Being disengaged at work is like having a massive amount of credit card debt at a 19.24% interest rate and only paying the minimum. It’s almost completely normalized in our society. And it is a rip off.
Everyone is bored at work, right? Everyone has a little credit card debt, too.
Neither one is helping people live fuller lives, I can tell you that.
A Gallup poll released last year revealed that “66% of employees worldwide are either not engaged or are actively disengaged in their job. But despite this disengagement, most employees don’t report that they hate their jobs.”
This “not hating their jobs” has been touted as a good thing.
Now for comparison’s sake, only 38% of US households actively carry credit card debt, and that number has dropped recently. With the rise of finance gurus like like Dave Ramsey, and my personal favorite, Mr. Money Mustache, people are getting sick of debt. I’d like to see the same thing happen with career disengagement.
I’d rather more people hate their jobs, because then it would feel like an emergency.
If more people hated their jobs, then those people would act like their hair was on fire in order to get to a career that made them feel good every day. Instead, the majority of the workforce feels “comfortable” where they are, but is also scared to speak up, bored as hell, averse to innovation—because why bother—and spending 10 of just 17 precious daily waking hours as a slightly dejected robot.
How is this a good thing, again?
Complacency costs companies money, keeps dysfunctional management in place, and where does it leave the employee? Going home zapped, which steals enjoyment away from their real life, too.
It also makes employees feel trapped.
I’ve had clients describe the feeling of “golden handcuffs” due to a steady paycheck that’s served up with a hefty side of dread. Some wonder if their bosses aren’t helping them move forward, because by staying put they help their boss look good (if you are wondering this, the answer is probably “yes”).
Buuuuuuut, they steady paycheck, they say. This is especially compelling if the employee also has, you guessed it, debt to pay off!
I get it.
I never recommend that someone who is disengaged just quits right away. If this is you, the first step is finding pockets of engagement to get your energy levels up again. To get you feeling human again.
The key to doing this is hidden in your relationships, not in your actual work.
How to Improve Your Work Engagement
How can you get engaged at work in a hurry? Make a game of it. Literally.
There was a time early in my journalism career, where I wrote for a newsletter sent by a nonprofit to medical doctors. Sounds pretty good so far right?
The point of this newsletter was to bring to doctors’ attention every medical instrument that had been recalled in a given week. My job was to comb through government databases and write up snappy summaries when, let’s say a cauterizer—normally used to seal blood vessels via electric current—actually caused a patient’s skin to catch on fire.
There are a lot more of these types of recalls than you want to know about.
While I was thrilled to be getting a paycheck for using my brain to type words into a computer, I didn’t exactly feel like a writer. I was also terrified, noting serial numbers, every time I stepped foot in a doctor’s office.
Luckily, I could be proud and self-deprecating at the same time. I was usually at work thinking both of the following:
- I just got out of college and know literally nothing about anything in the real world, and I’m damn lucky to be getting paid, and to write, no less! Plus, who knows, maybe even saving people from potential death instruments.
- I wrote some very well-received humor and culture pieces for my college newspaper, and let’s not even get into those short stories and poems I got A’s on…I mean, I AM a writer. I really need to submit some work to a literary magazine. I can’t keep recapping these depressing medical incidents for the rest of my life.
As the months went by, I was getting worse at the job. I was slow and disengaged.
So eventually, I devised a game with my team. My coworkers were fun, and I knew a little friendly competition would motivate me, so I came up with a simple contest. We agreed on a speed goal to hit, trying to write a certain number of summaries by the end of each week. Then we’d go out for ice cream on Fridays, and our boss would treat whoever wrote the most.
It was simple, and juvenile, and fun.
In high school and during college summers I was a gymnastics coach at the gym I’d trained in as a kid. That’s where I learned that gamifying hard work is a great way to get good at something. The best coaches turn drills into obstacle courses, teaching kids to leap over cones and flip onto mats, assigning teams to make it fun, and docking points if you forget to keep your legs straight or can’t walk on your hands without falling.
When I was a coach I prided myself on making the sport fun and inclusive. I designed intricate games, obstacle courses, and drills that were the right balance of strength-building and fun. My classes were a lot of work, but they always ended with a game of dodgeball or a dance party. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this approach must have stuck with me. It served me well.
I remember pitching my coworkers, and once they all agreed, pitching my boss. She seemed especially amused by the weekly challenge. She probably already knew what was going to happen, but appreciated my initiative: I lost every single week.
I was by far the slowest of the bunch. But over time I also saw myself getting faster and more accurate, and forming close friendships with a team of people I wouldn’t have spoken to much if we didn’t have the chance to gently tease each other every day, with me taking the brunt of it.
Even this had its advantages.
When I got ribbed for losing, I asked my coworkers for tips. I learned to batch certain types of summaries together in order to get them done faster. I learned to develop templates. I found out which M.D.s in the building could clarify confusing medical jargon for me, without making me feel inadequate.
I never once won the ice cream.
I did leave that job with a stellar reference that led to a new business-writing job I was thrilled about, a handful of friends, and a lot more comfort when interviewing experts.
Even if the idea of a cheesy move like mine makes you groan, it works. Something as silly as a workplace contest can often make the difference between disengagement and motivation. Or even between getting fired, and getting recommended for a more suitable role.
Have you ever tried a similar tactic at work?