Those who work in health and safety are already familiar with the idea of “making it home healthy and safe”. It’s a well-meaning goal; of course, we want workers to come home unharmed at the end of the working day. But there’s another option. For some, it might require some rewiring of how we think about work. What if our goal was for workers to make it home in better shape than when they left for their shift?

For the sceptics, consider this: how would you feel if you never got to work another day in your life? Contrary to what lottery-fantasisers may think, research suggests that those who are out of paid employment are, on average, much more miserable than those who are employed. This holds true even when researchers control for income levels, meaning that drops in wellbeing are due to something more than just financial loss. 

Why does being in paid work, on average, make us happier? 

Self-determination theory states that humans have three fundamental psychological needs: to be autonomous, to be connected, and to be competent.

  • While work can make us feel constrained sometimes – having to do certain things at certain times every day – it can also help us to feel in control of how our life plays out (autonomy). Good jobs provide opportunities to develop, learn and move towards the type of life we want to live.
  • When it comes to connection, for many of us, most of our daily socialisation comes via our job. If we are lucky, we receive high levels of respect, belonging and connectedness from our work relationships – whether that be with our colleagues, customers or clients. Without these regular interactions, isolation and loneliness can catch us off-guard.
  • As for competence, paid work is usually the dominant contributor to our feelings of mastery, achievement and effectiveness. We are good at what we do. Without paid employment, we may notice a loss in confidence, a dip in our meaning and purpose, or a general malaise about life, the world and our role in it.

Of course, it is possible to have rich and fulfilling (unpaid) work, hobbies and volunteer duties that can meet these needs. The point is not to say that paid work is the only way to achieve autonomy, connection and competence; the point is that paid work presents a ripe-for-the-picking opportunity to improve wellbeing (for most of us who rely on it already to pay the bills!).

How can work make us better?

So, the goal of work leaving us in a better state may be closer than we realise. And the pathway to getting there may, then, not necessarily be to reduce the quantity of our working hours, but to improve the quality of our working hours so that they maximise our sense of autonomy, connection and competence.

For better autonomy at work:

  • If you are leading a team, especially in an environment where the work itself is highly prescribed (e.g., call centres or rote manual work), look for ways to increase decision latitude. That is, give people as many opportunities as possible to make decisions independently about how their work is done, when work is done, and where it is done. Trust is key to this.
  • A large part of feeling autonomous is having control over our future (to the extent that is possible!). This means looking closely for opportunities to develop, using professional development allowances regularly and discerningly and, for managers, taking the responsibility to nurture and mentor your team seriously. 

For better connection at work:

  • Carve out more time for what the research calls “relational pauses” among the people you work with. These are short breaks away from task-based behaviour to step back, reflect and ask each other, “How are you, really?” and, “How is work affecting us as people?”. They act as circuit-breakers to strengthen relationships and pull the focus away from the urgency and immediacy of your tasks. 
  • And, play your part in improving the psychological safety in your team. Admit when you’ve made a mistake, encourage others to speak their mind, and accept people for who they are. High psychological safety means that you know you have each other’s backs, that you fundamentally respect one another and, importantly, it usually means you can have fun at work!

For better competence at work:

  • Do what you can to craft your job, or the jobs of those in your team, to be strengths-based. This is all about getting the person-job fit right so that work feels both enjoyable and satisfying (i.e., right person, right job, right environment). Sometimes it takes a bit of thinking outside the box – e.g., bringing in Joe from the Sales team into design meetings because he’s got a real flair for creativity. 
  • The flipside of ensuring that people are in roles they are good at and enjoy doing, is minimising distractions so that they can get on with doing their work. Create a culture of respect for each other’s time and boundary-setting (e.g., chunks of time set aside without meetings), enabling people to get properly stuck into deep work.

For more tips, we’ve written extensively about building autonomy at work, strengthening our relationships and getting the most out of your job.

Who does this work for?

We want to note here that there are significant imbalances according to industry, seniority and socio-economic status that allow certain populations to meet their autonomy, connection and competence needs at work more easily than others. People who work in labour-intensive jobs (e.g., construction, mining, forestry) across the world, for example, generally report lower life satisfaction than professionals, managers and executives. Despite all this, we all thrive when we play to our strengths in a supportive environment – conditions that are possible to achieve regardless of job type or industry.

Just like wellbeing and productivity are not mutually exclusive goals, work and wellbeing can be mutually reinforcing, too. Investing in better work, tapped into autonomy, connection and competence, presents a fast-track to better health and wellbeing. Work can be enriching, not draining, helping all of us come home better at the end of the day.

Our team at Umbrella are devoted to building thriving minds, people, and business. Get in touch to find out how we can make work better for you, your team and your organisation through training, assessments, EAP, consulting and coaching.