How to Be Happier at Work, According to a Resilience Coach

Monday, January 16, 2023

article written Jason Shen from The Muse 

Modern workplaces can be an endless cycle of frantic stress, impending deadlines, and existential dread. Especially now, given the rise in headline-making layoffs at major companies like TwitterMeta, and Amazon.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. As a resilience coach, I help my clients weather life’s challenges and find greater fulfillment and—dare I say it—happiness at work. My recommendations are grounded in the idea that resilience is not a fixed trait or a limited resource—it’s a set of skills we can all develop to improve how we respond, restore, rebuild, and reflect in the face of change.

Here are five strategies for cultivating resilience that can make us happier at work.

1. Embrace the messiness of work.

First, it’s important to accept that work is often messy and chaotic. This is not a bug—it’s a feature. The most important problems are the ones with no clear solution—everything else has been automated or outsourced away. This means the only work that’s left is the work that changes rapidly. Work that requires resilience.

As a former startup founder, I thought I knew what it meant to be nimble and adaptable. After being hit in a second round of layoffs at Etsy in 2017, I started Headlight, a tech hiring platform, with a former coworker. Eighteen months into the business we did a hard pivot into gaming and e-sports, and eventually landed a small exit by Facebook in 2020.

But only after ramping up as a product manager at Facebook/Meta did I realize just how seriously the term “move fast” applied to internal work culture. Reorgs, new project objectives, and stakeholder alignment became my day-to-day reality. I had to really get comfortable with the messiness and chaos of my work life. We can’t control everything at work, but we can control our attitude, our presence, and our dedication to our craft. Sometimes the moments of messiness can lead to the greatest triumphs—and that can be one of the best feelings in the world.

Put it into practice:

  • Accept that your work is temporary, your projects are impermanent, and your objectives are not final—and look for new possibilities that emerge when change arises.
  • Develop personal habits and routines at work and in your personal life that can ground you in a sense of stability when the work itself cannot. A weekly check-in with a trusted coworker, a morning yoga or meditation practice, or a regular happy hour with friends can reduce the anxiety of a constantly changing swirl of work.

2. Make time for joy and fun.

Finding moments of joy and happiness at work is essential to our well-being. We need to proactively look for the good and the delightful things in our day, even—especially—when things are tough. A five-minute chat with a colleague about weekend plans, a funny meme that gets passed around the office, or a team lunch (virtual or real) can make a big difference.

“It’s a shockingly recent notion that work and play should be mutually exclusive things,” Scott Berkun writes in The Year Without Pants about his time as an engineering manager at Automattic, a remote-first company since 2005. Much of the book talks about the fun times his team spent together at company retreats and all hands. “We learn about ourselves and each other through play, which helps us work together. Not everyone believes this, of course, but I do.”

We know that across the military, professional sports, and the entertainment industry, there’s often a great deal of play mixed into the work. That kind of fun can create deeper relationships, which in turn drive performance.

A big part of my work is to help my clients identify what brings them joy and then make time for it. One of my clients has a dream of leaving his 9-to-5 job to become a freelance consultant so he can take long bike rides during the week. I asked him why he couldn’t start doing that now, but on the weekends. If it’s not a priority now, it probably won’t be a priority later.

Put it into practice:

  • Schedule in time for fun at work. This could be a recurring activity or an ad hoc event with a colleague or team. Some of my favorite remote-friendly team activities include online escape rooms (like a brainteaser or a detective game), drawing games (like Garticphone or Skribble), and guessing games (like Wavelength).
  • Prioritize fun outside of work. How can you have something to look forward to after work is over? Consider enrolling in a craft, cooking, or fitness class—ideally with a friend. Or plan a bigger activity like camping, international travel, or a show further into the future and savor the ongoing anticipation as the event draws near.

3. Connect to your personal values at work.

In an ideal world, we could work in industries, companies, and roles where we feel total alignment between our personal values and our employer’s values.

The reality is that many people face a bit of a mismatch. Our values might be aligned with the mission of our company, but not necessarily with the project we’re working on, the department we’re in, or the people we’re working with.

When we find ourselves in a work situation that isn’t aligned with our values, it can be incredibly disheartening. But while changing your circumstances (read: getting a new gig) would obviously be the most direct approach to addressing the issue, it will inevitably come up again in your new job (see strategy no. 1).

Instead, look for smaller ways to express your values at work. For example:

  • If you value teaching, maybe you can host a brown bag discussion about a popular topic (“last-touch attribution in marketing”) or tool (“no-code automation apps”) that has emerged in your field.
  • If you value design, how can you make sure your next report or presentation is visually appealing, even if it’s only being shown to a few teammates?
  • If you value contribution, can you come up with some ideas for how to improve a product, feature, service, or team process and see if anyone else wants to join you in working on them?

One big benefit of focusing on values over, say, goals is that you can fail to achieve a goal (“ship Project Sirius by May 1”) but you can always act in accordance with a value (“be transparent in communication”). No matter what’s going on at work, we can always do something that brings us closer to our values, which will make us feel less trapped by circumstance and more in control of our experience.

Put it into practice:

  • Articulate your core values and put them in a place where you can easily see them. Here’s the template I often take my clients through to whittle down from a larger list into a smaller group of personalized values.
  • Make some time at the beginning of each week to reflect on the week ahead and look for opportunities to insert your values at work.

4. Find communities where you can let your guard down.

Leaders often talk about supporting “authentic expression” or “bringing your whole self to work.” But when performance is being scrutinized during tough times, we tend to put on the mask of a bland, upbeat corporate persona. It quickly gets exhausting.

It’s really important to have other places where we can let our guards down and just be ourselves—where we can talk about the challenges we’re facing and get feedback on how to address them.

I recently facilitated a six-week resilience-at-work series with about a dozen employees across technical and business functions at a large tech firm. Each person there was seeking resilience in the face of a challenge: returning to work after family leave, being put on a performance improvement plan (PIP), or feeling isolated as a fully remote worker.

While initially guarded, there was a moment halfway through when people opened up. I was going over the third skill in my resilience framework: rebuilding in the face of change, and letting go of old dreams in order to dream new ones.

One by one, participants shared dreams they had lost—a career as a touring theater performer or a project they thought they would get to lead. And then talked about dreams they were holding out hope for—acquiring a rental property to build financial freedom or having a less combative marriage than their parents had. These vulnerable conversations built a sense of community and helped them feel more at ease in the midst of their struggles.

“My circumstances haven’t really changed,” one participant said toward the end of the series. “But I feel better about facing the unknown. I have some skills I can use and a community to turn to when I feel like things are hard.”

Put it into practice:

  • Join an employee resource group (ERG) or other semi-private support group at work where you can find belonging with a smaller number of coworkers who might not be on your direct team. Contribute to the conversation, ask questions, and consider proposing a periodic get-together—either in person or on video call—to support one another.
  • Find community in a professional network outside of your company. I’ve built relationships and found community through cohort-based courses (like Ship 30 and Great Founders Write), peer coaching groups (like Sidebar), and even dedicated Slack channels and Facebook or LinkedIn groups for product managers.

5. Think about the story you’ll tell.

As an amateur climber and outdoor enthusiast, my sister Amy introduced me to the idea of Type 1 and Type 2 fun. First coined by Rainer Newberry, a geology professor at the University of Alaska, the terms reflect the idea that some things are only fun in retrospect.

  • The ambling hike up gentle hills on a sunny day? Pleasant, enjoyable in the moment. Type 1 fun.
  • Crossing a river with your friend in the dark to search for your car keys after you lost them on the trail? Tiring and unpleasant in the moment, but pretty funny in retrospect. Type 2 fun.

Work is rarely Type 1 fun. The occasional brainstorming session, team offsite, or quietly productive afternoon are the exceptions, not the rule. But when things get hard, you might see the moment as Type 2 fun—an experience or accomplishment that’ll you’ll remember and talk about fondly afterward.

When my third startup got into a Amazon-affiliated startup accelerator, I had to relocate from New York City to Seattle. I left behind my new wife just a few months after our wedding to hunker down in a 250-square-foot dorm for several months as my cofounder and I prepared to wow investors on Demo Day. It wasn’t exactly pleasant in the moment, but I cherish the memories from that intense sprint as part of my life as an entrepreneur.

Extensive work by the psychologist James Pennebaker and others has shown that writing about our experiences during and after difficult circumstances—especially if these thoughts and feelings have been kept a secret—can be tremendously healing, even if we never show those words to anyone. Taking multiple perspectives on the situation and trying to piece together a narrative even when things felt out of your control (using words like “realize” and “because”) helped people move forward in a positive direction.

By retelling the story of our lives through a more empowering lens, we can take the edge off difficult events of the past and see the joy and growth they’ve enabled. Through the power of narrative and reflection, we can internalize lessons that will shape who we are today and who we become tomorrow.

Put it into practice:

  • Reflect on past challenges you’ve faced. What did you learn from those experiences? How have they shaped who you are today? Write it out. Or publish your reflections to an audience: If a fully public platform feels like too much exposure, consider just emailing a group of friends or posting in a private social network.
  • Think and freewrite about how you might want to tell the story of your current situation at work in the future. What actions will you want to say you took? How will you wish you’d handled it? What ending would you want the story to have?

Happiness is not possible at every moment, but by acting with resilience, we can create more consistent happiness in our lives—inside and outside of work.