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- Duke of Sussex
A few years ago I was asked to give a talk to middle managers at Surrey County Council about how to have fun at work. Search me, I wanted to say. I’m a freelance writer. My idea of fun at work is a chocolate biscuit and a trip to the kettle. An image popped into my mind of David Brent dad-dancing with colleagues in The Office. They have the rictus smiles of people forced to pretend they’re having a lovely time.
I thought of this yesterday when I heard that Prince Harry had advised people who feel “stuck in jobs that don’t bring them joy” to quit them. He was speaking in an interview for the US business magazine Fast Company about his role as “chief impact officer” for a Californian coaching company called BetterUp. They were discussing the “Great Resignation”, the pandemic-induced mass exodus of workers that seems to have hit both the UK and the US. Between April and July this year, nearly 16 million US workers left their jobs. Between July and September, over a million people in the UK changed jobs, and nearly 400,000 of these were resignations. That’s the highest spike on record.
Some younger workers are celebrating their departures in Instagram reels or “QuitToks”. Some are even tweeting screenshots of texts to their bosses declaring they have quit. Most aren’t quite as voluble. It isn’t clear whether they’re leaving because their jobs don’t give them joy, or whether they just want a change or a pay rise. What is clear is that there’s nothing like a pandemic to concentrate the mind. We have all been reminded that life is short. Most of us will spend about a third of it at work – if you hate your job, it will feel like more.
You don’t need to be a mental health guru to know that misery can make you ill. Prince Harry is right: It’s better to be in a job you like than one you can’t stand. But for those who don’t have millions in the bank and Netflix, Spotify and Californian start-ups knocking at their door, jacking it all in might be a little premature.
“My advice,” says entrepreneur Chris Baréz-Brown, “is always: can you live with it and find the good before you chuck it in? Because the grass isn’t always greener.” Barez-Brown is the founder of Upping Your Elvis, a business that aims to help people find more energy and fun at work. When I interviewed him on my podcast The Art of Work, he laughed when I told him about my invitation from Surrey County Council. I did the talk, of course. I’m a journalist. I can talk and write about most things if you give me a deadline and a cheque. I dredged around for memories of when I’d had fun at work and realised that most of them involved alcohol. Camaraderie, in other words. It reminded me that we are much, much more likely to like our work if we like our colleagues. And that it isn’t easy to love your job if you hate your boss.
I had a taste of this some years ago when a boss I loved left and was replaced by one I liked rather less. The feeling appeared to be mutual. Overnight, I went from loving my job to trying to bash out copy with a sense of sick dread in my stomach. When I left in 2013, it wasn’t my choice. I walked out of the office, after 10 years, feeling as if I’d fallen off a cliff. I can’t say that the process sparked much joy.
What it did spark was an obsession with what makes work worth it, interviewing dozens of people in search of the answers.. We all have to pay our bills, of course, but there are, as Baréz-Brown says, “a million ways to make money” and “a downside with every job”. “The question is how much downside versus good.” He doesn’t have much patience with those who stay and moan. “If you’ve chosen this job, it’s your choice,” he says. “Don’t be a victim.”
Writer, broadcaster and comedian Viv Groskop agrees. “There’s this expression,” she told me, “and forgive the crudeness, but what flavour of s--- sandwich do you want to eat? Sometimes it might be a very low salary. If you absolutely love the job and can either live on a fairly low amount of money or have a partner with a better earning job, then that flavour’s OK for you. For other people it may be that you earn a lot of money, but you’re really beholden to other people and have to do what they say. That’s a flavour I cannot stomach.”
Hear, hear. For Groskop, as for me, freedom trumps security. Baréz-Brown, too, is a natural free spirit. He has, he says, done some “laborious jobs”, but has built a career around the things he’s good at. “We craft our careers to fit us better,” he says. “What do I need to get my energy right, so I can do great work? And what am I good at? There’s an element of autonomy in any job. Focus on those bits and grow them.” He’s also a fan of building a “f--- it fund”. When you have one, he says, you “stay for the right reasons. And the wrong reason to stay is money.”
Tech entrepreneur and bestselling author Margaret Heffernan agrees that mental attitude is key. “The way you think about work changes how you experience it,” she says. As a documentary maker, she once livened up a boring project about the history of the rabbit (a subject that didn’t interest her at all) by making sure that she had footage of live rabbits in every shot. “I think that that’s a good approach to take,” she says, “to think, OK, so what can I add to it, or how can I think about it, that identifies an element that does really matter to me?”
Perhaps part of the trouble is that the stakes are now so high. Most of the people I’ve interviewed, both for my podcast and in my journalism, have felt that it’s important to have at least an element of work you enjoy. But so many youngsters are now told to “follow your passion” and find “meaning” and “purpose” at work that they might reasonably expect to spend their working days with their hearts and souls on fire. If you’re lucky, you’ll sometimes get a deep sense of satisfaction. But most jobs involve boring bits. Admin. Emails. Oh my God, the emails. And if you’re freelance, no one pays you to do them. Freedom certainly has its downsides.
For Jan Lucassen, one of the world’s leading experts on the history of work and author of a new book, The Story of Work, the fashion for a freewheeling entrepreneurial life is pernicious. “I’m against the selling of the illusion,” he tells me. The figures tell their own story. In the UK, for example, around half of self-employed adults earn less than the average wage. Lucassen believes that job satisfaction depends on a balance between autonomy and recognition. Like Baréz-Brown, he thinks it’s important not to behave like a victim. “Don’t allow yourself to stay in any job that’s terrible for your self-esteem,” he says.
None of this is easy. We need to work. We need to cook and clean and shop. We also need space and time to eat, drink and laugh with the people we love, walk in the park and breathe. All work may well make Jack a dull boy, but boundless leisure won’t always cheer him up. “We need to convince others that we have a value,” says Lucassen. “And most of the time, work is how we do it.”
This, presumably, is why many people choose to work well beyond retirement age, and also why so many have heart attacks or strokes just after they retire. We all need to be needed. Leisure time, like everything, is more precious when it’s rationed.
Listen to Prince Harry if you want to. Follow your passion. Quit your job. Find your joy. Just make damn sure you have a “f--- it fund” – or a very solid Plan B.
Christina Patterson is a writer, coach and host of the podcast The Art of Work
‘After two hectic years of work, I’m looking forward to a change of pace’
The lockdowns gave me lots of time to think about my life and where it’s going. I was doing marketing for an orchestra, which was an odd field to be in when, overnight, the entire music industry changed.
It left me with a few realisations. The first was that I love the creative side of my job: making graphics, copywriting and so on. The next was how fragile the industry is. If there’s another global crisis, it could once again disappear for months. Even in the good times, it’s not lucrative: I’m in my late 20s and my salary isn’t anything like what my role would pay in other professions.
I came across UX design: creating digital products such as websites and apps, which combines my love of creative work with a thriving industry. I was reassured by the number of jobs advertised, and how I can work remotely. I thought, if there’s another lockdown, I know I’ll be safe.
So I enrolled in an online UX course, and handed in my notice. I don’t have a job to go to, but I have some savings from lockdown, so I’ll live on then for a bit while I find a job. If I’m stuck, then I can easily pick up a bit of work in retail or hospitality: the worker shortage means it won’t be tricky.
I’m also looking forward to a change of pace. After two hectic years of work, it will be nice to have a few months where I’m slowing down a bit, and returning to study via the course.
My friends and family think it’s a bit odd to quit without another job lined up, but I’m not the only one leaving music behind. Someone I know who had a senior marketing role is now doing e-commerce, and several singers have retrained as teachers.
As told to Helen Chandler-Wilde
‘Work makes people happier and gives them a purpose’
I knew from day one that my retirement was a mistake. We went on holiday to the Scottish Highlands, one of my favourite places – and I missed work, which I’d never done before.
I was 62. My wife, who had a hugely demanding 24/7 job, had been looking forward to retirement for several years and I’d been longing for a better work-life balance, too. So when the opportunity for redundancy came and I could coordinate it for the day she retired it seemed a golden opportunity.
But all through that week sailing in the Hebrides I felt a sense of loss, almost bereavement.
I had enjoyed the rituals of work: putting on the “uniform”, the opportunity to read while travelling to the office, the crossword on the way home, chatting about football to my co-workers.
And office gossip never disappointed. As I got older it was really enjoyable to work with younger people who don’t keep on about their ailments. Back in England, it didn’t get any better. I used to love weekends, or days off, precisely because they were special. When every day was “off”, none were special.
After three months I managed to return to my office as a part-time freelancer. For me, that’s perfect, though my wife wasn’t pleased and thought I should have given it longer. But I knew retirement wouldn’t get any better. I enjoy the mental challenges of work, the deadlines and the structure it gives the week.
I was never a candidate for quitting my job because it didn’t bring “joy”. But how many people in jobs they dislike have the luxury of being able to stop for their mental health if they have rent and food bills to pay? In fact, I think work makes people happier, gives them a purpose. Even when it’s been a pain or a grind, it’s great when you go home and forget about it.