The Unexpected Benefits of Workplace Pain
I supported myself through college with a string of maintenance jobs: for the county, for a grammar school, and for my university, among others. To anyone who has never worked maintenance, let me say this: it’s a tough job. You put in eight hours of backbreaking labor per day (more when you’re not the summer help) with little rest, aside from a scant half hour for lunch. I painted whole dormitories from ceiling to floor. I ventured deep into the woods of New Jersey to collect and eradicate mosquito larvae. I stripped and waxed floors. You wouldn’t believe how heavy a middle school teacher’s desk can be, especially when they’ve neglected to move their things out for the summer.
I’m not here to throw a pity party, of course. This is necessary work, and someone must do it, and I’m glad I did. Rather, I’m here to highlight the very physical and very painful nature of the maintenance worker’s job. It is difficult and unpleasant work, but it’s also the kind of work that creates strong bonds between coworkers. When you spend your day hauling furniture up and down stairs, you can’t help but feel a sense of close camaraderie with the people who are holding the other end of that dresser. No matter how tough the day’s tasks were, we went through them together. That shared pain made us all more aware of one another, more ready, willing, and able to help lighten each other’s loads, so to speak.
This really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Think about the people in your life: friends, loved ones, family members, etc. When you work through difficult and painful circumstances with these people, you come out the other end feeling closer than ever. As it turns out, this isn’t mere conjecture: according to researchers from the University of New South Wales and the University of Queensland, shared pain is a potent “social glue.” Per the Harvard Business Review’s summary of the research, “In a series of experiments, people who underwent painful experiences such as plunging their hands into ice water felt more bonded to their fellow participants than did those who hadn’t experienced pain (3.71 versus 3.14 on a 5-point solidarity scale); moreover, shared pain promoted cooperative behavior among the participants.”
Now, what does this have to do with work? Why am I writing about it on Recruiter.com, of all places?
Shared pain, as the researchers found, promotes collaboration, which is essential to any successful business environment. When colleagues are closely bonded and more cooperative, they perform tasks with greater efficiency, and they turn in better work than they would if they labored separately and without help. Does that mean managers should look to inflict pain their employees to foster collaboration? Hardly.
Rather, what it does mean is that workers can take the pain inherent in any job and use it to their advantage. Job-related pain is not limited to physical pain, like the type I encountered as a maintenance worker. Job-related pain takes a variety of forms: the stress of an impending deadline, the mental exhaustion of a particularly difficult or time-consuming task, the unrealistic demands of a boss, or even mind-numbing “busy work.” No job — no matter how cushy it is, no matter how good the management team is, no matter how skilled the employees are – is without some degree of mental or physical pain.
When employees encounter this pain, it is in their best interest to go through it together. Then, the pain becomes constructive to some degree.
That being said, managers and leaders need to realize that they should always aim to reduce the pain of their employees. Intentionally creating painful experiences – or simply sitting idly by when they occur – will only lead to dissatisfied, disengaged, or burnt-out employees. However, I recognize that even the best managers and leaders cannot erase all the difficulty of a job. It simply won’t happen. So, while supervisors are doing their best to ease employee burdens, they should also encourage employees to work together when the going gets tough.
If we can’t avoid difficult situations in the workplace entirely, the least we can do is bring some good out of them.