People enjoying work outside a cafe

Work Well

This poet’s words come from an earlier time when people’s work more directly supported their survival—they grew their own food and built their own homes with tools of their own fabrication. The principle applies no matter how you earn your living. There is an inherent value in doing work that keeps us all alive and well. In this sense there is no job that is ignoble.

But people tend to lose sight of the value of their work, getting so caught up in the details that they forget what they are doing or why they are doing it. Complaints are rife: too much pressure, too boring, the boss is impossible. Whatever the problem, the outcome is the same—job dissatisfaction leading to complete burnout and the feeling that you can’t face another day on the job.

Most people spend a third or more of their lives in the workplace. It is very important, then, that work fully supports our wellbeing—physically, emotionally, relationally, intellectually, and spiritually. Your body can put up with abuse in the short run, but over years those abuses will take their toll.

A Few Steps toward Healthier Work
There are many ways to practice initiative and self-responsibility in the workplace without having to quit your job. You can make changes in your relationship to your job so it will satisfy you more deeply.

First, assess your relationship to your job in the light of the factors below.

  • You like what you do even if you don’t like all of the details of your job. Your job provides you with the opportunity to take on tasks, accomplish them, and feel good about yourself and about what you have created or produced.
  • You have a sense of purpose in what you do. In other words, you have made the job important by the way in which you define or view it. You appreciate yourself for working to support yourself and your family, even if your job is not ideal.
  • You can distinguish between the job you do and who you are. You know that even if you don’t accomplish all you set out to accomplish, or fail outright, or are unable to work or are unemployed, you are still a worthwhile human being.
  • You spend time cultivating other interests and other aspects of yourself that your job doesn’t include. You continue to learn, stretch, grow, and, especially, take small risks as ways to keep yourself flexible in body, mind, and soul.
  • You practice self-responsibility, safety, stress reduction, and honest communication as much as possible. You stand up as a person of clear integrity within your work environment.
  • You feel good when you get up in the morning to go to work. You experience general good health and rarely find it necessary to take a sick leave to cope with your job.
  • Your spouse and children appreciate and encourage your work. Your work allows you to spend quality time with your family.

Tell yourself the truth about your job and how it supports your wellbeing. Take a good long look at your job situation and the physical conditions in which you work. Make it a thorough look.

Imagine that you are a journalist doing a story on the healthiness of your workplace. Make a list of things that could be improved. Even though you may feel sure many things cannot be changed, list them anyway. Here are a few things to consider:

  • sufficiency and type of lighting
  • the quality of the air that circulates in your workplace
  • access to the natural environment (Do you have a
    window in your area; can plants grow there?)
  • the colors on the walls
  • noise levels—of machinery or other workers
  • telephone interruptions
  • traffic patterns in your space
  • the design and placement of furniture

Review your list and ask yourself whether these things serve your work and help you to work more efficiently and pleasantly, or if they undermine your health and your work.

Now examine the pace of your work. Does your job allow for periodic stretches? Do you have to spend hours sitting, or can you get up and walk around? (Many of us just settle for the inevitability of a work situation in which the needs of our bodies and minds will always be secondary to the demands of productivity. Changes in the work environment may require active steps on our part.) Who sets deadlines? Are they generally realistic? Are you expected to work overtime regularly or to take work home on weekends?

Look at the cultural norms in your office or work group. Is smoking or drinking encouraged? Are heavy lunches of high-fat food the usual fare? Is coffee the
beverage that fuels work? Do other people support one another in exercise or working out in some way? Do you?

If there are difficult people with whom you have to interact, are you able to maintain your sense of self-worth despite their actions? If not, what internal messages do you give yourself when you leave these people? Are you self-critical, defensive, upset? What do you and your coworkers talk about when you are not working? Do these conversations create momentum for creative action and uplift or stimulate you, or are they full of gossip and generally depress, drain, or bore you?

That’s a lot of investigating. Maybe you’ve opened up a few cans of worms that you hadn’t wanted to touch. Summarize what you’ve discovered for yourself. Write a letter to yourself in which you describe the health of your current job situation.

Or give yourself a job-health quotient by assigning yourself a score between 1 and 100, where 100 indicates an ideal, high-health work environment and 1 means a work situation that is about to kill you.

No matter how bad the situation may seem, realize that when you give up your voice in your own life, you become the victim of circumstances, and then you are lost. If you become an active participant in your life, you will maintain a sense of being in charge of your life. You do this by initiating changes, however small. Many times a small change is all it takes.

Make a distinction here: There are two levels at which you can make changes. The first is the behavioral level. At this level you will actually do something, or not do something, to effect a change in your environment. For example, you may have adjusted your chair to suit the height of your computer screen, but found that your legs are cramped. To make your working environment healthier, you put the monitor on a stand that raises it four inches. Now your chair can stay higher, giving your legs more room, and your neck doesn’t have to be bent. Other small changes at this level can include negotiation with management for a healthier environment or a change of schedules to allow for flextime. You could also confer with your coworkers about instituting some changes. This can be more successful than trying to be a lone crusader.

The second level of making changes is attitudinal change. At this level you work within yourself, changing your perception, your degree of attachment, or your sense of purpose and intention with regard to your job. The proverbial cup appears half empty or half full depending upon the observer’s attitude. It is up to you to define how your job gives meaning to your life and what overall purpose it serves. Meanings are in people, not in things. Recall Gibran’s words, and choose the meaning your work has for the soul of the earth. Remember, it is not always possible to change what is, but it is always possible to change your relationship to it.

You may decide that the only solution to your problem is a job change. This is not something to be done hastily, even if it is economically feasible. Take time to review #5: Discover What You Already Know and #8: Set Goals for the Changes You Want to Make on goal setting. Then make a three-year plan that addresses your work life. What do you want to be doing three years from now? Where do you want to live? What income do you want to make? What do you want to learn? How do you want to grow?

Reprinted with permission, from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, & Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright 2001. Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA.

The online version of Dr. Travis’ Wellness Inventory may be accessed at ( The Wellness Inventory may also be licensed by coaches, health and wellness professionals, and organizations.

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Written by John W Travis MD MPH

Explore Wellness in 2021