R U OK?

IMG_1281Today is ‘Keep a low profile’ day. Well, I expect it will be for many. It’s actually R U OK day – a day to remind us all that it’s important to look out for one another. The trouble is that many will cringe if the only time people care for them is on a designated day. Every day is a good day to ask R U OK. So let’s slow down sufficiently to keep an eye out for each other.

I know a good number of my friends aren’t OK. Life sucks sometimes, and sometimes often. I get this. Sometimes life feels like the walls are closing in on me and I need help to see the big picture.

So if you’re not OK, please reach out.

Beyond Blue  1300 224 636

Lifeline  13 11 14

(Original artwork by Liam)

Decluttering the inbox

No Junk Mail copyI’ve spent much of the past couple of days in bed due to my three weekly chemo malaise and I feel like I’ve achieved something worthwhile—I’ve decluttered my inbox. More than simply getting hundreds of emails down to a small handful, I’ve systematically unsubscribed to dozens of regular newsletters, blogs, advertisements, and junk that fill my box every day. I have no idea how I ended up collecting many of these emails. Some were an impulse click. Some were a good idea at the time, but are no longer relevant. One or two I’ve changed the frequency from daily to weekly or monthly. People keep telling us that too much information—which often corresponds to too many emails—can’t be be doing us any good. I’m looking forward to a simpler eLife!

Crazy Busy

crazybusyI read this book some months back and was intending to review it immediately. But then something happened—I got crazy busy! I took on a new ministry role and pretty soon I had a full diary, began skipping exercise, let my good eating habits go, kept myself awake at night thinking about things, and couldn’t even find time to finish a summary/review of what is a fairly short and simple book.

Crazy Busy: a (mercifully) short book about a (really) big problem is a book for Christian leaders that was always destined to be a best-seller. I’ve yet to meet a pastor who doesn’t cry ‘busy’. To be honest, it’s rare to meet anyone these days who doesn’t lay claim to being crazy busy. Busyness is epidemic in our fast-paced, technologically-advanced, opportunity-laden, affluent, western societies. All the ridiculous promises for the future—that we will have so much time on our hands that we won’t know what to do with it—were just that: ridiculous promises. In fact, in some circles busyness is worn as a badge of honour. Unless someone is busy they shouldn’t be taken seriously.

De Young warns of the dangers of busyness…

But if the strain is mental—as is the case for most jobs and for most of us—the negative impact on the body can be huge. So don’t ignore the physical danger of busyness. Just remember the most serious threats are spiritual. When we are crazy busy, we put our souls at risk. The challenge is not merely to make a few bad habits go away. The challenge is not to let our spiritual lives slip away. The dangers are serious, and they are growing. And few of us are as safe as we may think. (p26)

Busyness can blind us to problems that are deep and destructive. Our lives can become joyless as we struggle to keep up with all the demands. It can rob our hearts of the opportunities to reflect, learn, and grow. Discontent can eat away at us as we envy the time, opportunities, and ‘freedoms’ of others. Busyness can cover up deeper problems within our souls. Having our diaries and planners crammed full does not equate to faithfulness or fruitfulness. It only means you are busy, just like everyone else. And like everyone else, your joy, your heart, and your soul are in danger. (p32)

Crazy Busy offers seven diagnoses to consider in understanding the depth of our problems with busyness. The first of these is pride. He strings a list of ‘P’ words together to make his point. These include people-pleasing, proving ourselves, seeking pity, poor planning, a need for power, the problem of perfectionism, seeking prestige, and more. De Young has found one simple question helps him to assess whether pride lies behind his busyness…

Am I trying to do good, or make myself look good? (p39)

The second diagnosis has to do with obligation. Are we trying to do what God doesn’t expect us to do? We need to be reminded often that we are not the Christ; that the gospel is great news of joy—not a demand of all that must be done; that care is not the same as do; that we have different gifts and different callings; that the church is a body with many parts; that prayer is something positive and practical we can do; and that even Jesus didn’t do it all. Above all, we need to remember that it’s not up to us to keep the universe going—God has that covered.

De Young’s third diagnosis focuses on mission creep. He reminds us of the importance of setting and sticking to priorities. Jesus recognised that there were so many good things he could do, but he would not let the good get in the way of his number one priorities. Jesus was not ultimately driven by the needs or the approval of others. He was focused on his divine mission. Not that we are on a mission from God in the same vein as Jesus, but the point is that if Jesus had to set and stick to priorities, then so must we. We simply cannot do everything and nor should we try.

Fourthly, we are warned to stop freaking out about our kids. He reminds us that it’s harder to ruin our kids than we think and it’s impossible to guarantee their future successes. In trying to do more and more for our kids we may be increasing the build up of stress in our lives and theirs. De Young refers to a Galinsky survey of more than thousand children in grades three to twelve. He asked the kids what was one thing they would change about the way their parents’ work was affecting them.

The kids rarely wished for more time with their parents, but much to the parents’ surprise, they wished their parents were less tired and less stressed.  (p70)

The fifth diagnosis looks at the impact of the screen and technology. De Young confesses that he used to roll his eyes about technophiles, until he became one!

Now I have a blog, a Facebook Page, a Twitter handle, a Bluetooth headset, an iPhone, an iPad, wifi at work and at home, cable TV, a Wii, a Blu-ray player, multiple email accounts, and unlimited texting. (p78)

We’re warned to take seriously the threat of addiction to all our devices. Multiple lines of instant communication can be a continual distraction to achieving anything productive. Our busyness makes us more prone to descending into trivia and mindlessly tuning out in front of the TV or the internet. It’s hard to be alone when we are ‘on call’ all the time—and being alone is important. We need to ask the hard questions about whether our new technologies are making our lives simpler, or more complicated. What steps should we take to ensure that such things remain our servants and don’t become our masters?

Diagnosis number six reminds us of the necessity of rest. God’s design was that we work and we rest. The danger these days is that we blur these two. Life becomes overwhelming because our days and weeks and years lack rhythm. We take work home with us. Our phones and lap tops are part work/part pleasure. We give lip service to the idea of day off, but we’re never totally on or off. (I confess this is my struggle.) De Young reminds us that we need to work hard just to rest. Breaks need to be planned. Unscheduled time needs to be scheduled. The rhythms of work and rest need planning. (p98)

The final diagnosis is a surprise one. We are busy because we are supposed to be busy. We’re too quick to assume that life was intended to be easy, comfortable, relaxed, calm. The reality is that we are sinful beings living in a complex world. We should expect to struggle with tiredness, illness, confusion, complex relationships, burdens and busyness. Sometimes our problem lies not with the circumstances but with our attitudes to them. We’re caught out, confused, and we don’t know how to respond.

The antidote to busyness of soul is not sloth and indifference. The antidote is rest, rhythm, death to pride, acceptance of our own finitude, and trust in the providence of God. (p102)

De Young’s answer is to point us to Jesus. We are encouraged to spend time ‘at his feet’ listening to his words. We’re called to devote ourselves to the Word of God and prayer. The problem is, when I hear this, it can sound like another busyness burden to add to all the others. And so I need to be reminded that it is God’s word that refocuses and refreshes me. It is through prayer that I can unload my burdens and anxieties upon God. Beginning the day with God helps me to keep perspective. To Do lists, difficult conversations, meetings, preparation and planning, sermons, studies, and everything else, need to be seen from the perspective that only God’s word can provide—eternity. And so I will learn again to humbly ask for God’s wisdom, grace, and strength, to do what he would have me do, for his glory.

Growing yourself up

GYUThis book takes me back a quarter of a century to my times as a social worker. In the final year of my BSW degree, I focused primarily on studying family therapy and the writings of Murray Bowen were very influential. I loved this stuff. It was so helpful to see people as part of a family system and to explore the influences and impact of relationships, family members, experiences, and expectations. One time we saw an adolescent boy for counselling. He had been acting out at school and finding a multitude of ways to get into trouble. It wasn’t until we met with his family and discovered that his father had become dependent on a kidney dialysis machine, that we were able to begin understanding and helping him. It wasn’t his problem alone–it was a family problem.

I enjoyed reading through this book and discovered many insights relevant to my circumstances. I know others have found much benefit in this material, but one or two have commented to me that they’ve found it hard going, like entering another world with its own vocal and jargon. Perhaps, my earlier training made this book easier.

Jenny Brown has built heavily on the work of Bowen in her excellent book, Growing Yourself Up. You could probably describe this as a ‘self help’ book, but with a difference. It’s about helping the reader to gain an increased sense of ‘self’ to enable them to enjoy better relationships with others. We grow into personal maturity as we learn to more clearly differentiate ourselves from others so that we develop healthy personal relationships. This book draws on family systems theory to help us understand who we are in the light of, and distinct from, our relationships with others. Our families of origin have a profound impact on who we are—how we think and act and speak.

Brown’s underlying conviction is that it’s never too late for any of us do do some more growing up. Greater emotional maturity is at the heart of this goal.

This book starts with the big question: Are you willing to take a fresh look at your own maturity gaps, instead of declaring that another needs to ‘grow up’?  (p8)

Growing Yourself Up helps us to see and understand the immature part that that we are playing in our relationships with others. Instead of pointing the blame, we are helped to see our own contribution to the problems and impasses we find ourselves caught up in. Unlike much recent psychotherapy which focuses on finding our inner child, this approach is about growing our inner adult in all areas of our relationships. Moving beyond childhood to adulthood can be expressed by the following attributes:

  1. Have your feelings without letting them dominate; tolerate delayed gratification
  2. Work on inner guidelines; refrain from blaming
  3. Accept people with different views; keep connected
  4. Be responsible for solving our own problems
  5. Hold onto your principles
  6. See the bigger picture of reactions and counter-reactions  (p17-19)

It takes time to work through these things. We need to learn about ourselves in relationship with others. We need to learn not to let our emotions dominate our thinking. We need to learn how to take control of our anxieties. This is all part of growing our inner adult—slowly.

Relationships—close relationships, while remaining a distinct self—are at the core of adult maturity. Our experiences of relationship from our earliest times vary along a continuum of feeling isolated and abandoned, through to feeling inseparable or smothered by others. We are helped to understand more clearly the strengths and weaknesses of our previous experiences of relationships—especially those in our family of origin—and how they impact our decision making in the present.

This book takes us through various key life stages, circumstances, and changes. It looks at the threats to and opportunities for growing in maturity. Such areas include leaving home, single adulthood, marriage, sex, parenting, work, facing setbacks such as separation or divorce, midlife, ageing, empty nests, retirement, old age, and facing death. Pretty well covers it really! In all these situations there are issues to face in our quest to grow into adult-maturity. This book helps us to understand our part in navigating these changes and stages wisely.

One section in this book, I found particularly helpful deals with the temptation to triangulate our relationships, especially in situations of conflict. This is one of the major threats to adult maturity. A relationship triangle is where the tensions between two people are relieved by escaping to a third party. (p44) This may serve to dissipate tension and help families and groups to manage, but it also results in issues not being addressed and often placing the third person is a vary awkward position. It’s helpful to examine how we might have been (or currently be) involved in such triangles, and why. Such triangles are very common and universally unhelpful for dealing with conflict and tensions in families, churches, teams, and a range of relationships.

This is the type of book that you benefit from reading through completely and then returning to digest the most relevant sections in more detail. As a pastor who deals with people all the time, I found this book offering many helpful insights. It is especially important to understand people in the context of their relationships. And it’s in these relationships that we grow ourselves up.

Margin

marginMargin: Restoring emotional, physical, financial, and time reserves to overloaded lives by Richard Swenson is an important book for anyone who is living in the red zone. If hearing the word ‘stress’ makes you stressed; if hearing the word ‘workaholic’ makes you defensive; if you’re worried about burnout; if you’re always on edge; if you’d prefer to hide in a corner than talk with people; if your credit card never gets paid off; if your children’s sporting and social calendar controls your life; if you’re never on top of what needs to get done and everything seems to be getting more and more out of control; if you never have enough time… then you should probably make time to read Margin.

Swenson argues that overload is a modern western epidemic. People are exhausted, hurt, anxious, and fatigued. Our bodies and our relationships are suffering. We can’t keep up with the demands of life. He describes this as losing our margin—the space that exists between ourselves and our limits. Margin is what we desperately need to regain.

The pain of progress, stress, and overload

Progress is normality for twenty first century Westerners. And we work on the assumption that progress is by definition good. We’re often blinded to the negative personal, relational, and environmental consequences of progress. So often progress sabotages margin, leads to increased stress, has unforeseen negative consequences, and overlooks areas of life that we should value more highly.

Most modern progress has been in:

  • the physical environment (wealth, technology, health—the material world)
  • the cognitive environment (knowledge, information, education—the intellectual world)

Most of our pain has been in:

  • the social environment (family, friends, etc)
  • the emotional environment (feelings, attitudes—our psychological world)
  • the spiritual environment (eternal, transcendent, etc)

Human beings have physical, mental, emotional and financial limits. Progress keeps putting us on a collision course with these limits. When we move beyond our limits we move beyond our margin into overload. We need to live with an awareness of our limits. If we live within our limits, then we create margins that help us to function in healthy and sustainable ways.

Change in my lifetime has been exponential, and continues to be so. This leads to unprecedented levels of stress. If we’re overstressed then we have two options: stress reduction and stress management. Stress reduction takes courage. It may require rearranging our lives: changing jobs, living on smaller incomes, learning to say no. Stress management is about learning how to handle our responses to stressors by taking a dose of margin.

Many of us live in the world of overload. Activity overload, change overload, choice overload, commitment overload, debt overload, decision overload, expectation overload, fatigue overload, hurry overload, information overload, media overload, noise overload, people overload, possession overload, technology overload, traffic overload, work overload (using the word ‘overload overload!). We tend to believe ‘one more thing won’t hurt’—until it does. Chronic overloading has a bad impact on our spiritual, emotional and relational lives. We need to learn what our limits are, and to respect them.

Margin

There is an African saying about those from the West. They say: ‘You have watches—we have time!’ They enjoy margin. Life for many is lived at a slower pace. Things are more deliberate. There’s more time for friends and family and neighbours. Progress has taken this kind of margin away from us. 

While agreeing that margin is a good thing, many would say it’s a luxury or unrealistic. Overload is the new normal and it takes too much work to change it. Swenson writes that to be healthy we need margin in at least four areas: emotional energy, physical energy, time, and finances. Emotionally, we have rarely been so stressed, so alone, exhausted in spirit. Physically, we are over-fed, under-active, and sleep-deprived. Time-wise, we are busy and worn-out. Financially, with live beyond our means in times of extraordinary widespread personal debt.

Margin in emotional energy

Of the four areas we need margin, margin in emotional energy is paramount.

Emotional overload saps our strength, paralyzes our resolve, and maximizes our vulnerability, leaving the door open for even further margin erosion.  (p79)

When we are emotionally resilient, we can deal with much that comes our way. When it’s lacking, it makes everything else more difficult. So if we find our emotional energy has evaporated, how can we get it back? Dr Swenson offers fourteen prescriptions:

  1. Cultivate social supports
    Good friends are good medicine. We should intentionally seek out relationships that refresh, with people who care for and understand us.
  2. Pet a surrogate
    Pets are capable of bonding, are loyal, and often affectionate. Except for cats—just saying!
  3. Reconcile relationships
    Broken relationships are a razor across the artery of the spirit.
    (p87) Reconciliation is powerful and health enhancing.
  4. Serve one another
    If you do regular volunteer work then you will increase your life expectancy, as well as your joy in life.
  5. Rest
    Escape. Relax. Sleep in. Take a nap. Unplug (turn off) the phone. Try setting aside time regularly for quiet and rest.
  6. Laugh
    Apparently people who laugh often heal faster. I’ll have to try it!
  7. Cry
    If you laugh hard enough you will! Crying contributes to emotional restoration.
  8. Create appropriate boundaries
    Learn to say ‘no’.
  9. Envision a better future
    We all must have a purpose bigger than ourselves that we can live for. We must have something we can believe in, something we can give ourselves to. (p91)
  10. Offer thanks
    We all have much to be thankful for. Grumbling drains. Gratitude fills.
  11. Grant grace
    Stop judging people. You’re adding burdens to your back. Lighten both your loads.
  12. Be rich in faith
    The most vital ingredient of resilience is faith. (p93)
  13. Hold fast to hope
    Hope fosters physical and emotional health. Real hope is not naive optimism.
  14. Above all, love
    Receive it and then give it away.

Margin in physical energy

Australia has become the nation of obesity. The book speaks about Americans, but Aussies have a greater problem. We’re overweight, lacking in energy, and addicted to the wrong things. Our bodies only work properly when cared for, fuelled properly, rested regularly, and serviced occasionally. We’re more vulnerable to the effects of stress when our energy reserves are low. The keys to physical margin are sleep, exercise, and nutrition.

Prescriptions for restoring margin in physical energy:

  1. Take personal responsibility
    Changing habits is difficult, but necessary to create margin. Surround yourself with others who will help you to break out of the old patterns of thinking and living.
  2. Value sleep
    Develop healthy sleeping patterns. Don’t push on having less than you know you need and don’t oversleep. Try to develop good routines. Take naps occasionally if you need to. If you eat and exercise better, then you’ll likely sleep better too.
  3. Eat well
    Cut the junk food, eat healthy, and drink plenty of water.
  4. Exercise
    Exercise your heart. Build your muscles. Increase your stamina. Improve your flexibility. Do it regularly, but don’t overdo it.

Margin in Time

We live busy lives. We speak of having no time, losing time, borrowing time, being out of time, and trying to find the time. We’re constantly filling all our time and need to create margins.

With smart phones, laptop computers and wireless internet, some people are always in work time and need to learn how to margin time to rest. In creating a margin of time we must allow time for ourselves, our families, our friendships, and God. Again this means learning to say ‘no’, to make priorities and honour them. Some things need to drop out of our lives—we can just keep adding.

We need to relearn the value of simplicity and contentment instead of continuously desiring the latest and greatest. We should probably turn the television off and find other things to do. Maybe surfing the internet isn’t the best alternative. We should stop living in the frantic and urgent, and devote more to the long-term and important. We should focus less on how much we do and evaluate what is best to do. Let’s stop and reflect, enjoy what we do, and learn from it.

Create buffer zones, plan free time. Ask yourself—do you have time for the unplanned and unexpected? Stop being so busy and plan to make yourself available.

Margin in Finances

Our world is in economic crisis. We can’t keep on living beyond our means and expect things to keep getting better and better. This is true globally, nationally, and personally. Creating financial margin has obvious benefits. Lowering expenses below our incomes decreases stress and pressure. Having margin gives us opportunity to contribute to the needs of others.

Some people are in deep trouble financially. Swenson offers some suggestions for restoring financial margin, and here is my summary:

  1. Don’t allow economics to be your primary measure in life
  2. Be willing to part with the culture in its quest for more and more things
  3. Live within your means
  4. Discipline your desires and redefine your needs
  5. Decrease spending and increase saving
  6. Make a budget
  7. Cut up your credit cards
  8. Limit your mortgage
  9. Resist impulse buying
  10. Depreciate things and appreciate people
  11. Learn to lend and give away your things
  12. Forget fashion
  13. Do without
  14. Remember what you have belongs to God

Increasing my margin

Creating margin is a helpful way of describing how to ‘underload’ our overloaded lives. We need to create margin. Margin for people, margin for ourselves, margin to think and plan, margin to refresh, margin to stay out of debt, and more. My problem is I’ve so often closed that margin.

I remember looking at my timetable one day and realising that I’d booked meetings back to back all day. There was no time to plan before meetings, reflect after meetings, or travel between meetings. As the day went on I’d get further behind and I’d finish the day exhausted. No doubt the latter meetings weren’t as helpful as the earlier ones. So I began slotting in longer times for my meetings to allow time to catch my breath, think over what was coming up, jot notes afterwards, pray about what I was doing, and to allow for travel from one meeting to another.

This afternoon I attended a farewell event for a fellow pastor in Canberra. It was a wonderful tribute to the work of God in and through this man and his family. One thing stood out among the many praises showered on this man—he always has time for people. Ministers are infamous for putting out the vibe of busyness, so it was exciting to hear of a friend who has broken the mould. Would that this be me and many others I know.

Busyness is not cool. It’s not a virtue. It’s not a sign of how important, indispensable or valuable we are. It’s more often an indicator that we haven’t managed to effectively prioritise or manage our time. It probably means we’re dominated by the urgent rather than the important. And it certainly means we need to create margin in our lives.

Serving without sinking

serving_sinkingOver the past year or so, I’ve read and reread a great many books on Christian leadership and service. This new book is seriously one of the most important books I’ve read. It is deeply, simply, and accurately theological. This makes it rich indeed. It’s not about technique or skill. It’s not about looking after yourself, so you last the distance without burning out. Serving without Sinking by John Hindley is liberating and empowering because it points above all to God’s grace in Jesus. It honours Christ by focusing on him, rather than you and I. It’s a thoroughly Biblical mindset that critiques and reshapes our whole perspective on Christian service. Instead of beginning with our service of Christ, it reminds us of these important words in Mark 10:45 that Jesus came first to serve us:

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

If we’re finding Christian service a burden, if we’re miserable and joyless, then Hindley suggests we examine our motives for service.

It could be we have a wrong view of God. If we’re serving Jesus so as to be good enough for him, or to get something from him, or to repay Jesus in some way, then we have forgotten the heart of the good news. Jesus came to serve us. This is his free gift to us. We don’t have to measure up, earn our way, or repay the debt. Relationship with God through Jesus is a free gift to be received joyfully.

We might also have a wrong view of people. Perhaps we’re serving to impress others, to receive their thanks or praise, or so that we feel like we are accepted and belong.

Joyless service could also stem from a wrong view of ourselves. Maybe we feel we are indispensable, that somehow Jesus needs us if he is going to be able to accomplish his purposes. Alternatively, we might be feeling like we don’t need Jesus. We’ve become activists who do things on our own, rather than praying for God to be at work in and through us.

Serving without Sinking shifts the attention away from us and puts it back on Jesus.

The counter-intuitive truth I’ve come to realise—the truth that prompted me to write this book—is that the only way to get our service of Jesus right is to realise that supremely, we don’t serve him. He serves us. (p45)

The truth that Jesus came to serve us, to give his life to ransom us for God, means we’ve been given free access to God. It doesn’t depend on our performance and because of this we are liberated to serve in joyful response.

The truth that we have been reconciled to Jesus leads us to serve him, not because we have to or need to, but because we are his friends. This is not about duty, or obligation, or simply obedience—it’s about relationship.

The truth that we have been united with Christ as his bride, draws us into the intimacy of relationship with him. He has sacrificed everything for us and is preparing us for eternity. Jesus is working through our service of him to get us ready for that great day when we will be fully joined with him.

The truth that we’ve been adopted into God’s family as sons, with full inheritance rights, to join in the family business, means we have the privilege of working with God. He doesn’t need us to help him, but he loves us doing so.

Grasping these truths refocuses our Christian service. It opens the door to rediscovering the joy and freedom that come through the gospel. It takes the heat off us. If the Christian life is reduced to our service of God then we will fail miserably. But if we take hold of God’s promises then we cannot fail. Jesus has done it all.

Moreover, Jesus continues to serve us. He intercedes for us today. Because Jesus prays for us, we don’t have to!

So prayer, like other ways of serving, is not something we need to do—it is something we are able to do; an opportunity to enjoy, not a chore to endure. (p84)

Jesus has also served us by sending us the Holy Spirit to enable us to serve him. This is the best gift he has to give, and he gives the Spirit to each one of his followers. Through the Spirit he equips us to serve by giving us gifts. Serving is not jobs that have to be done, but gifts to be unwrapped. These gifts are not for our sake, but gifts to be enjoyed by the church body.

The Spirit of God enables us to serve God with love. Loving God is not something I will do naturally, but something God’s Spirit grows in me. We can mistakenly think that if we simply obey God, then we will love him. However, it doesn’t work this way. Love will lead to service, but not the other way round. Love makes service joyful and free. If our service of Christ has become a burden, or stopped happening, we don’t need to try to obey more. We should ask your God to send his Spirit to work in our heart so that we are captured again by his love and service of us.

Serving without Sinking is a breath of fresh air. I pray that it will reignite our desire to love God leading to joyful service of God and others. If you’re feeling despondent, battle weary, or disillusioned in Christian service—take the time to read this book. If you’re worried that your brothers or sisters are becoming like this, then grab them a copy and talk about it together. If you’re a pastor, looking for ways to thank and encourage your leaders, then invest in multiple copies of this book.

One quick word to the author:

You’ve done a good job of helping women to see how they are included in the category of ‘sons’ of God. I think you need to do something similar to help men to appreciate how they can be part of the ‘bride’ of Christ. Maybe in the second edition!

The three signs of a miserable job

3-signs-of-a-miserable-jobThe three signs of a miserable job is another helpful analysis by leadership and teams expert, Patrick Lencioni. A miserable job is the one that’s tough to get out of bed for. You dread going to work and you can’t wait to get home. It’s not about the actual work. Nor is it about the money. An executive on a seven-figure salary can be miserable, while a waitress finds great satisfaction in her work. It can be any type of job, any business, and any time. No one is immune.

There are huge economic and personal costs to this misery. It damages the individual’s physical and psychological health. It spreads through homes, families, marriages, friendships and society.

The three signs of a miserable job

Anonymity
People can’t be fulfilled in their work if they aren’t known. We all need to be understood and appreciated by someone in authority over us. People who see themselves as invisible, generic, or anonymous are not going to love their jobs.

Irrelevance
Everyone needs to know that their job is important to someone else, even if it’s just the boss. Without seeing a sense of connection between the work and satisfaction of another person or group of people, an employee will not find fulfilment.

Immeasurement
Workers need to be able to gauge for themselves their progress and level of contribution. They won’t be satisfied in their work if success depends on the whims or opinions of others. Without a tangible means for assessing success or failure, motivation eventually deteriorates as people see themselves as unable to control their own fate.

The benefits of managing for job fulfilment

Employees who find their jobs rewarding will work with more enthusiasm, passion, and commitment to quality than those who do not. They’ll develop a sense of ownership and pride in what they are doing.

There will be less staff turnover, with employees holding onto fulfilling jobs as long as they can. Fulfilled employees tend to attract other good employees, ultimately resulting in fewer costs to the organisation. The organisation will enjoy greater stability and cohesion. Being known as a satisfying place to work is a valuable point of difference with other organisations.

The obstacles to managing for job fulfilment

Sometimes employees fail to find fulfilment in their work because they put too much emphasis on getting the right amount of money or finding the ideal job. Yet even people who are paid well for doing something they love can be miserable if they feel anonymous, or irrelevant, or they don’t know if they are succeeding or not.

Sometimes the problem is the organisation. The business and its leaders are slow to see their employee dissatisfaction issues and, when they do, they focus on the wrong things. If they don’t notice until people are starting to resign, then it’s too late. Often people will not honestly state why they are leaving and issues of anonymity, irrelevance, and immeasurability are left unaddressed.

In order to be the kind of leader who demonstrates genuine interest in employees and who can help people discover the relevance of their work, a person must have a level of personal confidence and emotional vulnerability. Without it, managers will often feel uncomfortable, even embarrassed, about having such simple, behavioural conversations with their employees. They will mistakenly feel more like kindergarten teachers or little league coaches delivering a simple pep talk, even though their employees  – at all levels – are yearning for just such a conversation.  (p228)

Addressing anonymity

If you feel that others on the team know and understand you as an individual, then you’re much less likely to want to leave the team. Leaders must take a personal interest in the members of their team. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you start watching the same TV shows they do or listening to their music. Simply get to know them. Take time to sit down with them and ask them about their lives. Keep it real. It must be a genuine interest. Not once off, but over and over again. Show interest and follow it up.

People want to be managed as people, not as mere workers.  (p231)

Addressing irrelevance

Why are so many athletes, rock stars, and actors living such messed up and unsatisfied lives? Lencioni believes the root cause is a subtle fear of irrelevance. He says this because it’s hard to understand how someone who earns truckloads of money doing something they love, and who gets constant attention from others, can be unhappy. And conversely how low-paid, ‘hiding in the background’ workers can be happy. The answer has to do with being needed and having an impact on the lives of others.

Human beings need to be needed. They need to know that they are helping others, not merely serving themselves. Leaders need to help employees (or volunteers) answer two questions in order to establish relevance in their jobs.

‘Who am I helping?’
For many workers, the answer will be the customers, but some people are in jobs where they don’t have direct contact with customers. It could be other employees, colleagues, or departments within the organisation, or even their own boss. Leaders can be reluctant to speak of how people’s work helps them, but most people get a great deal of satisfaction when their supervisor thanks them for what they’ve done or says how helpful and significant it has been.

How am I helping?
The answer to that question isn’t always obvious. When a room attendant at a hotel brings breakfast to a guest, he isn’t just delivering food. He’s helping a weary traveler feel a little better about having to be on the road, which can have a significant impact on their outlook on life that day.

One of the most important things that managers must do is help employees see why their work matters to someone. Even if this sounds touchy-feely to some, it is a fundamental part of human nature.  (p235)

Addressing immeasurement

Effective job measurement lies in identifying the areas that an employee can directly influence. Leaders need to see the importance of the people on their teams having clear measurement criteria. Some measurements will be behavioural in nature and may be achieved by an informal survey of customers or a by identifying behaviours that indicates satisfaction with their work. If people can’t see any clear link between their daily responsibilities and the metric they are being measured against, they lose interest, feeling unable to control their own destiny. This is why so many salespeople enjoy their jobs. They don’t depend on others to tell them whether they’ve succeeded or failed.

Taking action

How can you go about putting all this into action, depends on who you are.

If you’re a manager…

Anonymity: Do I really know my people, their family situations, their interests, or how they spend their spare time?

Irrelevance: Do they know who their work impacts, and how?

Immeasurement: Do they know how to assess their own progress or success?

Employee assessments allow people to confirm or deny the accuracy of your answers. Finally, develop a plan to overcome any inadequacies around the three signs. This could be done one on one or in a team session. Make clear what you are trying to do, so that people don’t assume ulterior motives.

If you’re an employee or looking for a job…

You can do some things to increase the odds that your job will be fulfilling. Talk with your boss (or prospective boss) about the three signs and your desire to avoid them. A good leader will take this seriously. If you’re looking for a job, ask how they show interest in employees, how the job you’re discussing has an impact on people, and how you will be measured. If you’re hearing answers that indicate anonymity, irrelevance, or immeasurement, then it might be the job to avoid.

The ministry of management

I have come to the realisation that all managers can – and really should – view their work as a ministry. A service to others.

By helping people find fulfillment in their work, and helping them succeed in whatever they’re doing, a manager can have a profound impact on the emotional, financial, physical, and spiritual health of workers and their families.  They can also create an environment where employees do the same for their peers, giving them a sort of ministry of their own. (p253)

Some further thoughts on working with volunteers

Much of what I do as a church leader involves working with unpaid volunteers. Lencioni’s diagnosis of the signs of a miserable job is valuable for thinking about how to encourage people to serve in a range of voluntary roles. Are our volunteers feeling recognised, valued, appreciated, and purposeful? Do they understand the importance of their contribution to the ministry of the whole church or organisation? Are they able to assess whether they are doing a good job or not? Or are they left constantly wondering if anyone notices or cares?

How do we recruit volunteers to roles within our ministry? In my experience we often stress the gaps that need filling and push people to fill places on rosters. It’s far more helpful to inspire people with the opportunities for valuable ministry. Explain the essential contribution their work will have to the ministry as a whole. Offer examples, case studies, statistics or personal testimonies. Show the outcomes when this is done well. Highlight the potential for people to use their gifts and grow.

Sometimes we equip volunteers for the work we want them to do and then leave them to do it. The team leader’s job doesn’t stop with training. It flows on into encouragement, feedback, support, and celebrations. Keep reminding people of the relevance and value of their contribution. Empower them to recruit others and play a role in training and developing people in their roles. Acknowledge their contribution publicly in the organisation. Help develop clear metrics by which people can assess the success or failure of their contribution.

If we’re experiencing a high turnover or drop out rate among our volunteers, we should take the time to assess the reasons why. It’s highly likely that people are experiencing one or more of these signs of a miserable job. Leaders would do well to put their minds to helping volunteers overcome feelings of anonymity, irrelevance and immeasurability. It could help to engage volunteers so as to better understand the factors that contribute to or overcome such feelings. This could be done ad hoc or on a regular basis. It could form the basis of a regular formal review with volunteers and teams.