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Why we lose work motivation

Written 13 November, 2018, 5 minutes to read

Sadly, almost all of us will fall into a work slump at some point or another. It can come in repetitive cycles or out of the blue. Sometimes it’s a sting that quickly passes, other times it thickens into a gloopy depression. But while it’s completely natural and normal to lose work motivation, it’s still a crushingly lonely and distressing experience.

So how can we protect against the turbulence and repair our work motivation? How do we distinguish momentary disconnection from falling completely out of love with our jobs? And will jumping ship to a new industry or role solve the problem, or just provide temporary relief? To answer all of these, you first need to work out exactly why the magic died.

Reasons why we lose work motivation

To keep things simple, we’ve used a rather crude division to separate the main reasons why we lose work motivation: “external” reasons are those linked to outside influences and interactions (e.g. environmental, social and behavioural factors); “internal” reasons are those linked to our own individual needs and expectations (e.g. intellectual, spiritual and emotional factors).

External reasons

Actions

Observed and lived experiences within the workplace directly impact our work motivation. This can be anything from the behaviour of senior staff, to feeling side-lined in a meeting, to witnessing toxic displays of power or being directly harassed. But it can also come from a lack of action – the absence of a firm response in a period of uncertainty or distress, an inconsistency between what a company says and what they actually do. When practice falls out of line with our expectations of a company, we check out fast.

Professional disconnect

Effective collaboration depends on solid communication and work relationships. So anything that limits either of those can seriously harm our ability to achieve. Dysfunctional workflows, poorly planned projects, unequal workloads and having way too much on your plate quickly becomes overwhelming. But a lack of connection with our colleagues also plays its part. We all strive to have meaningful communication with others, so underdeveloped colleague relationships, feeling unsupported by your boss, or simply feeling lonely in your work all limit your performance and work motivation.

Recognition

To a degree, our work satisfaction rests on how our work is perceived by others. We want to feel valued and have our achievements recognised. Any feedback on our work or performance which clashes with our own sense of achievement can lead us to question our worth within the company. When we slog on an unruly project for weeks and receive no indication from management that our efforts were even noticed, it kills our motivation to continue.

Change

Change is not always good for everyone and we often have a hard time adjusting to it, especially if we weren’t consulted about it in the first place. Workplace change can come in so many forms: new tools that encroach on our freedom, new work processes that don’t fit with our individual styles, a new company direction that breaks with our own goals or values, a change to our role, a colleague leaving. If we feel we haven’t been considered, or it simply doesn’t represent our interests, we quickly throw in the towel.

Respect

Work autonomy and agency matters. To be motivated at work, we need to feel we are trusted to own and direct it. We need to have responsibility and freedom from micromanagement to manage our own domain. But we also need to feel included – that our ideas are heard, that our viewpoint is actively sought out, that we actually contribute something to our team. Essentially, we want to be seen and treated as masters of our craft.

Internal reasons

Professional development needs

This is most obviously expressed as feeling bored and uninspired by your work, or not knowing where else it can take you. We all need to feel challenged and stimulated, trying new things instead of just recycling the same format over again. We have ambitions and ideas for where we want to be, so feeling like our work has no direction, that we don’t have time or space to think about what’s next, or that we aren’t developing within our role are all symptoms of a larger problem. We need to keep learning and stretching ourselves, while recognizing our achievements

The perceived value of our work

Work motivation is closely tied to feeling that what we’re doing actually makes a difference. We want to contribute to worthwhile cause, have meaning to our work beyond a pay check and be proud of what we do. It feeds our own sense of purpose, which is a huge stabilizing force. When we lose the plot of why we’re doing something, we can’t focus and we can’t engage with it. Enthusiasm and lust for labor really matters.

Personal growth

A work slump is often related to our wellbeing outside of work. We all have pressures within our personal lives that we have to balance alongside work. When these become too much or aren’t satisfied, it spills over onto our work. That could be having time and space to invest in your personal life and feeling fulfilled in your free time. But it can also stem from a lack of control; a sum of overwhelming tensions from personal relationships, dependencies, finances, your living situation, unmet hopes and ambitions and your need for security. Existential freak-outs are all-consuming; they will affect your performance at work.

Individual lifestyle

On a related theme, low work motivation can also come from a misalignment between our current set-up and our desired ideal. More often than not, job opportunities dictate where and how we live, which may fall rather short of where we want our lives to be. Eye-watering commutes, distance from family and friends, and an uninspiring environment can add to our discontent. We may also want a greater level of flexibility than our job allows us – whether that’s to work remotely once a week, take a large amount of time off, or change our schedule to fit around our personal lives.

We are all a wonderfully complex mess of these changing desires and needs. While no one of the above reasons can easily explain our fluctuating levels of work motivation, regular self-reflection and introspection are the best way of steadying its course. When you feel completely exhausted and disconnected at work, take time to actually listen to yourself.

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