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“You work too hard.”

A friend of mine recently made that observation after I mentioned that I was doing some work over the weekend.

“No, I don’t. I’m just not very efficient,” was my sheepish answer.

But it got me thinking about how the nature of work has changed over the past two years.

Right now, “The Big Resignation”, as it has come to be called, is hitting the US and other parts of the world. As early as April, rumblings of discontent were visible and Singaporeans were no different.

According to a survey by recruiting firm Hays, 74 per cent of respondents said that the pandemic has made them consider their job or career choices, and there are several reasons why this is happening.

One, when Covid first hit, everyone stayed put at their jobs for fear of losing financial stability. But as vaccination rates rise and economies open up, confidence is returning and those who have been putting off their job searches are updating their resumes again.

toxic work culture, How can we stay motivated in our jobs when toxicity, restlessness and fatigue set in?
Image source: Shutterstock / DimaYurchenko

Two, Covid has changed the way we work. WFH is de rigueur now and that has several knock-on effects. A life-changing event (and Covid is such an occurrence on a global scale) forces us to reflect on what is important to us. Covid has given us the time, opportunity and the impetus to do just that.

Many of us have realised that we like the flexibility of working from home. On the flip side, we are also getting burned out because we can’t juggle work-life balance.

Some employers overload their staff, leading to stress and frustration; in other cases, employees themselves lose motivation, leading to a reassessment of their career paths.

Many of us have decided that we don’t want to go back to a five-day nine-to-five office life.

All these reasons lead to a growing realisation: Many of us simply don’t like our jobs.

And employers are trying to deal. A glance at some news headlines shows a distinct panicky tone: Forbes exhorts employers to “embrace The Big Quit”; the BBC says it’s all the employers’ fault; and the list goes on…

Solution: Pay them more

Toxic Work Culture Healthcare
Image source: Shutterstock / Hananeko Studio

In Singapore, healthcare workers are showing signs of increased burnout and psychological distress due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Healthcare workers are under tremendous amounts of stress now. Complaints of long working hours have been further accelerated by the recent Covid wave that has struck our shores. Work-life balance is all but non-existent. Sure, there have been campaigns to appreciate them, and SKM has done its fair share of sending our frontliners some well-deserved accolades.

But appreciation campaigns are so 2020. It’s been two years now and frontline heroes like our healthcare workers need more than just a pat on their backs.

Can’t reduce their hours? More pay is the solution often touted, and it is happening. But that too, is a simplistic solution. More needs to be done. A gaping wound would benefit from a bigger bandage, no doubt, but a band-aid is a temporary solution at best if the injury itself continues to fester.

In the absence of other mitigating factors, paying people more will help to retain staff… but, and here’s the crunch, it won’t retain them forever.

Solution: Don’t be toxic

Toxic Work Culture
Image source: Shutterstock / Ariya J

Over the past couple of weeks, Singaporeans have been riveted by the furore over Night Owl Cinematics and its alleged toxic work culture. Without going into the specifics of the issue, as it is still being painfully hashed out in social media now, it suffices to say that no leader at that organisation is coming out untarnished.

As many of us would attest, there are toxic employers out there. Often, their bullying antics don’t come to light, although websites like Glassdoor.com have helped to give some transparency to such bad practices.

There are other social media exposes too. Recently, a Reddit thread exposed a Singaporean employer who abused his staff for not answering his work messages to her personal phone after office hours.

That said, leading a company is no simple feat.

A CEO friend of mine once complained to me that her employees were unmotivated and constantly watching the clock. And that her kindness to them only served to give them the impression that they could get away with slacking off.

Motivating someone is not as easy as sending them a chirpy email, or organising a Zoom get-together or even sponsoring an office lunch (or a carepack, since office gatherings are out at the moment). The sad fact is that as a leader, you cannot motivate someone who doesn’t want to be motivated.

At a previous job, I ran a small team of about 15 journalists. They were professionals and good at what they did. But they each needed different forms of motivation. Some were keen but green and needed more supervision, while some veterans just wanted to be left alone to get their work done. Each had their likes, dislikes and petty annoyances. Some truly believed in the work we did, while others were there because it was a stable paycheck in an indoor job with no heavy lifting.

There were times when tempers flared and voices were raised but ultimately, we worked well together because we believed in what we were working on and in each other as a team.

toxic work culture, How can we stay motivated in our jobs when toxicity, restlessness and fatigue set in?
Image source: Shutterstock / Nadya Art

Toxicity can come from many sources in the workplace. Stress brings it out: Difficult colleagues, impossible deadlines, unforeseen circumstances, fear – all these create potential hotspots for negativity to flare up.

The key is understanding what you can do. Triage – on a personal and professional level – is an essential skill. We need to learn to accept what is outside our control and focus our energy on affecting what we can.

You can’t control other people’s behaviour, but you can control your own responses to circumstances.

If we cannot watch and curtail our own actions, then wherever we go, we end up taking that toxicity with us.

Solution: Enjoy your work

Toxic Work Culture
Image source: Shutterstock / Chinnapong

WFH has been a challenge that we have been facing alongside other Covid acronyms like HBL, QO, ART, HRP and IDWTWUFWT (“I don’t want to wake up for work today”).

Okay, maybe I made the last one up.

But I like being able to arrange my own timing. I like being able to pick my kid from school (on the days that she isn’t on HBL). I like being able to run an errand in the middle of the work-day, knowing that I can make up for the work later in the evening. I like the flexibility now.

Which brings me to the biggest draw to stave off what is making people quit. The ability to enjoy their work.

Don’t believe me? Ask yourself: If you hate what you do (for whatever reason, whether it is a toxic work environment or a lack of interest on your part), at some point, wouldn’t you decide that no amount of money would keep you there?

Covid has forced many of us to have a rethink of what we are doing with our lives, and that is why some have termed “The Great Resignation” as “The Great Re-evaluation” instead.

Look at people whom you know of who truly believe in what they do: How many years have they been in the business? Do you think they do it for the money? Or a belief in their product or what they do?

As consultant Lindsay McGregor explains, play is an important part of work.

“Play is about twice as powerful when it comes to adaptive performance than purpose,” she says, adding that it is about doing what you love.

How do you find happiness in your job? What truly drives you?

toxic work culture, How can we stay motivated in our jobs when toxicity, restlessness and fatigue set in?
Madam Dai’s story resonated with many people. Image source: Angel Marie Magdoza

Recently, we ran a story about an 86-year-old grandmother who set up a small stall outside the ICA building. She has been a fixture there for more than 10 years but Covid hit her hard.

Madam Dai lives alone because her husband is in an old folks’ home and she can’t visit him because of restrictions. She doesn’t see her son and her granddaughters often even though they talk every night on the phone. And because of Covid, her stall selling passport holders and trinkets has been suffering from lack of customers.

When my colleague Angel and I visited her, we didn’t stay for long. But the 30 minutes we spent with her, listening to her life, comforting her through her tears, sharing a moment of humanity with a Singaporean grandmother, moved us.

A few days after our story came out, Shin Min Daily News did a cover page feature on Madam Dai. I went to see her the next day. She recognised me from afar and waved at me.

“More people came to see me,” she told me excitedly in Mandarin. “They told me that they saw me in the paper! I didn’t know I was in the papers!”

I smiled and passed her the copy of the newspaper that I had been hiding behind my back.

That look of happiness on her face reminded me of why I do what I do. That is the “play” that keeps me going.

What drives us differs from person to person. Only you can decide what is your inspiration. Toxicity takes away your joy. Recognition (monetary or otherwise) helps regain it. But I would argue that what keeps you committed to what you do is knowing why you do it and who you do it for.

What do you enjoy about your job?

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