One of the worst things burnout does is take away the pleasure you once had in your work. Instead of joy, you start to dread each day and your previous passion and excitement get replaced with a big pile of bleh.
Cynicism, lack of enthusiasm, and feeling disconnected from your work are some of the key signs of occupational burnout. And even once you’ve gone through the hard work of recovering from burnout it’s often hard to feel like you’re in a positive work environment again.
So what do you do? Short of moving onto something else, there are certain things you can do to rebuild those positive feelings you once had and regain your passion for your job. But first, you need to understand what makes you happy at work in the first place.
What makes us happy at work?
The study of workplace happiness has changed dramatically over the past decade. For years, work was seen mostly as a means to an end. You went to work to pay for a roof over your head or clothes and food for your family or to pay for that vacation. But today, many people see “work” both as a source of income and a source of identity.
More and more we connect what we do with who we are. But this only adds to the disastrous impact of burnout. When our jobs are connected to our personal identity, a failure in one means a failure in both.
As Rahaf Harfoush writes in Hustle & Float,
“Our occupation and the work we do make up a fundamental part of our identity. From childhood, we are asked what we want to be when we grow up.
“Despite the statistics that document low engagement and fulfillment levels at work in America, working remains such a cultural bedrock that ‘unemployed adults… are twice as likely to be depressed as Americans employed full time.’
“Being out of a job is more troubling to our sense of self than being in a troubling job.”
This connection between self and career is often what leads us to burn out in the first place. We don’t know who we are without our work and so we chase unrealistic deadlines, take on overwhelming workloads, and bring work into all other parts of our lives.
This isn’t a very sustainable path. Instead, we need to find meaningful work without being driven to overwork, stress, and burnout. A good place to start is with the world’s most satisfying jobs.
According to studies, people who are most content and happy about their workday have jobs that share similar criteria:
- Benefitting other people
- Work you’re good at (and feel valued for)
- Flexibility and control
- Chances for meaningful collaboration
These factors are the cornerstones of a positive work environment and a good starting point to help you rebuild your passion for work in a healthy, sustainable way.
How to build a positive work environment (even if you’re not feeling positive)
Creating a positive work environment after burning out is a combination of changing bad habits and crafting your role to be more in line with the above-mentioned criteria.
Let’s take a look at each.
Engagement: Find small moments of flow in your day
A common symptom (and cause) of burnout is a disconnect between what drew you to that position in the first place and the realities of the work.
As we’ve written in the past, how we spend our days is often at odds with how we’d like to. For example, most software developers only spend ~41% of their day on actual software development.
But those moments spent on work you actually care about (i.e. engagement) are incredibly important for coming back from burnout.
As 80,000 hours founder Benjamin Todd explains in his review of over 60 studies on job satisfaction:
“Engaging work is work that draws you in, holds your attention, and gives you a sense of flow. It’s the reason an hour spent editing a spreadsheet can feel like pure drudgery, while an hour playing a computer game can feel like no time at all: computer games are designed to be as engaging as possible.”
According to the teachers of The Science of Happiness at Work, there are three ways you can regain the engagement you once felt in your job:
- Add more playfulness and creativity to your day. This could mean exploring a new idea, collaborating with someone new, or adding more storytelling to your job.
- Use “job crafting” to take ownership over how you spend your time. Job crafting involves reflecting on your strengths and envisioning the most fitting, appropriately challenging work experience.
- Make space for more flow at work. Flow is one of the satisfying things we can feel during the workday. If you need help, we’ve written an in-depth guide on how to find more flow at work.
Benefitting other people: Focus on your “why”
In a study of workers across 5 generations, one of the most common statements around job satisfaction and happiness at work was “helping others.” A positive work environment doesn’t come from your salary or perks but from your purpose.
However, sometimes it’s hard for us to see how our work connects to others. That’s why it’s so important to reconnect with why you felt passionate about it in the first place.
As Susan David, a founder of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching writes:
“When people have shared values and connection they are more likely to feel positive about their work.”
Don’t worry if you can’t pinpoint some massively profound connection to your work. Think about the values that got you started down this path in the first place and then rework them into action statements. As Simon Sinek explains in Find Your Why:
“For values or guiding principles to be truly effective, they have to be verbs. It’s not ‘integrity,’ it’s ‘always do the right thing.’ It’s not ‘innovation,’ it’s ‘look at the problem from a different angle.’”
Work you’re good at: Track your progress and celebrate the small wins
Rebuilding your passion after burnout can feel like a monumental task. But every small step helps you get closer.
Researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer found:
“Of all the things that boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”
Being able to see the progress you’re making—no matter how small—is a powerful way to
Yet, it’s not just making progress that makes us feel better but celebrating it as well. Let’s say you’re a designer suffering from burnout. When you come back to work, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the massive tasks ahead of you.
However, by using a tool like RescueTime to track your time spent using design tools, you can see the progress you’re making each day.
Atomic Habits author James Clear calls this focusing on your personal “system” rather than just the end result (i.e. your goals). As he writes:
“Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.”
Flexibility: Be more deliberate with your time during the day
Another major cause of burnout is feeling like you don’t control your day. Unfortunately, when we interviewed hundreds of RescueTime users, only 10% said they feel in control of how they spend their time.
Some people call this autonomy. But another name psychologists use is your locus of control. In other words, do you feel that you’re in control of your time? Or do you feel like your day is determined by other people and external forces?
If you believe you’re in control of what happens to you, you have an internal locus of control. Whereas if you feel like you’re at the mercy of other people, you have an external locus of control.
Numerous studies have connected an internal locus of control to higher levels of happiness. So how can you take back control of your time and your day?
We’ve written at length about different time management strategies you can use. But here are a few of the easiest ones you can start to implement now:
- Time blocking 101: A step-by-step guide to getting the most from your daily schedule
- The best time management strategies for scheduling your day, week, month, year, or even life
- How to bring more time for sustained focus into your workday
- Productivity Curves: How to match your workday to your natural energy levels
Meaningful collaboration: Be authentic and transparent in your communication
Lastly, you might be tempted to put up your walls when you feel disconnected from your work. However, a positive work environment relies on transparent and open communication from everyone. And when you’re coming back from burnout, it’s important to be as transparent and open as possible.
In more than one study, employees cited company transparency as the number-one factor in determining happiness at work. Not only that, but open and transparent communication makes it easier to voice concerns, set realistic goals, and build a supportive culture.
But what does this look like in practice?
It might mean making an effort to speak up during meetings or share ideas. However, if you’re still having a hard time finding ways to contribute honestly, ask for help. Set a time with your manager or boss for one-on-ones or follow up on meetings over email or chat.
Find the medium that works for you and commit to using it each day. The more you share, the more you’ll start to connect with your job.
Burnout doesn’t have to kill your passion
No one wants to do work they don’t care about. And losing the passion you once had due to an episode of burnout is a terrible feeling. However, it’s not a lost cause. As you come back, remember the factors of the world’s most satisfying jobs:
- Benefitting other people
- Work you’re good at
- Meaningful collaboration
The more you can find moments for each of those in your day, the more likely it is that the spark you lost will be reignited.