Do you hate your work?

By Caitlin Kelly

This was a workday for us in rural Nicaragua. Sweet!
This was a workday for us in rural Nicaragua. Sweet!

Here’s a truly depressing look at the American workplace:

 Curious to understand what most influences people’s engagement and productivity at work, we partnered with the Harvard Business Review last fall to conduct a survey of more than 12,000 mostly white-collar employees across a broad range of companies and industries. We also gave the survey to employees at two of The Energy Project’s clients — one a manufacturing company with 6,000 employees, the other a financial services company with 2,500 employees. The results were remarkably similar across all three populations.

Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

My recent trip with WaterAid America to the poorest part of Nicaragua– all these photos– was an amazing re-set for me. Our multi-national, five-person team, only two of whom had met previously, worked 12-hour days in 95-degree heat, and even had to push the van every time to get it started.


We also faced extraordinary poverty, interviewing people living on $1/day in the second-poorest nation in the Americas after Haiti. It could, I suppose, have felt depressing and enervating, but we were meeting amazing people doing valuable work.

It was by far my happiest paid week in a very, very long time.

What I saw and felt there also radically altered the way I now think about my career and how I hope, at least some of the time, to earn my living.

Because our work during that week — driving four hours a day into the bush to interview local women in Miskitu — hit all four of the core needs at once.

We were treated with kindness and respect, laughed loudly and often, and knew the work we were focused on was life-changing. How much better could it get?

A typical working lunch in Nicaragua
A typical working lunch in Nicaragua

People fantasize wildly about the life of a writer, how creative it must be, how satisfying.

I discussed this recently with a female friend, recently retired after a 30-year career as a writer at the Toronto Star.

“Do you think our work is creative?” I asked her.

“Not so much,” she said.

We’re expected to be highly productive. We get to meet and interview a wide variety of people, but creative? That’s not what journalists (sad to say) are paid for.

I stay freelance for many reasons, and the key one is autonomy and the chance to re-make my work into something that, whenever possible, hits all four core needs.

Jennifer and I at the beach; our translator, Dixie, takes a break
Jennifer and I at the beach; our translator, Dixie, takes a break

My field, journalism and publishing, has changed a great deal in recent years — pay rates have been reduced to 1970s-era levels,  which requires that I and many others now work much, much faster on many more projects at once to make a decent living.

I dislike having to race through most of my assignments to earn a profit — but quality costs time and money to produce and very few people are willing, now, to pay for that.

I never used to hate my work, and I find it very stressful when I do. But journalism is a field in which workers are rarely thanked or praised, in which sources can be elusive or demanding and in which we rarely seem to find time or money to focus on serious issues.

As they are for too many frustrated workers, the four core needs are often damn difficult to attain.

(Or is it “just work”? It’s not meant to be enjoyable)?

How about you?

Do you hate your work?

35 thoughts on “Do you hate your work?

  1. I will refrain from sharing my true feelings on this because of digital breadcrumbs, etc. beyond to say that I shared this on my Facebook wall and a lot of my coworkers “liked” it.

    What I will say, though, is that my husband made the choice several years ago to leave his highly paid tech-sector job to become an addictions counselor, and I do not know a single person who loves their work more than he loves his.

    1. Thanks!

      Journalism has become a sad mess compared to what I knew and loved in prior years. It does not surprise me that you might find this post resonant — or your friends and colleagues. It’s very depressing to me to hate my work and I am trying to find ways to make it more tolerable, and to find new ways to use my skills. Ironically (or not), the further away from journalism I get the more appreciated I am by other clients in other fields.

      Congrats to your husband for being able to find work that so happily fits his skills and temperament. It’s amazing when one can do it and seems absurdly rare and difficult to achieve.

      1. It really is depressing to hate your work, isn’t it? I try to practice a certain degree of gratitude – gratitude for a steady paycheck, benefits, a job that doesn’t put me in danger – but that only goes so far to counterbalance the ennui.

        I’m glad to hear you are finding ways to put your talents, skills and experience to use, and for people who actually appreciate them. Journalism’s loss is everyone else’s gain, I suppose.

      2. You’re young enough to make a leap into something else/better….why not? At my age, it’s a waste of $$$ to get a degree in something else, and no one would hire me at my age anyway, so I’m trying to shift my skills when and where I can.

        It is sad to me that most journalism is so stagnant and stuck. It’s essential for society to have access to deep, smart reporting, but I see so little of it and so little $$$ support for that.

      3. I would like to. I’m in a contract for the next 2.75 years but after that, I’m leaving the industry and doing something else. I’ve got some ideas I’ve been baking…

        And I completely agree about how sad the situation is. Every time I read a great piece of reporting that I know had to take a lot of time and effort to put together, I feel a little more sad because it’s a reminder of what we’re losing in the rush for more cheaply-produced celebrity fluff/spot news crime coverage/shitty opinion writing.

      4. So glad to know you have an exit strategy. I bet you’ll do great work wherever you land.

        I am simply sickened by the shallowness of much “news.” What a waste of time and talent.

  2. I don’t hate my work writing, I do that because it’s a passion of mine. As for my job at the financial aid office, it’s a great environment, the people are lovely, and I owe so much to them. So even if the work is tedious at times, I still love the job. In fact, I can only think of one job I’ve hated, and that was years ago!

  3. ianprichard

    Wow, what great timing. I just got back to work from about a month off, and all I’ve been able to do is question what I’m doing here and why I’m in a job that is so slow and unimportant and blah blah blah. And then my dad told me last night, “How many people you think get enough paid vacation to take a month off, son?” Which shut me up pretty quick…

    But as (the other) Caitlin says, a “gratitude list” seems to only go so far. On the whole, though, I’m okay with just having a day job, particularly because it’s one that allows me to spend so much time writing. I’m slowly making progress on my book, and picking up a paid writing assignment here and there, and, yeah, banking a lot of leave.

    People have always struggled between “following their hearts” and “being realistic,” but there’s this idea that people DESERVE to do what they’re most passionate about for a living, and I think that is wrongheaded.

    That HBR finding in the quote you included referred to “mostly white-collar employees,” who always seem to be the focus of these types of studies and findings. The conceit is always that it’s a novelty or a surprise or a disservice or even an injustice that corporate work sucks. No one bothers asking assembly line workers (or retail clerks, right?) if their spiritual needs are met at work. In that respect, these kinds of questions are a class thing. The problem is, our society sells class as spirituality, so people assume they should be getting all their needs met at their jobs – especially if their busting their hump 50, 60, 80 hours a week and are making good coin. The people I look up to most in the business/working world aren’t necessarily those who are so passionate about their jobs that they can’t imagine doing anything else (though that group can be inspiring), but rather the ones whose careers/jobs are a part of their really, really rich lives.

    1. Well said! And so very true.

      I came back to writing-for-a-living with a much deeper appreciation for it after 2.5 years of even part-time retail work. Holy hell. That is WORK in a way that many people will never ever understand.

  4. sthrendyle

    Michael Enright on CBC Sunday Morning interviewed the woman who took on the whole ‘do what you love’ ethic last week (it’s on-line there, somewhere) and then on Monday the HBR story hit the interwebs so as usual we were left with a discussion that really seems to be a bit chicken and egg. Like many freelance writers, I am (and have been, since 1993 or so) “doing what I love” and right now, I actually hate it and desperately want to get out (it’s a slow period, can you tell?). I did feel trapped at work for several years (a government job, with full pension benefits etc) but also felt that sooner or later, I would be downsized. What could be better than to go into the world of ‘free agency’, to ‘be your own boss,’ and ‘live the dream.’

    Well, as the saying goes, “it was great until it wasn’t…” The challenge with a lot of freelancing these days is the utter discouragement at the lousy, 1970s pay, (since a lot of what I’ve written is advertorial, I don’t really care much about the by-line stuff) and the attendant fact that unless you’ve been REALLY good at managing your money as gas, food, and home costs soar. Indeed,you’re likely heading backwards financially as your age roars forward into something you might call retirement, except that there is no retirement income.

    I tried for years (sometimes successfully, other years not so much – it’s been a halting thing) to turn what I love into real money, but the march of technological progress (AKA the internet) has obviously meant that there is far, far more competition out there (and seriously, what kind of job is ‘communications specialist in the outdoor adventure/travel industry, anyway?).

    The deeper question, which you of course got into with your Malled book, is what happens when you are, in fact, forced into a survival wage situation? (Alas, that book has already been written so I won’t be getting any dough to write about it!). I am no Pollyanna, but I really did think that rolling the dice on this kind of career would work out, eventually. But it has not.

    As humans, we spend a lot of time trying to put food on the table and hopefully do more than just survive. I think (as your essay points out) that truly meaningful work does come from helping others. Having said that, not knowing where your next contract or assignment is coming from gets really old, and causes more stress in your 50s than it does in your 20s.

    Perhaps that advice about “doing what you love” should be tempered with “be careful what you wish for.”

    1. All true.

      My next blog post is about five reasons to freelance and five reasons not to.

      The only people I know who write for a living right now and earn decent income and enjoy it (which is linked) have steady corporate clients paying them $25K a year to start just for that (or more) — with journalism income really an amusing hobby on the side. Or ghostwriting, which I plan to investigate after I return from our vacation right now.

      I’d love to write a few more books but do not, literally, see how I can afford to do so. That’s a sad comment on who IS writing books, which means people who do it for a hobby or a business boost or some prestige they cannot buy any other way.

      1. She and I are on the same writers’ listserv, so I recognize her byline. No journalism organization I know of is paying enough to keep any freelancer living well — well-paid places like Vanity Fair and the New Yorker hire people on staff.

  5. i think every single moment of this trip was wonderful, including the challenges. it is experiences like these that create paradigm shifts in our personal lives. as you know, i’ve changed my life in dramatic ways, and love what i do every day, even on the hardest ones. i feel lucky.

  6. Very good piece, thanks! Sounds like you gained so much from your trip; it has been fascinating to read of it. I had a passion for my work as an addictions and mental health clinician for over 20 years. But I decided to quit for many reasons–non-proift work is grueling and political in ways I don’t always want to experience. The actual counseling has been wonderful, and a career i had not expected to engage in much less devote myself to.What am I doing now? Writing…poetry, short stories, novels. It pays badly or not at all thus far…but I will not give it up this time. It ticks all those boxes you noted. And volunteer work is a good thing to do, as well. Cheers!

    1. I admire anyone who can do the work you did; having experienced addiction in my own family, I have no patience for it and have seen the damage it inflicts on families. Glad you are now enjoying life more!

  7. I should add that my husband, an engineer and statistician, loves his work and has been at it since his twenties. He problem solves/”puts out fires”, and that involves a fair amount of travel, all of which he loves. As it was for me, it was a bit of a fluke that he ended up in his field career.

  8. I should add that my husband, an engineer and statistician, loves his work and has been at it since his twenties. He problem solves/”puts out fires”, and that involves a fair amount of travel, all of which he loves. As it was for me, it was a bit of a fluke that he ended up in his field..

  9. Well said! If I may add to the emotional part – if the culture ensures that one is praised in public and reprimanded in private, it helps. Call it maintaining one´s dignity, if you will.

  10. I am of a lucky temperament/disposition. I have never “hated” work. Any work. The worst that can happen to me, and it’s hell, is to be bored – usually because there isn’t enough work to occupy me. I once had a boss who so sensed my frustration she ran out, bought me a wonderful book on knitting (don’t laugh) and implored me to start a cottage industry. Which I did (no, not knitting) after I’d found her a replacement for me.

    I dread the mind numbing. Love a deadline looming as described by you. Focuses the mind. Tunnel vision. Even if my fingers do betray me by an adrenaline induced slight tremor.

    In many ways I envy you (I am not particularly good at envying anyone but will make an exception for you): You earn your money in a way I wouldn’t mind myself. Warts and all. The job without warts has yet to be invented.

    Out of curiosity – and linking to your post on the difficulty of giving away money surplus to your own requirements: When faced with those having to survive on a dollar a day did you (personally) top it up/double it for the day? I admire all those who can work and face every day the misery of others. It’d probably do my head in. I once had a veritable Florence Nightingale/Mother Theresa ambition. Except everyone who ‘knows’ me warned me off in no uncertain terms: You wouldn’t last five minutes, Ursula. (Because apparently I take every human suffering too much to heart. Unable to detach). Maybe. Who knows.

    Looking forward to your answer, Caitlin. Interesting post, interesting comments from your other readers.


    1. We discussed the issue of gift-giving to our interview subjects with WaterAid’s staff before we left and agreed this was not effective and had been, in the past, divisive. So we did not.

      I donate my time and skills to other causes. Jen and I might sponsor a scholarship for one of the girls we met and interviewed.

  11. I have tried very hard over a number of years to craft a life in which I get to do work that I enjoy. Not all of it at the same level, but work that pays the bills and allows me creative freedom. I have friends that are miserable and don’t even know how miserable so I guess I’m thankful for the ability to do what I do. Do I love it every day? No. But it feeds me–literally and figuratively. That, to me, is key.

  12. I had a major career change in my mid-40s. Do I love or hate my present work? I absolutely love it and it’s paying the bills and holiday trips nicely. I am luckier than most, I know.

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