What salary letter day says about you and your job

Like it or not, work defines a person, which is why a poor salary letter makes one feel so wretched

My fingers weren't exactly trembling and my heart wasn't quite thumping, but I was nervous.

Jan 21 was salary letter day.

In the past, we'd be called to the boss' room one by one and he'd hand us our envelopes.

A few years ago, the company decided to release the letters via e-mail.

E-salary letters do away with the awkwardness of having to face your boss, which is a good thing for both you and him.

But it also means you now have to brave the news alone.

There's no sympathetic-looking face to warn you of bad news or a smiling face to signal that it's going to be good.

We heard that the HR department would be releasing the e-letters at 4.30pm. It came at 4.35pm, with the header "2016 e-salary letter".

I was at a meeting then and my heart did a little flip when I saw the mail on my phone.

As soon as the meeting was over, I went to my computer.

"We are pleased to inform you that your salary letter is now ready for viewing", the e-mail said.

I held my breath and clicked on to a link.

Around me in my big, open office, dozens of colleagues at their desks were doing the same thing.

It's always a weird moment when the salary e-mail lands in our in-box.

The newsroom goes quiet. We know what the next person is doing, but we act like we don't. We put on our impassive faces, but in our heads, we're furiously calculating how much or how little our new pay compares with the old.

Once we've absorbed what's in the letter, we allow relief, surprise, happiness, disappointment, anger to start showing on our faces. E-mails fly across the room - How did you do? Good news? Congrats! Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.

2016 will be my 31st year of working life and The Straits Times has been my one and only employer.

You would think that after so many years and so many salary letters, I would be rather nonchalant about the whole exercise.

In a way, I am.

I've gone past the early- and mid-stages of my career and so there's a whole lot less of the hoping and angsting that preoccupied me in my 20s and 30s - and that, honestly, is a relief.

But there are things like salary adjustments and bonuses which I still pin my hopes on, which is why I open my letter with trepidation.

I was not unhappy with my pay package this year.

I read the letter a few times (okay, I shall admit that I also took a photo of it so I could study it properly later without having to log on to the computer), then went back to work.

In my 30 years, there have been a few salary letters which made me very happy and more than a few that made me terribly sad.

I have cried on at least two occasions, and I'm talking big, fat tears while sitting in an editor's office and asking "Why wasn't I promoted, why wasn't I rated higher, why have my peers overtaken me, why was I passed over for a promotion?"

It sounds pathetic and silly, doesn't it? In the bigger scheme of things, does work matter that much? Aren't there more important things in life like family, love and friends?

But I've come to the conclusion that taking your job, your job title and your salary so seriously is not in the least bit silly, stupid or pathetic.

For many people, work defines who we are.

We spend more than half of our total waking hours at work, and many of us put in huge amounts of effort.

How much we are rewarded is a measure of our worth, and everyone wants to have good self-worth. Whether you are a one-year rookie or a 30-year old-timer, salary letters do matter, we care and we should care.

Studies have found that work satisfaction accounts for a substantial chunk of general life satisfaction, and has a major influence on our health.

According to Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor of organisational behaviour at the Yale School of Management, most people approach work in one of three ways - job, career or calling.

Those who see it as a job focus on its financial rewards and necessity.

The work is not an end in itself. Instead, it is a means that allows them to acquire the resources needed to enjoy their time away from the job, which is where their major interests and ambitions are, she said in a paper with other researchers.

Those who see work as a career focus on its advancement aspects. They mark their achievements not only through their salary, but also how they can move up the ladder and the increased power, social standing and self-esteem that brings.

Finally, those who regard work as a calling find that their work is inseparable from their life, she said.

They work not for financial gain or to advance their career, but because it is fulfilling. They feel good about what they do and give more to it.

Professor Wrzesniewski points out that people within the same occupation can see their work in different ways.

I think you can also view work as embracing all three. I treasure the work I do because it is a job, career and (sort of) calling.

Work gives me a salary that allows me to do other things in my life, like feed myself and help feed my family, as well as acquire things that make us all happy.

Work gives me an identity and makes me feel important. It gives meaning and structure to my day. It is my social life. It gives me a sense of belonging. It is fun and exciting. It is meaningful (some stories can change lives for the better.)

Most importantly, my work makes all the other things I do when I am not working more valuable. If I didn't have a job, I doubt I would enjoy my holidays as much as I do now.

Not every day at work is a good day, of course. The people can get to you and the demands can be overwhelming.

In my 30 years, I have learnt some lessons and I try to live by three rules - don't compare, don't complain, and don't be bitter.

Comparing is invidious, whether it is salary, title, the job itself, how many hours you are working, and who has got the boss' favour.

Just like there will always be people who are taller and also shorter than you, cleverer and less clever, prettier and uglier, richer and poorer, there will always be those who do better and worse at work.

Comparisons are a waste of time and just make you feel lousy. Being envious about your colleague's promotion isn't going to get you promoted, so why bother?

If you are on the whole satisfied with what you have, then that should be enough. And if you aren't, do something about it. Find out how you can do better and get down to doing it.

Complaining about all the things that are wrong with your job, the company, your colleagues and your bosses is also pointless.

It doesn't solve anything and just makes you a tedious, boring person. If you are so unhappy, you're in the wrong place and it's time to leave.

Harbouring bitterness - about your job, company, colleagues or former job/company/colleagues - is something I pray I will never descend to.

It is just too sad.

It diminishes and belittles all the time and effort you are investing or had invested in the job. Why would anyone want to do that to himself?

The late Steve Jobs said: "Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.

"And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it."

I'll add that even when you do find that job you love, there will be years when the salary letter will let you down.

But if you love what you do, the hurt will go away and you live to fight - and work - another day.

•Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline 'Salary letter day'. Print Edition | Subscribe