Could your job be bad for your health?

Alumna and La Trobe academic Jodi Oakman studies interactions between people and their workplaces. She describes how you can make choices to ensure a healthy lifelong connection to your work.

For many of us, the new year is a time step back and assess where we are in our life and career. And according to health sciences alumna Jodi Oakman, it’s an especially good time to reflect on how your work affects your mental health.

As Head of La Trobe’s Centre for Ergonomics and Human Factors, Associate Professor Oakman researches the impact of work and organisations on employees' health. She’s found that taking time to think about what you like and dislike about your current job is the first step to understanding whether work is making you happy – or miserable.

‘It’s often when you have time off work that you can step back and say, “Okay, what’s good about work? What else do I need from work? And in twelve months’ time, do I want to be in this same position?”,’ she says.

For Associate Professor Oakman, how you feel about going into your workplace is an important indicator of your happiness there.

‘We all have bad days at work, but when you’re getting up in the morning and dreading going to the office – when you’re not looking forward to what you’re doing – that’s when it’s time to start thinking about doing something else.’

Working in your career, versus working on it

Realising that work is causing you unhappiness can trigger feelings of being ‘stuck’. Depending on your work situation, you may feel limited in your ability to make career choices – or even see that they exist in the first place.

Oakman gives the ‘gig economy’ as an example of a situation that can limit our choice-making. This kind of work moves us from one short term contract or casual job to another, with little work stability. And although we might perceive this way of working as flexible, this flexibility can quickly transform into a limitation when you want to leave a job.

‘People working casually or on contracts don’t necessarily know where their next work is coming from. They don’t necessarily have a steady income, which means it can be difficult to have a buffer between you and all of the outgoings you need to pay. And often you need that financial buffer to start making career choices,’ she says.

On the other hand, you might feel equally stuck by having stayed in one job for a long time. When all you know is the role you’re in, it can be hard to see a work change beyond it.

Both cases – staying too long in a career, and not having steady work outside the gig economy – are examples of what Oakman calls ‘working in your job or career, rather than on it’. And that shift in mindset is exactly what will help you see the career choices you do have, so you can start acting on them.

What to do when work’s got you down

If you’ve realised that your job is having a negative impact on your health, it’s time to take action. Oakman advises that you be ‘as proactive as you can, within your personal circumstances’. Devise a goal about where you want to be in a year’s time and put a plan in place to get there.

To help you develop your plan, Associate Professor Oakman gives the following tips:

1. Reflect on your strengths

When work is making you miserable, it’s easy to forget that you do have strengths. Reflect on what you’re good at and find work that really allows you to use those skills.

Importantly, don’t be disheartened if your strengths are different to those of your colleagues. As Oakman says, ‘That’s a good thing, because it means we’re all not going for the same jobs!’.

2. Recognise your transferable skills

When you’ve been in one job for a long time, it’s easy to think that’s all you can do. But in fact, the skills you’ve developed are highly transferrable to other roles.

Research has shown that jobs are more related than we realise, in that they involve similar skills, everyday tasks and work environments. Seeing these patterns has led researchers to identify seven distinct job clusters. Planning a move within your current job cluster is an ideal way to break from an ill-fitting job, as many of your skills will be portable.

3. Take a big picture view

Develop a broader perspective on your career by deciding what you’re at work for. While most of us say we’re at work for money, there might be other things you want from your job, like intellectual stimulation or a physical challenge. Identify all of your reasons for working and keep them front-of-mind in your job search.

4. Think long-term

Taking a long-term outlook on work acknowledges the reality that many of us will retire later than in previous generations.

‘Given most of us are going to have to work much longer – perhaps into our late 60s – it’s important to have a plan to manage that career,’ Oakman says.

‘Things change, and we may need another career beyond the career we originally set out to do. Thinking about the sort of skills we might need to develop is really important, so we can make choices, rather than having those choices imposed on us.’

If you’ve chosen a physically demanding career, for instance, Oakman recommends having a long-term plan for transitioning into a type of work that will impact your body less. Doing so respects and anticipates that your needs from work will evolve throughout your life.

5. Reflect regularly

While reflecting on your work once in a while is valuable, Oakman ultimately sees managing your career as a continuous process.

‘It’s healthy to think about our work in an ongoing manner, because our needs from work change over time. When we’re in the thick of families, dealing with children and school holidays, our requirements are different to what they might have been when we were a graduate. Then, as we get older and those demands on our time are different again, we need to make new decisions.’

These continual adjustments underpin what Oakman views as a healthy lifelong relationship with your employment. And that’s a career goal worth striving for.

La Trobe alumni receive lifetime access to La Trobe’s career support services and an exclusive subscription to LinkedIn Learning. Visit our website to discover all of the career benefits.

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