A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill Goldson: Tips for returning to work

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Are you working to live or living to work? Photo / iStock
Are you working to live or living to work? Photo / iStock

Some of us are unlocking the proverbial lawnmower at this time of year while others are still on holiday. The changes from office to beach are, for most, a time to pause and reflect - even if we don't believe in setting resolutions for the new year.

Like it, loathe it - or somewhere in between - most of us have to return to work. For those in paid employment outside the home, work is, among other things, about being in a contractual arrangement. All those commentaries about managing families over the festive season now give way to thoughts about that other family - the workplace - and how we manage ourselves in this agreement as well as how we would like to be managed.

Are you living to work or working to live? And does a work/life balance mean that work is not really life? The term "passion" is thrown around a lot these days to describe one's feelings about food, life and work. Is there something wrong if we don't feel "passionate" about our work? Maybe passion is a bit of a gold standard and frankly, holding out for gold is not very possible when, regardless, most of us have to pay the rent.

Feelings of passion about work can take some time to realise. But, if you are struggling with a very ho-hum feeling or worse still, feeling absolute dread about the return to work, it is very likely that you are not achieving anywhere near your potential - in fact you might be feeling blocked from it.

The human brain does not like that feeling at all. The late Abraham Maslow, an influential American psychologist, stressed the role of self-actualisation in good mental health. We all feel better when we are doing what we are good at and feeling challenged but not negatively stressed. Of course this balance is going to depend on where we are in life - responsibility for family, redundancy, illness, divorce, unemployment and immigration will all impact how self-realised we might feel at any given time. However, there is no getting away from the fact that a sense of striving, and simultaneously feeling positive about that striving, seems to suit the brain chemistry very well.

Have a think about whether a lack of enthusiasm to return to work is more than the wish that life could remain an endless summer - remembering that the research tells us that those living an endless summer are frequently very dissatisfied. The feel good hormone of dopamine is part of a self-regulating system that makes us productive. Getting things done has a feel good factor and when this happens in a productive environment it delivers more of a fantasy than no structure ever can.

It's all a question of balance. Over years of discussing with clients their feelings about work, the following points always seem to come up:

Are you being overworked because you're good at what you do?

The metaphor of the slowly boiled frog comes to mind. It's a testament to your abilities that you are given more and more work but you need to make sure that you are recognised in terms of promotion or title change and salary increase - also known as acknowledgement and the greatest preventer of resentment.

Do your bosses balance being human with the demands of work?

Clear goals, unambiguous feedback, and a sense of control in your work are very important. It's a fact that staff turnover rates are correlated with bosses who don't balance work expectations with your needs. Encountering each other with emotional intelligence and awareness, rather than as faceless competitive corporate cogs hardly needs to be explained.

Are the wrong people being hired or promoted?

Companies and workplaces are as good as their teams, and finding a fit is important. Working under a controlling and passive aggressive boss, or a with a narcissistic co-worker can play havoc with mental health as well as productivity. Successful companies will involve employees with the interviewing process for new workers and will have clear policies which are attentive to, and proactive about, staff relations.

But it's not just about what management should do for us - finding paths to using your innate potential is also about the courage to express your needs to those managers who have a responsibility to listen to you. We need to feel good about what we do and feel like we are appreciated for doing it.

Do you remember those days in the classroom when you were bursting with the answer the teacher was looking for then getting that feeling of let down when you weren't asked, despite thrusting your arm in the air? Being consistently overlooked is a morale buster. Being affirmed, valued and consulted as a part of the community in our working life is fundamental to job satisfaction.

So take courage and name what you need. Slinking into the dark embrace of resentment is going to guarantee a dread of returning to work. Controlling what you can, and accepting what you can't, paves the way to better outcomes - either in your current work environment - or in a personal resolve to seek change.

- nzherald.co.nz

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A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill's fascination for what makes us tick stems from sheer bloody-minded curiosity and a genuine desire to see people live healthy, happy lives. Born in Manchester, the award-winning family and relationship counsellor moved to Auckland when she was nine. Being the middle child of an immigrant family she was neither the oldest nor youngest child, neither a Pom nor a Kiwi. This kicked off a lifelong fascination with how people can make sense of transitions and how uncertainty can be turned into a greater understanding of ourselves and of those who push our buttons. Her career has spanned more than 25 years, and seen her working for the Family Court; in hospitals; universities; aboriginal training programmes, inner London social work practices, and now–her own private practice in Auckland. Whether she's counselling everyday Kiwis, highly paid power couples or the children of Bengali immigrant families, Jill has an inherent ability to tease out what's really going on in people's lives, and strategise to improve the situation, whatever that may be. • Jill Goldson is a Family Dispute Resolution mediator and counsellor, and Director of The Family Matters Centre in Auckland.

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