This story is from an episode of You’re Doing it Wrong on BBC Radio 4. It was presented by Adam Buxton and produced by Emily Knight. Adapted by Sarah Keating.
By the age of 24, Sophie Brown had landed her dream job as a journalist at a leading international news website. She worked hard to get there, dutifully following a well-trodden career path advised by everyone from teachers to her parents. There was just one, tiny problem: She hated it.
“I hated the job and I hated the people there,” she says. “The idea is that I [would] just keep climbing this ladder and when I got a promotion I’d be happier or when I got a pay rise, things would be easier.” But the reality told a different story.
“Late nights, early mornings and weekends… me and my partner were like passing ships in the night, I hadn’t spent any time with my family in years and I realised that this dream job, that I’d worked really hard for, actually wasn’t what I wanted at all.”
So she did the unspeakable and quit.
There is an awful lot of pressure these days around the role work plays in your life. It’s not enough to knuckle down and do your job anymore, you’re supposed to love it with a passion as well. You’ve got to follow your dreams and reach for the stars. But is the idea of a dream job really possible? Or is it idealistic nonsense designed to make you feel guiltier, work harder and complain less?
We are all agents of our own work happiness, it’s up to us to go out there – Samantha Clarke
One person who definitely believes in chasing the dream job is happiness consultant Samantha Clarke – she helps businesses make their employees happy.
“We are all agents of our own work happiness,” she says “it’s up to us to go out there and figure out what is working for us and what isn’t working. You know to really start to take charge of your life.”
Clarke tries to reframe how businesses and their employees think about happiness at work. It’s not about being “Instagram happy” complete with fuzzy smiles and free beer. “It’s thinking about how we can have better conversations; can we create environments or zones where people can work better.”
She is an advocate of learning to understand how and when we work best. Strategies such as allowing people to come in at staggered hours or working remotely can give a sense of self-direction - where you have the freedom to go to a yoga in the morning and then come back and go through your emails if that is what makes you more productive.
The often-held assumption is that those who work from home, are skiving, they are taking it easy. The evidence is that workers are actually working harder – Alan Felstead
So, what’s in it for the employer? Lots, says Clarke. When a company cultivates its own version of happiness within the company, they can measure things like productivity and efficiency. But fundamentally Clarke admits that for a lot of companies she works for, it comes down to the bottom line. Happier employees equal more productivity. And therefore more profit.
Despite this, there is research to back up the theory that we are happiest when we feel more in control of our work life and less like wage slaves. Take working from home, for example.
Alan Felstead, a professor at the Cardiff School of Social Science in the UK, conducted research which found that workers who work remotely are happier with their work. They’re more enthusiastic about their jobs and more committed to the organisation for whom they work.
“The often-held assumption is that those who work from home, are skiving, they are taking it easy,” says Felstead ‘the evidence is that workers are actually working harder. So, for example, there’s a 15 percentage point gap in the proportions reporting that they often work beyond normal working hours. And a six percent point gap in the effort levels.”
But it’s not all plain sailing – the research also found that working from home made it harder to switch off. Not defining a clear boundary between work and home meant that there was a danger of overworking. So what’s the use in gaining all this control over your life if you use it to start earlier, finish later and answer emails at 3am?
Giving people more control over their work doesn’t necessarily mean that they make good decisions. Just ask anyone who has found themselves finishing up a report at midnight or emailing clients at the weekend
Stephen Lewandowsky, a professor of cognitive science at the University of Bristol, is also wary that while giving people more control over their work-life might make it seem less stressful, it doesn’t necessarily lead to actual happiness.
He says that the temptation is to equate happiness with being successful at work. “You start working harder and harder,” he says, “to the point where all of a sudden you feel guilty if you’re not working and the moment that happens your work-life balance and your family obligations are going to suffer.”
Giving people more control over their work doesn’t necessarily mean that they make good decisions. Just ask anyone who has found themselves finishing up a report at midnight or emailing clients at the weekend.
What about the creative dream? Lots of people dream of crafting great art – painting, sculpting, writing comedy and turning that into their job. Surely that’s the very definition of an ideal profession?
But if you want to do creative work you have two options. Either work for the man all day and create at night or find someone to pay you to be creative all the time
But if you want to do creative work you have two options. Either work for the man all day and create at night or find someone to pay you to be creative all the time. Writer, performer and podcaster Ross Sutherland has done both.
“I read Generation X when I was about 15 which was probably the exact right age to read that book,” he says referring to the novel by Douglas Coupland in which the term “McJob” was coined meaning a low paid, low prestige job often in the service sector. “I definitely remember this thing about like there is the work that pays the bills and then your internal work which you’re doing on yourself which is the thing that drives you.”
Sutherland has certainly had his fair share of McJobs including; working in a pub, a stationery warehouse, being a compere at a wrestling match, teaching creative writing at a prison and rap workshops to primary school kids and writing the mail-out for a casino encouraging pensioners to spend their money (which he considers a career low point).
But far from despairing over this early career path, he sees it as essential to his creative inspiration.
“So often people’s early work was the stuff that’s most vital because that’s at the membrane between them being a real person and responding to it. How many great rappers – first album amazing, second album is all about being on tour and about being successful and it just eats itself so quickly.”
Chasing the idea of the dream job is something that people can spend their whole lives doing. But perhaps the perfect job is an illusion?
Sophie Brown, the formerly miserable journalist, now creates her own schedule as a freelancer and aspiring pastry chef. She works from home with her two dogs and takes baking classes at night.
“I see the people that I love more than I ever did and I’m much happier than I’ve ever been before,” she says. “I’ve now realised there are ways to make money that make you happy.”
She seems to have taken a shortcut to something many people don’t get round to doing until their late 40s or 50s: seeing through the mirage of the dream job and carving out her own path.
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