I love this photo, taken in the early 1940s, of a skilled shop technician at the Douglas Aircraft factory in Long Beach, Calif, where they made B-17s and other aircraft used in World War II. The image is beautiful in itself, but the woman in it also looks fully absorbed in what she’s doing. The job matters, and she matters doing it.
More jobs should create that feeling, whatever the nature of the work.
I’ve been reading lately about bullshit jobs, thanks to a new book of that name by David Graeber, an anthropologist and anarchist activist based at the London School of Economics. A lot of his argument resonates with me. (Do food-delivery robots really need human handlers to make sure they don’t run afoul of uneven sidewalks or robot-hating passersby? Do we need food-delivery robots in the first place?)
What interests me here, though, is the B.S. people end up dealing with on the job, even if that job is not in itself devoid of meaning. I’ve been around long enough to have observed and been part of a variety of working environments, some more conducive to professional satisfaction than others.
If you’re fortunate enough to have some choice about how you earn a living–so many people on the planet are stuck in dangerous, difficult jobs or can’t find a job at all–I hope this list of warning signs helps you in your search for less B.S. and more joyful absorption in whatever work you have in hand.
1) You spend more time in meetings than you do getting actual work done.
Meetings happen. Sometimes they need to happen. Often they happen too often, run too long, are dominated by the same handful of people (the ones who like to hear themselves talk, even if they have nothing to talk about), and produce “deliverables” that include more meetings. If you feel like your time is being wasted on a routine basis in meetings, it probably is.
Related: Here’s one solution to a superabundance of meetings.
2) You dread checking your work email. Every time.
That shudder of anxiety as you pick up your smartphone or fire up the laptop every morning? It’s. Not. Normal. Most of us get too many emails, and some of them will bring unpleasant requests, demands, or feedback we’d rather not get. But if you’re bracing for a nastygram every time you log on at work, something is not right. You can’t do your best work if you’re motivated by fear or anxiety.
Related: As our friends at the Mayo Clinic point out, it’s not good for your body or your mind to deal with adrenaline and cortisol spikes all day long.
3) Your ideas are routinely met with skepticism or negativity.
Are the tops dogs at your shop threatened by any idea they didn’t originate? Is their default reaction to point out what’s wrong, complicated, or unworkable about that sparkling project or new angle you have just suggested?
Managerial defensiveness puts a drag on creativity and discourages generative thinking. Why float ideas if you’re pretty sure they’re going to be torpedoed just as they’re launched? Time to take your creative spark elsewhere.
4) Emotional labor has become a big part of your work life–and you’re not a professional nurse, therapist, or caregiver.
Every organization goes through rough patches, and good colleagues help each other when the going gets tough. But if you’re always expected to shore up sagging morale, clean up the office kitchen, or soothe difficult personalities–especially if you are female/a person of color/a junior or otherwise vulnerable employee–there’s a serious problem.
You only have so much energy to give to the day. If you’re expected to expend a lot of that energy doing something other than the job you were hired to do, you will wind up feeling tired and/or frustrated and/or sidelined and/or put upon. How can you do your best work if you’re always cleaning the coffeepot? Find a workplace where everybody pitches in and in which the few aren’t always cleaning up after the many (or the high-ranking).
5) You watch good colleagues leave too soon and too often.
I often think of a Dorothy line from “The Wizard of Oz”: “People come and go so quickly here!” Unless you work for a company that has a lot of short-term or temporary employees, or one that’s going through growing or shrinking pains that will settle down with time, too much churn indicates that the office culture needs a refresh.
It’s destabilizing when teammates and colleagues, especially those you’ve worked with closely and well, head for the exits. Time to work on your own exit strategy.
6) You notice that “mission” is used as a cover for disrespect, lack of collegiality, or boundary-crossing.
It doesn’t matter what the mission is–whether your organization sells widgets, creates cutting-edge digital tools, educates the citizens of the future, or eradicates diseases that have plagued humanity for centuries. If there’s a fundamental lack of respect for the human element in your workplace, it will undermine even the noblest institutional goals.
An employer is entitled to expect a certain level of dedication, application, and commitment to the goals of the organization from its people–but not to trample on those people in the process. The ends do not justify meanness or, as Kevin Henkes so brilliantly puts it in Chester’s Way, “personal remarks.”
7) Feedback from your supervisor leaves you demoralized and doubting yourself.
Nobody’s perfect. Most of us have more and less productive periods at work, and unless you’re dead you can almost always learn how to do what you do better. Sometimes it’s hard to admit that. But if you have been working hard and doing what feels like a relatively competent job, you should be able to count on a good-faith effort from management to help you do it better still.
If you can’t trust that your boss wants to help you work better and smarter, you need a new boss. Unless you’re really crashing and burning–and most of us know when we are–feedback that feels more like a mugging than constructive criticism signals a problem at the management level, especially if it happens more than once.
8) You can’t remember the last time you had fun at work.
I’ll admit that “fun” is a vague and squishy term. Substitute “satisfaction” or “joy” or “a sense of fulfillment” if any of those work better for you. Your job doesn’t need to be a nonstop thrill ride of accomplishment–life doesn’t work that way–but it should give you some kind of baseline satisfaction, at least some of the time.
A regular paycheck or delightful colleagues or the sense of performing a task well, even a simple task, may be all you need. If you’re always stressed, frustrated, or bored–and you’ve tried to improve the situation by taking on new projects or looking for ways to amplify what you’re already doing–pay attention. We get too few days on this planet to let them pass in a dreary, joyless grind if there’s any better option.
9) You do not feel safe in your workplace.
This one exists in its own category. Certain occupations, like heavy industry or mining, carries obvious physical risks, but threats abound in other work environments. As the #MeToo movement keeps reminding us, too many workplaces have a long and shameful history of harboring abusers and harassers who do real and lasting harm.
I’ve accrued enough professional experience now to have seen and heard about a spectrum of atrocious behavior beyond the most obvious kinds of harassment. Abuse can be dramatic or subtle, from sexual assault to emotional abuse (jokes that aren’t funny, belittling comments in meetings, and on and on).
The bottom line: No boss or coworker or client has the right to harass or abuse you. Ever.
Pay attention to what you’re feeling. Sometimes your body tells you there’s a problem before your mind fully understands what’s happening.
What can you do? Find mentors and allies who’ve got your back or have experienced the problem too. Keep notes. Make noise with your HR department. Call on your professional association. Take it public if you can, get out if you have to. Remind yourself it’s not you, it’s them, and it is not fair, right, or legal.
What prompted you to decide it was time to move on from a job? Share your story in the comments.