Career Tools: Improve Productivity, Reduce Burnout

Research suggests personal investment in duties and tasks is important

Chris Smith, education specialist at the Duke Lemur Center, video tapes a baby lemur. It's just one of his many job responsibilities at the Center that keep him invested in work and motivated. Photo courtesy of Chris Smith.

From leading a visitor tour to handling the Duke Lemur Center’s social media or donning a human-sized lemur mascot suit for special events, a day’s work for Chris Smith has the potential to pull him in all sorts of directions.

But he loves it all.

“I’m motivated to put 100 percent into what I do for the Center because I know I’ve got 29 other people who have my back,” said Smith, education specialist at the Lemur Center. “Whether I’m giving a tour, posting to Facebook, working on a video or writing a blog, I can do it with conviction knowing we’re all focused on what’s needed from all of us.”

That attitude is pivotal in the workplace, as recent research at Duke shows maintaining an interest in goals and outcomes can improve work and reduce burnout.

The study, published this month in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, suggests that if people experience activities as enjoyable and personally significant, their chance of success increases.

"Engaging in personally interesting activities not only improves performance, but also creates an energized experience that allows people to persist when persisting would otherwise cause them to burn out," said Paul O'Keefe, who conducted the studies as a doctoral student in Duke’s Department of Psychology & Neuroscience. He’s now a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University.

The key to finding a balance between personal interest and motivation at work lies in how an employee is engaged in his or her work, said Dinetta Richardson, a senior practitioner at Learning and Organization Development. By being engaged, an individual can easily find meaning and motivation in work, which enhances happiness when goals are met and projects are completed.

Richardson added that ways managers can spur motivation in staff can be as simple as delegating tasks to appropriate people, especially if employees have personal interest in a project. From a peer-to-peer perspective, Richardson said creating trusting relationships offers an atmosphere where coworkers not only get along well, but feel comfortable helping each other and offering insight on how to handle tasks in different ways.

“People that are given developmental challenges in their work are likely to feel satisfied, autonomous and happy because they’ll see their professional growth and its importance in departmental growth,” Richardson said. “That helps you become engaged rationally and emotionally, which connects to personal values and can lead to satisfaction and happiness.”

When it comes to the work at the Lemur Center, Smith, the education specialist, said strong camaraderie and teamwork allows him and his coworkers to feel more motivated – and satisfied – in the work they do.

“Whether it’s our lemur keepers, administrators or veterinarians, we all understand that each part of what we do is connected and I can’t do my job if I don’t know what’s going on with them,” Smith said. “Being around wildlife keeps us charged because we all love the animals we work with. That makes doing our jobs a lot easier.”