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Don’t Be a “Tom”: 3 Questions You Can Ask to Craft a Job You Love

Tom is an investment banker who doesn’t like his job. Every day, he gets dressed a suit and tie before heading into work and “spacing out” at his desk for at least an hour. Around mid-morning, he finally gets around to checking in on his client’s portfolios, and wonders why he ever got into this career. It sounded glamorous — the title of “investment banker” always sounded when he talked to family and friends, and the money was good—it just was never fulfilling for him. Tom checks all the boxes required in his job description and then checks out for the day.

Tom’s good friend, Sara, started out in investment banking but eventually landed a job as the Director of Environmental Services at a large hospital. It wasn’t the job she initially envisioned for herself, but Sara loved the work. She loved the interaction she had with her team, nurses, doctors, patients and visitors to the hospital. Days went quickly and she didn’t dread coming to work each day. In addition to making sure the hospital remained clean, Sara also worked on community outreach and education programs. 

Tom makes a lot of money and has a prestigious title, so why does he hate his job? What makes Sara love her job so much? For as many Toms you meet, there are just as many Saras, so what’s the difference between the two? Is it the person or the work?

A recent episode of NPR’s “Hidden Brain” show explores this topic, looking specifically a group of cleaning workers in a hospital. Psychologist Amy Wrzeniewski of Yale University says that it’s not as much about the job we are performing, but how we think about the job that results in greater fulfillment. 

In her research, Wrzeniewski found two distinct differences between a group of custodial workers. Group A described custodial work as not very highly skilled where Group B said the exact opposite— that their work was extremely skilled and it would be difficult for someone to replace them. 

As she looked further into these characterizations and how the groups engaged with their work, Amy’s team found that Group A only performed the tasks that were expected of them. Like Tom, they were box checkers and did not go beyond the basic job description. 

When asked to discuss their responsibilities, Group B also talked about the specific cleaning tasks, but also talked about the interactions they had with medical staff, visitors and patients. For example, one cleaner worked on a long-term rehabilitation floor where several patients suffered from comas. Recognizing that patients were not necessarily aware of their environments, this worker regularly rearranged the artwork with the hope that a minor alteration in their environment might assist with the healing process. 

Other cleaners talked about how they would try to view the room from the patient’s vantage—looking up at the ceiling from the bed—to make sure they had removed any cobwebs or other issues.

Wrzeniewski calls this “job crafting” — or creating jobs that go beyond the standard description. People who “job craft” identify tasks and responsibilities within the scope of their position that engage them in other ways. 

As a custodial professional who likely is responsible for managing a team of custodial workers, think about this not only in terms of your own personal development, but how you can help custodial workers on your team craft the scope of their work to find more fulfillment. 

What are practical steps to job craft and find more meaning in your work? Amy suggests asking yourself (or your employees) the following:

1. What types of things do you enjoy and what tasks make you feel good? For example, if you enjoy interacting with patients and their families, can you find ways to better connect with them while you work? Are there tasks you can add to your job description that could relate to that interest?

2. What interpersonal relationships bring you the most enjoyment during your work day? From co-workers to building occupants, the relationships and interpersonal dynamics within the workplace can both be our greatest enjoyment and stress when it comes to our work. What are some ways we can enhance those relationships?

3. How does your organization benefit from your involvement? When researchers asked the custodians about their title, some gave their official title of a custodian or environmental services worker, but others said they were “healers.” Re-defining your role within the position can change your perspective while performing the work. 

While this is just a quick summary of Amy’s research, definitely consider listening to the full episode. It takes less than 30 minutes— check it out here: https://www.npr.org/2018/07/30/634047154/you-2-0-dream-jobs

You can also check out one of Amy’s articles in the Harvard Business Review here: https://hbr.org/2010/06/managing-yourself-turn-the-job-you-have-into-the-job-you-want.

We’d love to hear more about how you find fulfillment in your job—chime in on Facebook!