How to Improve Your Relationship with Work
Plus: A Tool to Decrease Burnout and Increase Engagement
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If you’ve wondered why there’s been a long absence in my posts, today’s newsletter provides the answer. (Hint: Work Relationship Audit tool.) Read on to learn more…
Alright, let’s dive in.
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Feel bad for not working?
Feel guilty for having a life outside of work?
Feel guilty when you aren’t at your desk?
Feel like everyone around you is working more or less than you?
If you found yourself nodding along, these are all signs that your relationship with work is fractured and in need of repair. And these are all feelings that I’ve experienced myself.
The time when we could just simply turn work mode on and off is gone. Remote work, combined with constant connectivity, has eliminated the concept of disconnection. Work has gone from a thing we do to who we are. And, if you’re anything like me, you know the challenge — and often pain — that comes with a fractured relationship with work.
But, like any challenge, avoiding it won’t make it go away. Over the last 10 years, I’ve dealt with this challenge and struggled to find ways to strike the right balance in my relationship with work. For me, the first step is acknowledging that something isn’t working.
What an Unhealthy Relationship With Work Looks Like
It’s not always easy to notice the signs that your relationship with work isn’t healthy. As the relationship evolves, the subtle changes that impact our day-to-day life become commonplace. But soon, these anomalies become the norm and reset our expectations within the relationship.
While certain professionals have always struggled with burnout and overworking, for many, this is a recent phenomenon. When the office existed, it was easier to spot an unhealthy relationship with work. It involved — too many hours at the office, missed events with family and friends, and just a general sense of a single priority: work.
But those days are gone.
In the modern era of work, an unhealthy relationship looks completely different. Work is increasingly done in digital environments — Slack, docs, email, virtual meetings — where the signals can quickly and easily get buried or swept under the rug. The signs are similar to those in an abusive or addictive relationship — manipulation, intensity, and possessiveness.
Sadly, the abused often suffer in silence and attempt to cover up their problems in order to save face publicly. In the short term, an unhealthy relationship with work leads to anxiety, stress, and sleep deprivation. Over time, it leads to bigger, ongoing challenges in general mental and physical health, and ultimately burnout.
A study on burnout found that the dimensions of burnout can be boiled down to three key factors:
Exhaustion - physical and mental depletion of energy.
Cynicism - lack of motivation, interest, and increased irritation.
Inefficacy - loss of productivity and drive to improve it.
In the workplace, these dimensions cause a slow but steady breakdown of trust, communication, and overall satisfaction.
I’m great at noticing exhaustion or inefficacy, but cynicism often slips past my radar. When I’m burnt out, I find myself increasingly cynical toward work, saying things like “Who cares?” and “It’s not like it matters anyway, it’s just work.” This loss of meaning is one of the most prevalent signs of burnout and a sign of potential depression.
Conduct a Work Relationship Audit
In order to understand our relationship with work, we must review it. Put it under the microscope and examine its individual components. The easiest place to start is with a self-reflective audit. To make this process easy, I’ve created a little tool that you can use to answer the following questions:
How many hours do you work each week?
How often does work make you feel stressed or anxious?
Do you feel like you're expected to keep working, even after a full day of work?
How often do you feel irritated or irritable about work?
How productive do you feel each day?
How often do you feel fulfilled with your work?
Which work activities give you energy?
Which work activities drain you?
These questions are meant to help you introspect and test the strength of your relationship with work. If you are using the tool, it will automatically assign you a rating based on your answers. If you find yourself giving high ratings or with a short list of activities that drain your energy, you’re likely at low risk of burnout and require minimal intervention. If, on the other hand, you respond with lower ratings and a laundry list of activities that drain you, it’s time to hit reset.
🛠 Make a copy and give it a try → Work Relationship Auditor
Resetting Your Relationship with Work
Now that you’ve conducted your Work Relationship Audit, use the information to reset and redesign your work-life relationship and re-establish important boundaries and norms.
Regulate - Regulate time spent at work to keep the relationship balanced. Any relationship will buckle on the weight of time. Spending less time with work will allow you to reset your view of work and minimize the risk of burnout. Take a vacation, even if it’s for a day or two.
Substitute - Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do when we’re not working. For me, if I’m not busy, I feel a bit stressed. But if I fully immerse myself in something that’s not work-related, the stress subsides and my brain returns to a point of homeostasis.
Resist - It’s too easy to just say “Oh, I’ll do a little extra work this one time.” If you don’t resist the urge to say "yes” to every opportunity to overwork or accept every request, you’ll fall into the neverending trap of Parkinson’s Law of Productivity.
A one-time relationship reset is a great way to re-energize and refocus yourself. But don’t be surprised if you find that you need to make this a regular habit. Using the tool, you can easily set a reminder to re-evaluate your relationship with work. Simply click the [Remind Me] button, provide access, and a recurring event will be added.
Whether you decide to proceed with recurring audits or not, the goal is to increase the quality of work and life, so focus on what works best for you. You can never invest too much effort in seeking happiness or fulfillment, so make time for the work that matters — personal work.
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Thanks for reading, and see you soon,
— Kevin K. (@kkirkpatrick)