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Book review

October 2017

Title: How to Be Happy at Work

Author: Annie McKee        

Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press

The first day on the job is arguably one of the most memorable moments of your career. From the way you explored your new surroundings with passion, to the way you injected unconditional enthusiasm towards every task, curiosity and eagerness likely drove your younger self.

For many workers, regardless of what industry or profession they are in, this initial level of excitement is fleeting. To take an objective look at how your attitude towards your work has changed, imagine someone asking you the question today: What is your motivation for working? Many would say a paycheque or the prestige of becoming an executive at a big international firm is their motive, but few people would give happiness as an answer.

If happiness isn’t a key factor in why people choose a job, then why do some still become so negative towards their work despite acquiring a high pay or title? Or are there other underlying factors influencing their attitudes? These are the questions that Annie McKee attempts to answer in her latest book: How to Be Happy at Work.

“Life really is too short to be unhappy at work,” she writes in her introduction, and yet, it’s a phenomenon that people continue to return to work feeling stressed, exhausted, and miserable. “We also can’t remember what we used to love about our jobs,” she adds. In addition to feeling resentful towards work, our cynicism often spills into our personal lives, with these feelings having an impact on relationships with family and friends too.

To subdue these feelings of dissatisfaction, McKee identifies the myths and the twisted logic, or “Happiness Traps,” that people accept about the workplace. A common argument among people is that happiness can be found once success is achieved. McKee argues that this line of thinking is backwards. “It all starts with happiness because happiness breeds resonance, and resonance breeds success,” she writes.

Shawn Achor, a renowned author and psychologist, found that, “when we find and create happiness in our work, we show increased intelligence, creativity and energy,” which leads to improved business and educational outcomes across multiple subjects. McKee herself discovered after reviewing her past work with countless leaders and their companies that “companies with happy and engaged employees outperform their competition by
20 percent.”

To break free from false beliefs, McKee believes we need to develop emotional intelligence, which she defines as “a set of competences that enable you to understand your own and others’ feelings, and then use this knowledge to act in ways that support your own and others’ effectiveness.”

Self-awareness is the essential first step of building emotional intelligence, describes McKee. “Learning to notice and understand your feelings helps you understand what drives you.” By identifying the causes of both good and bad feelings that we develop from work, we are better able to determine whether our thoughts are justified or irrational. For example, ask yourself if that pressing urge to check your email around the clock is really necessary, because you might realize that the impulse stems from a fear that people will judge you if you aren’t on top of things at all times.

Development of self-management is then needed, which provides us with greater control of our emotions once we become aware of them. Doing so helps you “adapt and shift your mindset from negative to a more positive way of viewing yourself and your situation,” writes McKee.

Finally, we must hone our social awareness and manage relationships through empathy. “Empathizing with people and understanding your organizational environment lets you see what is coming from inside you, and what is coming from others or your company,” explains McKee. Using the example from earlier, you might observe that your coworkers are also replying to emails at all hours – which helps you realize that your urge to check your inbox is not caused by an insecurity, rather, it is now an issue of company conformity.

To help illustrate her points, McKee provides case studies of people who she has met throughout her career, and describes the problems and changes that they have made to their habits to find happiness. Additionally, she includes various convenient self-reflection and mindfulness exercises to help readers put theory into practice.

Some of the points that McKee makes may sound like the obvious, but to a potential worker who is finding work stale and unfulfilling, each chapter provides eye-opening insight that can help reframe their thinking and could even help them discover happiness at work. Furthermore, this book coaches readers on how to strengthen their emotional intelligence and apply it – an essential characteristic of skilled professionals, especially accountants, that helps them analyse their current circumstances and determine what the best available options are for the benefit of their team and the organization.

Author interview: Annie McKee

Annie McKee is a best-selling author with a PhD in organizational behaviour, and has coached countless executives in businesses, not-for-profits and non-governmental organizations, and governments around the world. From her work in advocating emotional intelligence and building stable company cultures, she found that far too many people are disengaged and miserable, and this startling discovery was what inspired McKee to write her book.

“How we feel impacts how we think and what we do, which means that if we are stressed, distraught and cynical, we do not have access to our knowledge and we cannot apply our talents to their full extent,” says McKee.

Of the many “Happiness Traps” that McKee describes in her book, the “Overwork Trap” is a phenomenon that McKee believes to be a worldwide epidemic. “With lean organizations (companies that are focused on bringing value to customers with fewer and fewer resources), rapid technological development and the press for short-term results, it can make us feel that we are always behind and never good enough,” explains McKee. “So we just try harder.”

We end up working long nights, weekends and skipping vacations, and it ultimately burns us out. To combat this, McKee recommends, taking a full lunch break and going home every day at a reasonable hour, and if possible, turning off our phones at night and on weekends. “No one is going to stop you from overworking, so you have to do it yourself,” she says. “It takes courage and self-management, but it’s worth it because all aspects of life and work will improve.”

According to McKee, three things are responsible for happiness at work: purpose, hope, and friends. “With purpose, we are able to live our values and have positive impact on people, outcomes, our organization and its customers.” Hope, then acts as a path that provides a “personally compelling vision of the future” that we can work towards. Lastly, and most importantly, possessing positive relations with friends and organizations is equivalent to that of becoming a member of a tribe. “We need to feel that we belong, that we are cared for, and that we can be ourselves,” explains McKee. With a strong kinship, we can find meaning and purpose even if the job is not very fulfilling.

In the event that a job truly becomes unbearable, McKee lists several options that are available besides simply quitting. “Think first about how you can improve your circumstances, such as talking with your manager or finding ways to join exciting projects,” advises McKee. “If you feel that you must leave, take time to think about what you really want in the future, as it’s far better to run toward something than to just run away.”

Given that mindfulness and self-awareness are essential themes throughout her book, McKee regularly gets questions about whether self-awareness can be learned. Although it takes effort and discipline, it can indeed be learned, says McKee, who recommends including personal reflection to our daily schedules.

“Set time aside to review the day, to think about what you did and how people reacted, about your emotions, moods and thoughts about work and life,” she explains. “Over time, it will yield insights about what's important to you, where you want to go in work and life, and how you can be happier.” ◆