Guest feature by Creative Business Consultant Lauren O’Sullivan
As I sat down to write this article, I noticed, somewhat ironically, that it was “Blue Monday”. Traditionally known as the most depressing day of the year as we struggle with getting back to work following the festive break. The days are grey and short, and the time before our next holiday seems immeasurably long.
But why does the idea of ‘back to work’ have the power to make us so miserable? Are so many of us really that unhappy in our jobs? Well… yes! According to research by Personal Group, over half of UK workers are unhappy in their jobs. It’s also a resounding yes according to a less statistically sound straw poll of my peers. Most people I know struggle, in one way or another, to get through the working week. Whether it’s stress, boredom, overwhelm, anxiety, mum guilt or that sinking feeling that life is passing you by, the modern workplace has a lot to answer for.
The global pandemic has forced lots of us to reassess the role work plays within our lives. Working from home and flexibility requests that had previously fallen on deaf ears have suddenly become part of the normal conversation about work. But when it comes to work meeting our needs, this is only scratching the surface. Yes, WFH and the flexibility to have a late finish once a week helps, but it doesn’t begin to address the deep-rooted issues that cause our dissatisfaction in the workplace. For me, and many others, it’s not simply about the hours we do and where we do them, it’s about what we are doing and, more importantly, why.
The way we work now, in the traditional 9-5 office environment, is based on an outdated system with outdated views about what work is and our relationship with it. Our needs and requirements rarely factor into the equation – particularly our emotional needs – and it’s no surprise that this shows in the correlating high levels of anxiety and depression we see in society today.
According to a YouGov poll, only 17% of us love our jobs. That means the vast majority of us are spending large portions of our lives doing something we don’t enjoy and surprise surprise – it’s making us unhappy. We need to ask more of work and business. We need more than a paycheck and a few work perks in order to feel satisfied. That same YouGov report also found that 64% of us would rather have a poorly paid job they loved, compared to just 18% who’d prefer a well-paid job they hated.
I personally know the reality behind these figures all too well. I’m sitting here tucked under my throw on the sofa, snuggled up with brew, tapping away on the keyboard as the low winter sun diffuses its golden glow throughout the room. The house is silent. Unusually silent. My husband has taken my nearly 9-month-old out while I do some work and write this article.
This is how it has been for me for the last four months, since I started working on my coaching business again. It’s been two years since I set it up on the side of my day job, which I’m currently on maternity leave from. The plan is to take my business full time before I have to go back in the spring. That’s the gamble I am taking with these precious hours of time – family time – that I’m using as the currency to follow my dreams. Flexibility and reduced hours just don’t cut it for me, I want to do something that I actually care about.
I fell out with the world of work long before I became a mum. In my late twenties I’d found myself working in a senior position within the marketing industry in Manchester. At 28, I was flying to the US every month, working on huge campaigns with big budgets with some of the biggest digital agencies in the world. I was running celebrity and influencer events in New York and LA one minute and attending London Fashion Week the next. From the outside looking in it was a dream job and for a period, I suppose it was.
But I was lost. Targets, sales, competition and pressure. I had to leave myself at the door each day in order to just function. And what for? I felt like a square peg in a round hole working for a business whose values were so opposed to my own. I physically ached for something more but working in marketing, working in an office, working for other people was all I knew. I was stuck. My confidence and self-belief were at an all-time low. Surely there was more to life than this?
But what was I thinking? This is what people do. Go to work and get on. Nobody likes work, it’s meant to be hard, isn’t it? There are so many people in a less fortunate position than me – who was I to ask for more? But it wasn’t – and isn’t – just me. So many of us find ourselves in jobs that leave us stressed, burnt out and with little time for ourselves, especially those of us who are parents. This may have become the normal state of play for many of us, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK.
After a lot of soul searching, I decided I could and would ask for more. I spent the next four years discovering who I was and what I wanted. This led me to retrain as a Psychotherapist and I combined that with my marketing background to set up my business as a coach, helping other people find meaning and fulfilment in their work.
My coaching work means I speak with lots of women (and it is primarily women, although not all) who are in the exact same position as me. Women who are asking for more from the world of work, and it has compounded my understanding of how ubiquitous this issue is. It’s no coincidence that in the last 20 years, self-employment among women has almost doubled from 900,000 to just over 1.7 million in 2021. If our needs aren’t being met in the traditional workplace environment, we are looking to create it for ourselves.
Starting a business is hard work – really hard. Myself and many of the women I work with are doing it alongside full time jobs and meeting the needs of a family. So, what is it that we’re looking to find? What is all this sacrifice for? Freedom and flexibility are high up there of course, particularly among parents. But for me, and many others, it’s about a lot more than flexible working, reduced hours and the ability to WFH.
Why someone chooses to leave their job and set up on their own is as unique and individual as the person themselves, but there are common themes that I hear time and time again that resonate with my own experiences, like Lisa, a HR professional turned Wellness Coach: “On paper it’s a fantastic career, with a fantastic employer and I’m lucky to have it. But does it set my heart and soul on fire? Does it align with all of my values? Do I spend my time doing things I love, or at least working towards doing things I love? Do I have complete flexibility and autonomy? Can I be 100% myself without fear of judgment? Am I free from politics, red tape and hierarchies? It’s a no to all of the above. I want more, I desire more. I know I can do more, be more. I want to do work I love, that aligns with my values, that I can pour my whole self into, and be authentically and unapologetically me. I want to help people, in the ways that I want to help them. I have so much to bring. So, I’m pushing past all of the fear, the doubt, the safe and stable, the logical choice. And I have set up my business alongside my corporate job and being a mum to my two young ones.”
As humans (and as women and mothers) we have needs that sit above our material sustenance in the world. We have a need to contribute, to feel accepted, to be creative and serve a higher purpose. People are asking deeper questions of what work means to them and what it says about them as an individual. People don’t just want money in their bank at the end of the month, they want meaning and fulfillment too. “The corporate world left me drained and empty of a feeling of real purpose and value,” says Suzi, a Marketeer turned Resilience Coach. “Through the business I’m creating, I can already feel a more meaningful change that’s allowing me to create a more authentic life for myself.’
Companies that align with your values and allow you to do meaningful work are few and far between. On the whole, for the average person, it’s just not the reality of the workplace we have at the moment. The corporate world has a lot of catching up to do as Kim, a Fashion Designer, knows all too well. “I couldn’t work for a company where all they cared about was the money that was made, regardless of what they had to do to get it. There was no substance, no values system, just aesthetics and an outward disregard for ethics and diversity. I needed to be doing work that was more fulfilling and in line with what was important to me in the world.”
The important thing to understand here is that work can only be meaningful and fulfilling when we can show up as our full selves. And this completely goes against the grain of everything we have been taught about being ‘professional’, which is essentially hiding a large part of who we are in order to fit in and toe the line. Women want to be themselves and express themselves in the work that they do, something that can often (but not always) only be achieved when working for yourself on something that is meaningful to you. “In my corporate job I have to show up as a version of myself which can feel like wearing a mask, and you can only do that for so long without it affecting your mental health and well-being,” says Lisa. “So having another outlet to take off the corporate mask and be completely myself, share myself from the heart where people can take or leave me, is why I’m working for myself‘
Values play an important part in finding meaningful work and so far the corporate world falls drastically short. If you are lucky your company may have put together a set of values as part of a long-forgotten HR exercise which are dusted off once a year for your team away day. But most of us find ourselves in companies whose only value is what the bottom line shows at the end of the week. Becausew that’s what business is about right? Well yes, sure. But I think we can and should dare to ask more from business. Especially in the times we are living as we consider the impact and sustainability of the things we do.
What is the purpose of the business we work in? Does that align with our values, and can we carve out a meaningful role for ourselves within that business? According to The Job Description Library Report, over half of millennials have left a job because they felt the employer’s values did not align with their own.
Without any real sense of what’s important in business, no wonder people are tired, stressed and levels of depression and anxiety are on the rise. We work long hours away from home, often in roles that give us no sense of community, connection and purpose. In jobs that disconnect us from ourselves, our values and our families.
Daniela a writer and mindfulness teacher describes the very real impact that this can have on our health. “I used to have a lot of anxiety linked to these jobs, and generally felt like I wasn’t really myself when I was working there. And my body was affected too (migraine, belly aches, eczema) but since I left my 9-5 at the end of September my anxiety has dropped and my mental health has improved massively because I’m much more aligned with what really matters to me.”
Surely so many of us can’t be wrong? There’s a very real issue here to address if we want not only a happy and healthy but productive workforce (findings by Gallup identified that highly engaged teams show 21% greater profitability) so this isn’t just about employee satisfaction, it translates to good business too.
I’m under no illusion that to ask for meaning and fulfillment can seem idealistic at best and privileged and indulgent at worst, but change must begin with daring to ask for more. Daring to imagine a better way of doing things that benefits, not just us as individuals, but society as a whole. How could things be different if business had values that they embodied beyond platitudes and actually delivered the things that people really needed?
I think in 10 years time, these kinds of requirements within the jobs we do will become more commonplace. But for now, for the vast majority of us, the corporate world falls short. So, while we can’t get what we want in the corporate world, we look to create it for ourselves. With societal change and the impact of the climate emergency, business will have to become more conscious and responsible on multiple levels. This will involve having to justify their existence beyond the profits they produce. And that is happening already, just not fast enough. In 20 years time perhaps we won’t have to consider going it alone to get the freedom and fulfillment that we need for our well-being.