It wasn’t long into the pandemic that Danielle, a 31-year-old public-school teacher in New Jersey, US, realized almost everything she loved about her job had disappeared.
“I still loved teaching, but the circumstances didn’t allow me to do my job the way I wanted to do it,” she says. “The way I think students learn best is through talking to each other and asking questions, and we couldn’t do any of that. They weren’t allowed to work in groups, they barely talked. I felt like Charlie Brown’s teacher from Peanuts: ‘wah waah waaah wah...’ It was awful.”
She never doubted teaching was her calling before the pandemic, but Danielle began to dread going to work.
Throughout the past year and a half, many employees have similarly felt their relationships to their once-loved jobs deteriorate, as work has become remarkably different. Some found pre-existing disinterest amplified, while others discovered a new level of distaste for their positions or entire fields. And although not every worker has to love their position, keeping the relationship positive – or at least neutral – is key for many to get through the day.
Millions of workers now at odds with their professions are in tough situations: it can be unnerving to be in a job you no longer feel connected to, especially if you don’t have an alternative on the horizon; and difficult to know whether you’re just going through a phase of disinterest, or if your spark is permanently out.
So, what next? Is there a way to re-ignite your passion for a job you once felt good doing – and should you even try?
There’s a very clear and current phenomenon of people experiencing a waning interest in their work, says Jon M Jachimowicz, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School.
“Particularly in the beginning of Covid, people started spending a lot more time at home and that gave them a lot more downtime,” he says. “When you’re in the office and it’s hectic, you don’t have as much space and time to think. It’s hard to zoom out and think about the next month, year or five years of your life. Being at home kind of forces that on you, for better or worse. It made people start to question: how can I live a life or have a career that’s in line with what I’m actually interested in?”
Both workers who disliked their jobs before the pandemic as well as those who enjoyed them are starting to find that they're less invested than ever (Credit: Getty Images)
In addition to increased worker introspection, Stacey Lane, an Oregon, US-based career coach and consultant, says a drop in interest could be because many jobs were stripped down to their most essential components. Workers who may have said they enjoyed their jobs before going remote realized it wasn’t the work itself they liked.
“Suddenly, people were no longer going into a workplace, and they no longer had those social connections. And for a lot of people, that’s what ties them to their job, whether they realize it or not,” she says. “It wasn’t the actual job they were doing – it was the culture, the people, and you just can’t translate that into remote work. It’s all really a package, until it’s not, and then you’re like, ‘eh, I’m actually not interested in this at all’.”
Still, others lost interest, says Jachimowicz, because doing their jobs during the pandemic became unusually tough, and employers didn’t do enough to help.
“We’re seeing it a lot in people who don’t feel supported, or who feel overworked,” he says. “The most common thing I hear these days is that employees are burned out, either because the workload has increased, or because this thing we call a psychological contract – all the unwritten trust that exists between organization and employee – has been breached. People react with a loss of interest and a desire to leave their jobs.”
This is especially evident, adds Jachimowicz, in professions people tend to enter largely because of an interest in the work, be it the field or the company itself. Nursing and teaching, he says, are examples of jobs that have seen an exodus of formerly passionate people. “There’s been a lot more early retirements from teachers,” he says. “Would this have happened in non-Covid years? Probably not.”
Quit or re-kindle?
Staying at a job while your interest in work wanes is difficult, especially if that disinterested feeling has popped up suddenly.
There may be ways to fire up a positive relationship with your job – even if it means simply making it more palatable for now
The most obvious solution, of course, is to leave. This is what Lane has seen happen on a mass scale during “the Great Resignation”. Lane has observed many with poor relationships to their jobs choose to quit in the past several months, including clients who “hated their jobs before the pandemic, but for one reason or another wouldn’t quit”. The “major disruption” of the pandemic has opened a door for change for many workers – and many people who don’t like their jobs are choosing to walk through it.
But, adds Lane, losing interest in a job is a normal reaction to the pandemic shake-up. It doesn’t necessarily mean you need to quit or change careers. There may be ways to fire up a positive relationship with your job – even if it means simply making it more palatable for now, while you look for an alternative.
She suggests it can help to take stock of the things you like most about your work, even if you haven’t gotten to experience them for a while. Reminding yourself of what captured your interest in the first place can motivate you to rediscover those things about your job. “It’s getting clarity about what you liked, and what you’re missing now,” she says, and “using that information for self-reflection.”
For many, work doesn't look the same since we've gone remote and hybrid – and some of the best things about their jobs haven't translated (Credit: Getty Images)
If what you enjoyed was collaboration, for instance, you could ask to be assigned to more group projects. If it was face time with a mentor or mentee, you can work to make more time for that. And even if the ongoing pandemic means it’s not possible yet, simply recalling what you once loved can rekindle the feeling.
This was a huge component of what saved Danielle’s relationship with her teaching job. At first, Danielle felt detached and checked out, but as the pandemic wore on, she says, taking stock of her feelings helped her become more passionate than ever. “It made me feel like, wow, this year is terrible, but I love my job so much,” she says. Pining for what previously seemed routine – working with students in small groups, talking and laughing during class, even the ability to teach in person, rather than online – helped her realize the joy she derives from even the mundane aspects of work. “Thinking about all of the things I missed, all of the time, made me realize how much I do love my job in a regular time.”
Is it good for people to be passionate about their work? Of course. But is it necessary? Of course not – Jon M Jachimowicz
Re-lighting the spark might also require switching up your routine, and finding something to get excited about. That might take the form of a side project, or a new collaborative effort with your colleagues.
“Working toward a shared vision and goal is really motivating,” says Lane. “Stretch projects and new initiatives are where I think most people find the most interest. That’s when innovation happens, because you get a bunch of engaged employees who are just, like, on fire about something.”
Giving yourself permission
There’s quite a bit of grey area in between a job worth quitting and a job with which you could fall back in love. Realistically, some workers who’ve become disinterested in their jobs are going to remain that way, and still work, anyway. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“I have friends who realized throughout this year that your job doesn’t necessarily have to be your passion,” says Danielle. “They’ve realized, ‘I can just kind of phone in my job, and it’s funding all the things I want to do, so as long as I keep getting a paycheck every two weeks, that’s fine.’”
It’s perfectly acceptable, agrees Jachimowicz, and for some people, it may be preferable.
“Is it good for people to be passionate about their work? Of course,” he says. “But is it necessary? Of course not. Some people don’t want to pursue their passion at work. Others don’t have the opportunity. And let’s be real: there are plenty of things for people to be passionate about other than work.”
If your interest in work has waned, it’s time to have an honest conversation with yourself about your needs, says Jachimowicz. “What needs is your job meant to fulfill? Just financial needs? Then great,” he says. “Do you need it to fill your need for connection? Aspirational needs? Your values?” One thing Covid is helping to clarify, says Jachimowicz, is that certain jobs can meet all these needs, and “people either want one, or realize they don’t need one.” You just have to make the distinction, and then make a decision.