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How to increase your personal well-being ... at work

October 27, 2022 - 9 min read
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    What do we want in a job? 

    A recent Gallup poll revealed that the top workplace quality that women seek — and the second most important quality men seek — is “greater work-life balance and better personal well-being.”

    It’s stunning that what we are looking for has more to do with the type of life our workplaces afford us outside of work than the work itself. Perhaps it is less surprising in light of the ferment around “quiet quitting.” 

    Although it’s perhaps counter-intuitive, we’re smart to look to our workplaces for how they influence our well-being: Work-related factors predict 40% of our life satisfaction. We spend a third of our lives at work, so it’s important to choose, and to the extent that we can, create, workplaces that support our well-being.

    How might we do this? Consider the following three practices to increase your personal well-being — at work. 

    #1: Take more breaks

    We tend to think that we’re most productive when we stay “on-task.” We skip our lunch break to check one more thing off our list. We get right down to business at the beginning of a meeting rather than taking a few minutes to chit-chat with our colleagues about, say, their weekend plans. But the truth is that we are far more productive — and happier! — when we let ourselves rest between efforts. 

    Because we work in a fast-paced and technology-driven culture, we sometimes forget that we are humans, not computers. 

    Like other animals, our brain-wave patterns cycle in ultradian rhythms. Every couple of hours, we experience a significant “ultradian dip” when our energy drops. When we work through these dips—relying on caffeine, adrenaline, and stress hormones to keep us alert instead of letting our bodies and brains rest—we become stressed and jittery, and our performance and well-being falters.

    But people who take a break every 90 minutes report 30% better focus than those who take no breaks or just one during the day. In addition, they have a 50% greater capacity to think creatively and a 46% higher level of health and well-being.

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    Tip from the Science of the Blazingly Obvious: Eat Lunch

    The most important break to take is lunch. Taking lunch breaks increases people’s effectiveness and efficiency. It improves job and workplace satisfaction. It increases excitement about getting to work each day.

    I know, I know: You’re too busy to take a break at lunch. You aren’t alone; fewer than 1 in 5 office workers regularly take lunch these days. It’s counter-intuitive, but according to Harvard behavioral scientist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton economist Eldar Shafir, feeling short on time makes it even harder for us to manage the limited time we do have. And the truth is that skipping lunch isn’t usually a good time-management decision.

    Also: Don’t take your phone to lunch with you. Seriously. Without your phone, a quick lunch break will restore depleted willpower, so that you return to work better able to focus and make decisions. If you spend your lunch break trying to resist the 1 million temptations on your phone — or if you give in and check it — you’ll return from lunch more depleted, not less.

    #2: Go easy on yourself

    If you are anything like me, setbacks, lapses, and mistakes can come with a fair amount of self-flagellation. Somehow I think that if I’m hard on myself, I’ll be less likely to make the same mistake again, or I’ll motivate myself towards better performance in the future. 

    But self-criticism doesn’t work. It doesn’t motivate us. Instead, self-criticism is associated with decreased motivation and limits future improvement.

    What does work? Self-compassion — being accepting and supportive toward ourselves — does help when the going gets rough. According to BetterUp research, those high in self-compassion experience 26% lower stress and 24% less burnout. They are also 33% more resilient.

    Self-compassion leads to less anxiety and depression and greater peace of mind. Importantly, it also makes us feel more motivated to make the improvements we need to.

    So the next time you flub up, take a deep breath and soothe yourself like you might a small child: use kind, reassuring words to ease yourself out of a stress response. Notice and accept what you are feeling, remembering that our suffering and our imperfection are what make us human.

    #3: Drop the facade

    Most of us care so much about what other people think of us that we pretend all the time. We say we are happy to be somewhere we’d rather not be. We post something on social media that makes it seem like we’re having a good day when we’re not. We fake a smile so others won’t know how angry we are.

    But pretending — even if it is relatively meaningless, even if it is meant to protect someone else — is a form of lying. And lying, even if we do it a lot or are good at it, is very stressful to our brains and bodies. The polygraph test depends on this: “Lie Detectors” don’t detect lies, but rather they sense stress — the changes in our skin electricity, pulse rate, vocal pitch and breathing that the stress of lying causes. 

    There are real consequences to pretending: increased stress, decreased willpower, and impaired relationships. 

    Fortunately, there is an alternative: Authenticity. BetterUp research shows incredible benefits to showing up authentically in the workplace

    • 140% increase in engagement and 54% lower turnover at work
    • 50% increase in team performance and 90% increase in team innovation 
    • 150% increase in belonging 

    Why is authenticity so beneficial? Well, it takes a ton of time and energy to hold up a facade — time and attention freed up for happier pursuits, creativity, and actual productivity.

    Two caveats: First, not all workplaces lend themselves to authenticity. It can be really hard to show up authentically when we don’t also feel a baseline level of psychological safety.

    Second, authenticity is not a permission slip to overshare or lose the filter of compassion or appropriateness. There’s an enormous difference between living your truth and always saying whatever comes into your mind. 

    Sometimes it’s just not the kindest thing to say what you are thinking, but that doesn’t mean that you get to lie. If a colleague asks you how they did in a recent presentation, and you don’t think it will help them to say that you think they choked, you can ask them instead how they feel. What do they think worked? What would they do differently next time? You can invite them to tell you their truth, and then listen carefully and compassionately.

    In other instances, it will be necessary to speak your truth. And unfortunately, some people really won’t like it. People get frustrated and disappointed or even angry when we don’t meet their expectations, when we don’t act like the people that they want us to be. People will often feel scared and confused in the face of your truth, especially if it flies in the face of a well-established social norm. 

    But more often, something else happens, too, something better. When you speak your truth, people can see the real you. And when you let yourself be seen, you will probably feel known. Understood. We feel instantly closer to the people we’re with when we let them see the real us.

    And then when people love us, they love the real us — not the facade that we put up for them. They love our real, messy, imperfect selves.

    Which of course leads to that personal well-being we are all looking for.

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    Published October 27, 2022

    Christine Carter, Ph.D.

    VP Content Development, BetterUp

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