Most people work long, hard hours at jobs they hate that enable them to buy things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like. — Nigel Marsh
It can be really tough to work a job you’ve gotten sick of. The grind of knowing you’re spending most of your time each week doing something you don’t care about can be hard to bear.
It’s not just a feeling, either. A survey from the Household, Income and Labor Dynamics in Australia actually found that working in a job you hate is worse for your psychological well-being than being unemployed.
Think about that for a second: Working in a job you hate can make you more miserable than having no job at all.
John Haltiwanger, Senior Politics Writer at Elite Daily, says this is because when you’re unemployed you can at least hold onto the hope of finding a great job:
Unemployment is stressful, but it still leaves room for possibilities. When you’re unemployed, you focus all of your efforts on finding a fulfilling position. Yet, when you’re working a dead-end job, you’re so depleted at the end of the day it’s difficult to begin thinking about the future.
I’m not advocating you quit your job if you’re unhappy, but if a bad job can make this big of an impact on your wellbeing, it may be worth trying to improve the one you have.
Nigel Marsh, author of Fat, Forty, and Fired, says trying to make sweeping changes at work is actually a bad idea. He compares making huge changes at work to jumping on a crash diet—inevitably, it will end in failure.
Marsh’s advice is to focus on small, strategic changes to improve your work life.
Let’s take a look at three strategic changes you can make to improve your current job, backed by research and experience.
Do more of what you like to do
Though you probably have a job description stating what your responsibilities are, finding ways to incorporate more of the work you enjoy most can improve how you feel about your job overall.
Adam Dachis from Lifehacker was able to make his customer support job at a previous company more enjoyable by incorporating one of his hobbies: making videos and short films.
Dachis built himself a DIY green screen one weekend and made a customer support video for his company. His effort paid off:
[After a few days] marketing asked me if I’d like to create videos regularly for our customers and I made a new episode once a month. For the holidays, we even did a musical.
This isn’t the first time Dachis has improved his work by incorporating a hobby, either:
Many years ago I had a job addressing envelopes and I would draw pictures on them as well. Eventually people started calling in because they liked the drawings and I was asked to try my hand at some design work.
Dachis suggests finding ways to integrate things you love doing with your existing work. “Don’t leave your creativity and passion at home just because your job doesn’t call for it,” he says.
Even if you don’t have a hobby that seems applicable to your work, you could ask to spend more time on the aspects of your role you like most, or offer to help out in another department you’re interested in.
Improve (or remove) your commute
You could be spending all day doing work you love, or bringing your hobbies to the office, but a long commute would still be a drag. In fact, we tend to put commuting at the absolute bottom of the list of things that make us happy.
Research has shown that despite most people thinking a pay raise or a bigger house can make up for the despair bestowed upon us by a long commute, the commute will still get us down. In fact, to compensate for a long commute, you’d need to get a full 40% raise in salary.
In light of that research — and this might seem counterintuitive — Hillary Rettig, productivity coach and author of The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, suggests extending the length of your commute. “When people are commuting,” Rettig says, “they’re most likely rushing.”
Rushing degrades our happiness. Most of us probably don’t realize the stress it causes us physically and emotionally.
Rettig suggests allowing more time for your commute so you don’t have to rush so much. When you’re not rushing, she says, “you have more of a sense of control and self-management.”
Rettig also suggests planning as much as possible the night before, and avoiding distractions like morning TV, email, and social media when you should be getting ready to leave the house.
Rettig’s final suggestion for improving your commute is to change how you spend that time:
The key is to do what you want to do, not what you think you should do. We often choose the thing that seems more productive because it feels like the right thing to do. But using your commute to read a fun novel or listen to music is productive because it’s taking away the negative aspect of the commute. It becomes like a little holiday that will help fuel your productivity for the rest of the day.
According to Rettig, some people actually enjoy their commute! She says these people find their daily commute peaceful, and enjoy the chance to spend time alone doing something they enjoy.
You can also try switching up your commute to a physical activity, such as walking or cycling. Research has shown people who actively commute rather than driving or taking public transport tend to weigh less and have a lower BMI.
Personally, I like the idea of doing something fun like listening to a podcast or reading a book during my commute, but if cycling or walking makes you happy, go for the active commute to kickstart your day.
Find meaning in your work
A commute is a lot less stressful when it’s a way to get to something you enjoy. One of the best ways to enjoy your work more is to derive personal meaning from it.
Unfortunately, one survey of 12,000 employees in various fields found that a full 50% of those people were lacking a feeling of meaning and significance at work.
According to the same survey, employees who find meaning in their work are more than three times as likely to stay in their current organization. Whether or not an employee found meaning in their work turned out to have the highest impact on fulfillment at work of any variable in the study.
Not only were those employees more likely to stay in their current jobs, but they also reported 1.7 times higher satisfaction with their jobs, and were 1.4 times more engaged at work than other employees.
Meaning is one of those hard-to-put-your-finger-on ideas. But a Stanford research project can help us understand what it means and how to get it. According to this project, happiness and meaning are quite different: while we derive happiness from taking — that is, focusing on what we get from others — we derive meaning from giving — how we’re helping others.
So how can you increase the meaning you find in your job? One way is to focus on the why behind what you do, rather than the job itself. For instance, in one study of hospital janitors, the janitors saw themselves as part of a team of people who helped to heal the sick. Rather than focusing on the act of cleaning, they focused on the why behind their jobs — they felt they were helping others, which is key to finding meaning in your work.
Focus on your work relationships
Another option is to focus more on personal relationships at work. Gallup research has found the most engaged workers report having a best friend at work. Other research has found having several hours of social time can improve our day overall.
If you have a friend at work who you can help, it can increase your own feeling of how meaningful your job is. You don’t even have to help them with work-specific tasks. You might help them by going out for a coffee, being a lunchtime workout partner, or offering a friendly ear when they need someone to talk to.
Most importantly, look for ways to help others at work. Think about the why behind your job: who are you helping with the work you do, and how? Try helping others in the office by lending a hand when you have free time. The more you give, the more you’ll feel like you’re spending your time in a meaningful way, and that will make coming to work much easier.
Not every job is salvageable. You may find that it’s simply time for you to move on to a new role or company.
But if you’re struggling to feel good about the work you do, try starting with these suggestions. You might be surprised to find how much better work can be if you’re doing work you enjoy and helping others.
Belle Beth Cooper
Belle Beth Cooper is the co-founder of Exist, a personal analytics platform to help you understand your life.