to an event and move on, researchers say it’s important to process those emotions as well. By writing about your emotions and your rational thoughts related to a stressful event, studies have found you’ll be able to distance yourself from it and become less emotionally reactive.
We think the process of creating a coherent story out of disorganised emotional memories facilitates self-distancing because this process requires people to adopt other people’s perspectives and focus on broader contexts. — Jiyoung Park, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst.
Taking this idea of different perspectives even further, one study found writing about stressful events in third person can help us distance ourselves and process our emotions.
Taking an observer’s vantage may be vital to maintaining composure and making progress when trying to sort through a distressing or angering event or moment in life. — Matthew Andersson, assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University
Write about your best self
While many of the studies mentioned here asked participants to write expressively about traumatic or stressful events in their lives, one study asked some participants to write about their best possible future selves.
Unsurprisingly, writing about future life goals was significantly less upsetting than writing about traumatic events. But it was also associated with a significant increase in subjective well-being right after the study.
And when the researchers checked in with participants five months later, both writing about stressful experiences and writing about life goals were associated with a lower rate of illness during that five-month period.
This is just one study among many, but it points to the possibility that we could reap the benefits of expressive writing without having to write about events and memories that upset us.
You could also pair this journaling approach with writing regular reviews to keep you on track toward your goals.
Write a weekly gratitude journal
Keeping a journal of the things you’re grateful for has shown similar benefits to expressive writing. It can improve your sleep, make you feel happier, and and decrease your chance of getting sick.
But gratitude journals don’t always work. Like expressive journaling, there are a few things to keep in mind if you want to reap the health benefits of writing down what you’re grateful for.
Robert Emmons, professor at the University of California and “arguably the world’s leading expert on the science of gratitude“, suggests focusing on the people you’re grateful for more than material things, and taking notice of unexpected events, as they tend to elicit stronger feelings of gratitude.
Emmons also suggests going into detail about a particular thing you’re grateful for, rather than focusing on a long-but-superficial list of items. The more detail you go into, the more you’ll savor the feelings of gratitude.
Finally, Emmons says not to write in your gratitude journal too often. One study found writing in a gratitude journal once a week for six weeks boosted participants’ happiness, but writing about gratitude three times every week didn’t. Humans are highly adaptable, and Emmons suggests writing about gratitude too often causes us to adapt and get used to the feeling. It means less to us when we experience it more often, so spreading out your gratitude journaling will be more effective.
If you’re new to journaling and don’t know where to start, here are some tools to get you going.
Day One is a popular journaling app for Mac and iOS that lets you create separate journals. You could have a gratitude journal, a daily journal, and even a work journal. You can also use IFTTT to automate storing your Instagram photos, tweets, and RescueTime stats in a Day One journal.
Another iOS and Mac option is the notes app, Bear. Though it’s not necessarily designed to be used as a journal, Bear lets you link to other notes within the app, add images, and use tags to organise your notes.
If you’re not an iOS and Mac user, or you’re already using Evernote for your daily note-taking needs, it’s an obvious choice for your journal. You can create as many new notebooks as you want for various journals, add photos, and take your journal with you on every device.
For those who like the feel of analogue tools, Hobonichi planners are a great way to start a daily journaling habit. These Japanese planners are used for everything from planning daily to-do lists to art journals and diaries. They’re made with Tomoe River paper, one of the best options available if you use fountain pens, and surprisingly tough, considering how thin it is (imagine something like Bible paper). The Hobonichi comes in A6 and A5 sizes, both with one page per day to keep you writing regularly.
Another popular analogue option is the Bullet Journal system, which can be used in any notebook. Or, you can purchase the official Bullet Journal notebook made by Leuchtturm1917. Whether you purchase the official book with pre-printed sections or write up the system in whichever notebook you happen to have handy, you’ll get the benefits of both organization and flexibility for your entries. The system includes an indexing method to help you find your entries later, as well as ways to keep track of your tasks and events alongside your journal entries. The great thing about this system is that it offers structure to help you get past the panic-inducing blank page, but it’s flexible enough that you can adjust it to suit your needs.
Whether you dash out a few lines into your phone’s notes app, or spend an hour writing in a leather-bound book, try finding some time to journal. Write about your best possible future self and how you might get there, or take note of the things you’re most grateful for. Writing a journal might seem simple, but it can have powerful benefits if you have the patience to stick with it.
Writing helps to organize thoughts, facilitate integration, and helps you accept your own experiences and put them in context. In essence, it allows you to see the meaning of events going on around you and create meaning in your own life.
It’s common to feel tired after a long day at work or to need a holiday after a month-long sprint to finish a new feature. But sadly it’s also common to feel tired all the time. To lack enthusiasm about your work. To feel cynical and disengaged from what you do.
These are all symptoms of burnout, which is becoming more common as our work lives become busier, more demanding, and more stressful.
In this post I’ll explore what burnout is, what causes it, and how we can overcome it.
What is burnout?
The term “burnout” was coined in the ’70s by Dr. Herbert Freudenberger. The term was taken from an analogy of a burned-out house:
If you have ever seen a building that has been burned out, you know it’s a devastating sight… some bricks or concrete may be left; some outline of windows. Indeed, the outer shell may seem almost intact. Only if you venture inside will you be struck by the full force of the desolation.
Freudenberger says, like a burned-out house, someone who’s burnt out may not seem that way on the outside, but “their inner resources are consumed as if by fire, leaving a great emptiness inside.”
But what exactly is burnout?
Researchers say burnout can be broken down into three parts:
Exhaustion from burnout could lead you to be easily upset, have trouble sleeping, get sick more often, and struggle to concentrate.
Cynicism is sometimes called depersonalization in this context, because it’s categorized by feeling alienated from the people you work with and lacking engagement in your work.
Finally, inefficacy refers to a lack of belief in your ability to perform your job well and a decrease in achievement and productivity.
But how do we get into this sorry state? It’s not as simple as overworking.
How is burnout caused?
It’s a common misconception that burnout is simply a result of working too hard or for too long, according to Alexandra Michel, a science writer at the Association for Psychological Science.
“Ultimately,” writes Michel, burnout results when the balance of deadlines, demands, working hours, and other stressors outstrips rewards, recognition, and relaxation.”
APS Fellow and professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, Christina Maslach, has been studying burnout since the 70’s. Maslach and her collaborators came up with six components of the workplace environment that can contribute to burnout:
We end up with burnout when one or more of these areas of our work don’t match our needs.
It’s not a rare condition, either. Research by Gallop recently found that 2.7 million workers in Germany report feeling symptoms of burnout. A different survey in 2013 found nearly 30% of UK-based HR directors surveyed believe there’s widespread burnout in their companies.
And the effects are serious. Michel says burnout is “not just a state of mind, but a condition that leaves its mark on the brain as well as the body.”
The risks of burnout
Being tired and lacking engagement in your work is no fun, but the risks of burnout run even deeper.
Research has shown that the chronic psychosocial stress that’s common in people suffering from burnout can impair personal and social functioning as well as overwhelming your cognitive skills and neuroendocrine systems.
Over time the effects of burnout can lead to memory, attention, and emotional problems.
One study also found burnout sufferers may have accelerated thinning of the brain’s front cortex—a part that’s essential for cognitive functioning. This section of the brain thins as part of the natural aging process, but the thinning effect was more pronounced in participants who’d experienced burnout.
It’s not just the brain at risk, either. A study of nearly 9,000 workers found burnout significantly increases the risk of coronary heart disease.
This is all sounding rather grim, so let’s move on to something more positive: how to overcome burnout.
So you’re feeling the effects of burnout or you’re worried you’re at risk. What can you do? Psychologists suggest looking for ways to make your workload easier to manage—delegating more, saying “no” more often, and writing down what’s making you feel stressed at work.
But burnout isn’t just about workload stress. To overcome burnout, you also need to find ways to relax and enjoy life again.
Focus on your daily care
It’s easy to forget about looking after yourself when you’re burned out. You’re feeling stressed, you’ve got too much on your plate, and the last thing you have time for is looking after yourself.
But according to Sherrie Bourg Carter, psychologist and author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, that’s exactly what you should be doing. Carter says making sure you eat well, stay hydrated, exercise, and get plenty of sleep is critical when you’re facing burnout.
Carter also recommends remembering what you like doing to relax, and finding more time for those activities.
Do what you enjoy
Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer believes burnout is caused by something simple and easy to fix: a feeling of resentment toward your job.
Burnout is the result, according to Mayer, of work getting in the way of workers’ lives. She says people “will become resentful if work makes them miss things that are really important to them.”
To avoid this resentment turning into burnout, Mayer says it’s important to know what you care about most and schedule time for those activities.
Software developer Kent Nguyen agrees. He says burnout comes from “not being able to do what you love or what is important to you regularly.”
In Nguyen’s case, he started feeling burnt out when he was spending more time on his management duties than on writing code.
Nguyen thinks of periods of time spent coding like checkpoints, each one staving off burnout for a little longer. He has small daily checkpoints and bigger weekly and monthly checkpoints so there’s always a new bout of the thing he loves to do coming up. And when he misses a checkpoint, he makes sure to schedule another one as soon as possible so he never goes too long without doing what he enjoys most.
Add something new
This will probably sound strange, because it’s a very counterintuitive idea, but James Sudakow, author of Picking the Low Hanging Fruit: And Other Stupid Stuff We Say in the Corporate World, actually added to his hectic schedule to help him avoid burnout.
Sudakow admits his schedule was hectic. Between his family duties, work, and the hours he spends writing every week, there wasn’t much wiggle room.
But Sudakow did what few of us would—he added piano lessons to his schedule. 30 minutes per week for the lessons and an hour to practice every day meant more than six hours per week of extra commitments.
But here’s the strange thing: it actually worked. That extra commitment helped Sudakow stave off burnout.
The trick, he says, was choosing something that helped rejuvenate his energy. Playing piano at night made me feel better when he went to sleep and when he woke up the next day. That daily rejuvenation seeped into his work and made him feel better overall.
While adding to your schedule or even finding more time for something you already enjoy doing might seem impossible when you’re facing burnout, looking after yourself is a great place to start. Simply focusing on sleep, eating well, and getting a little exercise every day can help you avoid the worst of burnout while you get back on track.