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Tuesday, February 20, 2018
HomeHealthWhat’s Joy Got to Do With Work?

What’s Joy Got to Do With Work?

“So I say
Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing
Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing” 


Founders of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream

Founders of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream

Can you imagine a group of busy health care professionals coming together for a week to discuss joy in and at work and its relationship to the quality of that work?  

For the past five or six years, I’ve attended an annual conference that the participants call “Summer Camp.”  Its real title is “Building Knowledge for the Leadership of Improvement of Health Care” and was started 17 years ago by Paul Batalden, a professor and pediatrician at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice. Each year, the group of about 70 health care administrators, physicians, and nurses (about one-third each and most of whom hold academic appointments) explores a different theme related to the quality and safety of health care. It’s a fairly consistent group and it has become a supportive and generative community. The group uses various modes of teaching and learning: theory ‘bursts’, individual and group exercises and discussion, poetry, film, food, physical activity, and simply rich conversation.

This year, it felt a bit frivolous to tackle joy in work when so many people feel overwhelmed with long work hours, multiple demands and roles, and connectivity that never ends—except in the learning sessions at camp where blackberries and pagers are off limits. But joy should not be confused with frivolity. The literature attests to the connection between joy at work and creativity and excellence  in an organization. Wouldn’t we all want to work for organizations that care as much about the engagement and joy of its employees as they do about the bottom line? Joy in work by employees may be essential to that bottom line. TCAB, or Transforming Care At the Bedside, is an initiative that includes team vitaility as an aim and has been able to reduce the turnover of nurses.

By the last day, I saw new ways to actualize what I’ve long believed—that we’re each responsible for creating and maintaining a supportive, joyous work environment and that joy at work can lead to better work.

How long will this feeling of certainty and commitment last? We’ll see, but I’m already working on the ways I can up the joy quotient in my work and at my work. Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream has even formalized the importance of joy in the mission and organization—this company has a different CEO, a chief euphoria officer. Go Ben and Jerry’s!

(*Thanks to Leslie Kelton Walker at the Dartmouth Institute for her daily poems, including the one by Abba from “Thank You for the Music.”)

Diana J. Mason, PhD, RN, FAAN

Co-director, CHMP; Rudin Professor of Nursing

Written by

Diana is a co-director of the GW Nursing Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement and founder of HealthCetera. She was previously president of the American Academy of Nursing. She is senior policy professor at George Washington University and the Rudin Professor of Nursing at Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing. She is a health policy expert and leader. Diana tweets @djmasonrn.

Latest comments

  • I’m ashamed to admit that there were years when I might have read your post, grinned, maybe even grinned some more, and moved on. Joy. How quaint. How Hallmark.

    This isn’t the place for a full frontal confessional, but to say I was wrong only begins to explain what I learned about the heavy personal, physical, and emotional costs of doing work — even excelling at it — without attending to joy.

    And I don’t mean that every day working without joy was painful. Tasks were completed, promises were made and kept, and good things were accomplished that I knew were appreciated by others. But over a period of years, settling for a work life without the kind of joy you are describing became a kind of long-term, low- grade fever. Sunday nights became a looming shadow, a time when — regardless of whatever other accomplishments and satisfactions were on tap — I had to face the fact that joy was joy and work was work and the two resided in different psychic compartments.

    Not good.

    Now I know that many people don’t have the” joy option” at any given moment in long and complex lives and careers. I didn’t always have it.

    But I also know that, along the way, there are many ways that I — both early on and later as the supervisor of many employees — should’ve thought more carefully about whether I was building in any opportunities to feel the sublime, perhaps to rarely even feel some version of bliss at work. I didn’t. I foreclosed it. And I paid a price.

    Which leads to my final point. While you and your colleagues are the last people who need to hear yet another “Type A = Stress = Anxiety = Health Problems” story, I think it is absolutely crucial that joy and happiness take their place as serious public health issues. Genuine peak experiences may be rare, and difficult to encourage in any work environment, but there is a more basic and urgent workplace problem that is easier to solve, definitely easier to notice, and enormously damaging to mental and physical health.

    We still, to our collective detriment, pay far too little attention to the kinds of toxic work environments in which people are emotionally abused for a whole host of reasons that may or may not include race, ethnicity, social class, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or – perhaps – just plain old, run of the mill, cruelty.

    Serious stuff. And part of the workplace detritus that, if cleared away, might just leave more space for the kind of joy I am so grateful you shared.

  • You’re right, Steve. My only qualifier about all of this is that it’s a privileged position we’re in if we’re talking about choosing joy. And that is what I concluded at the end of camp–I can choose to create and feel and love joy in my work and at work. But tell that to those in Darfur whose children are being raped or those in Afghanistan who are dealing with violence every day. So I’m mindful that I’m quite privileged to even begin this discussion.

  • Absolutely!