When Amy Wrzesniewski, now a professor at the Yale School of Management, first became interested in the questions of who loved their jobs, who didn’t, and why, she spent a lot of time interviewing hospital workers. Not doctors, not nurses, not even administrative assistants, but the lowest on the totem pole: the people who cleaned out the patients' rooms each day. This was a classic "dirty job," she thought as she began her research, and surely all of the people she interviewed would only have bad things to say about it.
And indeed, Wrzesniewski found no shortage of people who griped about their job. "One group talked much in the way the literature expected: that this was not a highly skilled job, they did not enjoy it, they were there for the benefits," she recalls. This group of workers also described the goals of their work in the same language as their official job description.
What fascinated Wrzesniewski, however, was that there was a second group of workers with the exact same jobs—on paper, at least—who described their work in completely different terms. They felt their labor was highly skilled, they described the work in "rich relational terms," says Wrzesniewski, talking about their interactions with patients and visitors. Many of them reported going out of their way to learn as much as possible about the patients whose rooms they cleaned, down to which cleaning chemicals were likely to irritate them less. "It was not just that they were taking the same job and feeling better about it, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and whistling. It was that they were doing a different job."
This second, happier group didn’t see themselves as custodial workers at all. One described forming such a bond with patients that she continued to write letters to some of them after they were discharged. Another paid attention to which patients seemed to have few visitors or none at all, and would make sure to double back to spend some time with them. Some, when asked what their jobs were, would say "I’m an ambassador for the hospital" or even, in one case, "I’m a healer. I create sterile spaces in the hospital. My role here is to do everything I can to promote the healing of the patients."
One woman in this second group worked on a ward where patients were stuck in comas from which they might never come round. This woman told Wrzesniewski that she’d gotten into the habit of quietly rotating the art that adorned their hospital rooms, taking paintings down in one room and putting them up in another. When Wrzesniewski asked why, the woman explained that though she wasn't a doctor, she thought it was at least possible that a change in scenery might spark something in their comatose brains.
What these workers were doing, Wrzesniewski came to realize, was quietly creating the work that they wanted to do out of the work that they had been assigned—work they found meaningful and worthwhile. Wrzesniewski and her colleagues call this practice "job crafting," and they think it could be the key to happiness in all sorts of jobs. Though it can be difficult to tease apart correlation and causation—were the job-crafters happy because they job-crafted, or did they job-craft because they were happy?—Wrzesniewski and her colleagues have run additional experiments designed to show that whatever your disposition, actively working to hone your job into something nearer to your heart can increase satisfaction at work. To this end, Wrzesniewski and others have made something called the "Job Crafting Exercise," which helps workers identify the realities of their job, and ways they might shape it into something better suited to their talents and interests.
Recent numbers from the Department of Labor have shown a jobs market frozen in place; the Great Recession understandably created a climate in which people were thankful to have jobs at all, even ones they hated. So is job crafting merely a coping strategy for a recessionary era? Not so, says Wrzesniewski. "Even in a boom-time economy, where jobs are there for the taking, my sense is that doesn’t mean that every job suddenly becomes a better fit," she says. "This idea of there being a right-sized peg for every hole, and it’s just a matter of finding it" is unrealistic, she says. She uses an analogy from dating: Even if it were true that there’s one person out there who’s perfect for you, what are the odds that that person is roughly your age and in the same geographic area as you? The trick is to find a great relationship, and then work to make it better, she says. And so with jobs.
"With MBAs in particular there’s this sense that anything and everything is possible, that there’s the potential for anything to happen"—that everything has to be perfect. "That’s the same stance that would lead someone to be wildly disappointed in the dating world," she says. "You should find a job that’s terrific, and figure out how to make it even better."
That’s not to say, though, that quitting is never the right choice. Wrzesniewski points to examples of people who have used the job-crafting exercise and still felt that even were they to shape their job as best they could, they’d still be unhappy. That’s a sign that it may be time to move on, she says. Much more common, though, is for Wrzesniewski to present her research to someone, and for that person to then realize that maybe they'd quit their last job prematurely.
It’s often the nature of the entrepreneur to want to quit and start something for him—or herself. But many of the happiest employees profiled recently in Fast Company—LinkedIn’s Matthew Shoup, Square’s Andy Santamaria, Microsoft’s Stevie Bathiche—found ways to make their job into something they loved. Wrzesniewski would be proud.
[Mop Image: Flickr user Morgan]