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Careers Café

Finding the challenge-reward sweet spot


The relationship between work and stress is a funny one. We often talk about the need to relax, as if the only road to work satisfaction is to have work that’s easier. For some, that is the case – workloads can be too heavy, and work can be too challenging.

It’s not always the case, though, and I’ve worked with more clients who are bored than who are overextended. They haven’t always identified their dilemma as boredom, however, especially if the workload keeps them busy, despite the tasks being easy.

If you’re feeling dissatisfied at work, or even if you just want to plan future career steps, try dividing your work tasks into four quadrants:

  1. those that are low in both challenge and reward
  2. those that are highly challenging and low in reward
  3. those that are low in challenge and high in reward
  4. and those that are high in challenge and reward

If you feel like you’ve been stagnating at work, you might be spending too much of your time in low-challenge activities. Even rewarding activities can make you feel like you’re stuck, if most of them fail to stretch your skills. You might find that most of your work day is spent on unrewarding tasks; find out how much you can change the work you do, before you start looking for a new role. Can you introduce more rewarding activities and balance out the degree of challenge in your job?

You can use these quadrants with your current work, and to evaluate career options or projects that you might become involved with. It’s not a sophisticated diagnostic tool, yet it can still shed a fair bit of light on what ails you.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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