Healthy Challenge

4th May 2018

Work-life balance is a glib phrase, but being happy in the former goes a long way towards making the juggling of responsibilities and time a more fulfilling enterprise. Lisa Botwright explores how to integrate who you are with what you do…

How does your job make you feel? Does it bring healthy challenges? Do you feel valued and appreciated, and confident that you make a difference? Or do you feel trapped and miserable, aware of a huge mismatch between the person you are and the person that work requires you to be?

A recent survey found that more than half of UK workers are unhappy in their jobs, with inadequate pay, lack of career progression and poor company culture among the main reasons given. Other polls reveal a more general sense of dissatisfaction with day to day life, with one claiming that seven out of ten Brits feel ‘stuck in a rut’ and long for more challenge or adventure.

“The problem is that people spend more time planning a holiday than planning a career,” says Sim Cameron, a career coach who specialises in working with young people. “A career can often just happen when you’re young, and is often influenced by family expectations, but work is a major part of your life – it’s important to get it right.”

There’s an abundance of career advice out there aimed at adults wanting to make a change, from ‘how to write the perfect cv’ to ‘how to stand out in an interview’, but none of this is any help if lack of confidence is holding you back, or if you simply don’t have a clue what would make you happy. In How to Get a Job You Love John Lees, a career strategist and coach, explains that the most common statement he hears from his clients is “I know I want to do something different, but I don’t know what it is.”

Lack of security in the job market may also be holding us back. In this commuter corner of suburban north London, most jobs are heavily reliant on the service and finance industries – those most affected by the recession that began in 2008. With the threat of redundancy very real for many people, not to mention perpetual worry about paying the bills, it can seem churlish or self-indulgent to complain about ‘lack of fulfilment’. But, as John Lees points out, “we spend more of our life in work than in any other waking activity; we put a huge amount of energy into it and rely on it for a large chunk of our self-esteem. In today’s world, choosing how you spend Monday to Friday is probably one of the most important life decisions you make.”

There are many things that contribute to our happiness in the workplace, with salary playing far less of a deciding factor in this that might be expected, since studies show that people will often accept a pay cut to get the ‘right job’. Richard Bolles, author of the classic best-selling career manual What Color is Your Parachute, newly updated for 2018, suggests a career audit, or self-inventory, highlighting the seven key ways that we relate to work: who we want to work with (or help), the kind of physical environment that makes us happy, our skills and traits, our goals or purpose in life, our interests, how much (or how little) responsibility we thrive on, and where, geographically, we’d like to work. By working through a series of fairly challenging exercises devoted to each of these seven aspects of working life, he suggests it’s possible to build up a revealing picture of what makes us tick professionally. I realise, among other things, that I value my work-life balance too much to face a long commute, that I’d go a little bonkers in an office without natural light, and that a lifetime of reading magazines is a bona fide transferable skill.

John Lees offers similar introspective exercises designed to help us understand our strengths and weaknesses. One of the most persuasive, I find, is one that illuminates the hugely different ways in which we like to tackle work-related tasks. The Seven Intelligences Inventory, inspired by the theory of multiple intelligences proposed by Professor Howard Gardner, accurately sums this up by dividing intellectual capacity into linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, bodily-kinaesthetic, musical, interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. If you rate highly as bodily-kinaesthetic, you need to move around more than others – you might have been told off for fidgeting in class when you were in school, but you’d shine now as a fitness instructor. There’s no hierarchy implied, but if your own combination of personal intelligences aren’t being stretched – whether this means working with language, people or numbers – it can lead to frustration and unhappiness.

One way of unravelling deep-seated frustration or unhappiness is by seeking help from an individual whose job it is to help you identify your underlying strengths and to move forward with carefully targeted goals. “As a life coach the people I see are quite varied,” explains Pinner-based Sarah Westwood. “Initially I will look at where someone feels they are at the moment: how they see their life, what is important to them, what do they want to change, what their strengths are, how do they think their life will be if they make that change, and what is holding them back. This can be challenging when someone wants to be ‘more successful’, or ‘happier’, so then we try to be specific in what that might mean to that individual.”

While a careers advisor will provide you with industry information and practical guidance in finding a job, a career or life coach will delve more deeply, with the aim of helping you find a job that will give you true meaning and purpose. Sometimes this will mean a radical change in direction, but often small tweaks are all that are needed to help someone identify what will make them happier, such as learning new skills to make a sideways move or asking their boss if they can work more flexibly from home one day a week.

“One of the most important things is to remove any ‘blocks’ or ‘limiting beliefs’ that might be getting in the way of change,” cautions Sim Cameron. “Often we don’t do things because of previous bad experiences, fear of the unknown or worry what people might think – it can all seem overwhelming – but once the blocks have been identified, they can usually be worked through.” John Lees sees this ‘yes, but… thinking’ as the biggest block to career transition, and Richard Bolles claims that ‘be realistic’ is one of the saddest phrases in the English language.

“The difference between asking a good friend for advice and visiting a coach,” explains Rebecca Sanderson, director of The Mindset Clinic in Watford, “is that a friend won’t challenge you. It’s not my job to empathise; I might press buttons that are uncomfortable, and I won’t listen to excuses. People need to be committed to the process of coaching, otherwise they’re putting all the responsibility on the life coach to make the changes for them.”

Rebecca puts me in touch with one of her clients who had been working in an unfulfilling and uncreative office-based admin role and wanted to return to her career as an actress. “Rebecca helped me to free myself from the baggage that I had been carrying by coming to terms with things I had buried and lived with for many years,” the former client tells me. “The coaching sessions allowed me to get back in touch with what I needed to do to move forward with my life and gave me the belief that I could pursue my acting ambition. A few months later I was performing my one woman show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.”

It’s admirable and exciting to pursue your dream, but John Lees makes the point that for most of us it’s okay to aim for 70% perfect. The idea that there’s a ideal job out there for everyone can make the process seem debilitatingly unattainable. “Having a job you love needn’t be about waiting for your dream job to come along, but about finding work that is a healthy match to who you are. Ask yourself what gives you a buzz, what are the things you like talking about?”

So, if you’re not as happy in your job as you’d like, or you simply have an itch to find out if there’s something more out there, start the ball rolling by asking yourself simple questions like ‘what would I do if all jobs paid exactly the same?’ Who knows where this will lead? Your answers might surprise you.

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