Anyone who has been working in the public sector over the last five years will be familiar with those difficult periods of adjusting to budget cuts, dealing with job losses and restructuring. At these times, our resilience is tested. Can we still find it in ourselves to come to work with a positive mindset, support our teams and colleagues, get on with business as usual and plan for the future, even though we don’t know if we will be part of that future?
To support myself in maintaining a positive frame of mind I decided to keep a gratitude diary. I have done this before, and it is surprisingly powerful. Cognitive behavioural therapists tell us that the triad of thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations are intricately linked. If we change a thought, we also change our emotions and physical reactions. Getting caught up in negative thoughts or having a good moaning session will produce corresponding negative emotions. Contrary to popular belief, punching a pillow will make us feel more angry. And introducing more positive thoughts will produce more positive emotions and physical sensations. That’s how a gratitude diary works.
This time, I thought I would try a work focused gratitude diary. I focused on my job exactly as it is right now, not how it was a year ago or how it might be next year. There are many good things about my workplace, which are easily forgotten. So here goes:
- Lovely colleagues who are passionate about what they do, and also really nice, funny people
- Great people to manage; they are creative, autonomous and care about the quality of their work (and they are really lovely people)
- A boss who asks for my opinion and listens
- The chance to make a difference to people’s lives
- Great leave and flexitime
- Decent pay
- Autonomy – no one micromanages me
- The opportunity to go to CPD events or spend time researching ideas
- A decent computer with two screens
- The chance to get to know some talented and inspirational external trainers
When I started thinking about it, it was not that hard to come up with ten items. But a lot of these things I usually take for granted. Herzburg would call many of these (particularly the leave, flexitime, computer, pay and colleagues) hygiene factors. By this he means, if they are not present, we focus on them and become demotivated. But when they are present, we soon take them for granted. They don’t motivate us in a positive way or create job satisfaction.
Doing a daily gratitude diary can help to bring these hygiene factors back into our thoughts, help us to have more positive thoughts, with corresponding emotions and physical feelings, and break up mild depression or work blues. Yogis aim to cultivate “santosha” or contentment, and this is a practical way of doing so.
However, the Buddhist teachings warn us about the dangers of attachment. Attachment to the things we value is a cause of suffering, because then we fear loosing them. If I feel attached to my computer with two screens, and then find someone else using it, I might feel little bit annoyed. If I feel attached to my work colleagues, and they decide to move on, I will mourn their passing. If I feel attached to getting praise or recognition, I will suffer when I don’t get it. Attachment to status, money or power may cause someone to move away from roles in which they would have been more creatively fulfilled.
So, if gratitude is a good thing, and attachment is a bad thing, how do we square that? What is the difference? Gratitude is a warm, thankful feeling, an appreciation of things as they are in the present moment without any expectations that they will endure, whereas attachment is a more needy feeling, a feeling that we cannot be whole without something else to complete us. Gratitude can be a general sense if thankfulness and contentment, a sense of having plenty, while attachment is always for something specific and is rooted in the fear of not having enough. Attachment can trap us, whereas simple gratitude does not.
However, I wonder if spending too much time focusing on gratitude might lead us to stay too long in jobs that really we should just move on from. We could could too zen to make a move! I suspect that is probably not likely to happen. Being in a positive and open frame of mind has been shown to improve the chances of a person coming across a “lucky break” and it is certainly easier to do a job interview when you feel positive about your current job. Loosening the bonds of attachment can help us find the courage for change.
So, to maintain wellbeing in work, develop the gratitude, but beware attachment!