It's the seasonal equivalent of the Monday-morning blues. The arrival of Labor Day next week signals for many not only the end of summer but also the return to a more button-down, faster-paced season of work.
This could be the perfect time to shake up that routine. Nearly everyone says they want their job to be more fulfilling. Here are four ways to find fulfillment, no matter what position you hold:
Graphics designer Kathleen Orazio lives in Seattle but found herself missing the client interaction of her old job in Phoenix. "I wasn't happy, but I hadn't put my head around exactly why," she says in a phone interview. She considered quitting, but concluded that she had learned so much about her firm that it would be a shame to start over. So she took matters into her own hands, starting by listing the pros and cons of her job.
For several weeks Ms. Orazio refined and prioritized her ideas for redesigning her position, using the "WIIFT" factor as her guide: What's in it for them? How would her proposal also benefit her co-workers and the company?
By the time she sat down with her boss, she could show that it would streamline operations if she handled design projects directly with clients and salespeople, rather than having the production manager as a middleman.
"I was a little nervous, because I didn't want it to seem like I thought other people weren't doing their jobs well," she says. "To my surprise, the production manager was extremely relieved, because he didn't want to handle some of that stuff anyway."
Within a few weeks, the owner of the company not only approved Orazio's plan but also offered her a new job title and a raise. More important, she says, "I'm feeling the challenge I need professionally and creatively."
WIIFT is the brainchild of Sharon Jordan-Evans, a workplace consultant and coauthor of "Love It, Don't Leave It: 26 Ways to Get What You Want at Work." "Often people wait for a boss to offer up some new challenge ... or they wait for the economy to get better so they can search for a new job. They're giving everybody else on the planet the power over their own job fulfillment," she says. "You've got to take ownership [and] identify what's wrong or what's missing."
Think of the amount of time you spend planning your vacation and give at least that much to reflecting on what would make your work more satisfying, Ms. Jordan-Evans says. "It may mean tweaking something just a tiny bit."
If redesigning your job is too much, you might make small changes in your daily routine. Perhaps it's taking a few minutes each day to help co-workers, or pausing to give gratitude. Or create "workplace altars" - the inspirational quotes or books, symbolic objects, or even plants and fountains that people place in their workspaces to remind them of a deeper purpose - advises Pat McHenry Sullivan, who devotes a chapter to them in her book "Work with Meaning, Work with Joy: Bringing Your Spirit to Any Job."
Make the best of whatever is in your "sphere of control," adds Tom Terez, a consultant in Columbus, Ohio. When people wring their hands about aspects of the workplace over which they have no influence, "it's easy to get marooned out there, and it's easy for people stuck there to pull you into that zone," he says.
About 17 percent of American workers are so disengaged that they actively undermine what their co-workers are trying to accomplish, says the Gallup Organization. Another 54 percent have "checked out" - they're putting in time, but not much energy. The remaining 29 percent are engaged and passionate about their work.
Humor, of course, can be a simple way to bring joy back to the workplace. Jordan-Evans tells of a group of professionals who were griping about the dismal condition of the office restrooms - until they decided that the women should decorate the men's room and vice versa. Among the artistic flourishes: Covers of company reports are now posted on the women's room walls, framed by toilet seats. After the unveiling on a Saturday, the group went out for a laugh-filled dinner.
Managers often try to generate more engagement by setting up a program such as an employee-of-the-month award. But recognition is not the key to fulfillment for everyone, or even most employees, Mr. Terez says. He spent two years interviewing people about what makes work meaningful. He discovered 22 key themes - such as relationship-building, service, equality, personal development, and validation. Each person is motivated by a unique set of these keys. (For more information, see www.betterworkplacenow.com)
Terez encourages people to talk with co-workers about their peak moments in the past six months - times when they were inspired or felt a sense of accomplishment. Rather than asking people to envision the perfect workplace, "you're rooting it in reality, and the challenge then is to figure out ways to have more of that," he says.
Training manager Fran Charles organized a series of these conversations at MedCost, a medical-claims processing company in Winston-Salem, N.C. It surfaced that the nonmanagerial staff had no chance to give input when it came time for yearly performance appraisals. "There was nothing in [the process] to help make their job more challenging if they wanted it," she says. Now it is more of a back-and-forth, and employees are more aware of opportunities for personal development.
Some people find their work fulfilling because they can see its positive effects. Jerry Palmer, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology, chose to be the coordinator of a master's degree program at Eastern Kentucky University. He wanted closer ties to the students, instead of just teaching them for a semester or two and never hearing from them again.
"You see them as they come in, and some of them might be scared.... It's great to see when their confidence grows," he says. Many are the first in their families to earn college or advanced degrees. "You see all the excitement and disappointment and joy as they try to get a job. After working with them for so long, you kind of feel personally responsible."
For Lisa Yaffe, public service has been a satisfying career for more than 25 years. "It sounds so corny, but [I want] to make the world a better place, for a couple of people anyway," she says.
When it became clear that Ms. Yaffe could be making more in the private sector, she wasn't really tempted, she says. "That may be because I've just been so rewarded in the friendships and in the accomplishments that I've had." Last year she was appointed deputy executive director of the Governor's Office of Housing and Community Revitalization in Pennsylvania.
Yes, she says, "the tide of bureaucracy will pull you under" if you don't find ways to cope with the frustration. But she copes staying in touch with mentors - and by not relying on work as her only source of fulfillment. There's her hobby, for one. "I have horses, and it's really helpful for me to go communicate with a nice animal," she says with a laugh.