It may be time to
break up with your job
By BARBARA MOSES
Globe and Mail: Friday, February 11, 2005 -
"Help, I'm desperate," an acquaintance who is a conference
producer recently e-mailed. "Just the thought of going to work makes me ill. The
values in this organization suck, I can't stand the people I work with. . ."
This was not a new feeling. In fact, she's been miserable at work for more than
two years. At 33, with no debt and no kids, it's puzzling why she's done so
little to address her unhappiness.
That was unlike another woman, a former director of marketing who, at a recent
conference told me she was in "the throes of a career crisis" and on the way to
resolving it when her husband died. Her grief forced her to put her career
issues on hold for six months.
"But when I recovered some of my emotional strength, I realized I couldn't
continue in this job. I had two children to support and little in the way of
financial resources, so I made a plan which involved selling my house so that I
could go back to school and get a diploma in mediation."
Here are two different people handling their job unhappiness in two different
ways. It has always fascinated me why some people will tolerate a bad work
situation and others won't.
Obviously, money plays a role. But as these two tales show, money certainly
doesn't tell the whole story.
We all know people with huge financial resources who will stick out a bad job,
or who are making such good money that they feel forced to stick around.
Then there are others who may have limited savings but will jump ship rather
than suffer any longer.
The truth is, most people drift into career dissatisfaction. It's not like you
go to bed one night feeling fine about your work and wake up the next day hating
More likely, unpleasant feelings mount over time but you repress them or tell
yourself they will go away -- until, finally, the feelings become so
overwhelming that they can no longer be ignored.
Peoples' readiness to acknowledge they have a problem and then to act on it has
as much to do with their individual differences as it does with their life
situation. Some people are simply quicker to recognize the signs of distress and
have a lower tolerance for putting up with a bad situation. Others keep slogging
I must confess I have a very quick "I can't stand this" radar. I find it
difficult to perform tasks that hold little intellectual challenge or work with
people I don't like. Even if I know there will be negative consequences to not
completing work, I find it difficult to discipline myself to carry forth.
One human resources professional discussing what is important in her life says
that, other than ill health among family members, the worst thing she sees
herself dealing with is "bad work."
She actually quit a new job that she'd taken with much fanfare after only two
weeks because, she says, "I realized my boss was insane and that I could never
deliver what was expected."
It's not just a matter of being attuned to what you are feeling. You also have
to be willing to wrestle with, rather than repress, unpleasant emotions. I meet
many people who will let slip something that tells me they are unhappy -- a
bitter description of their job, for example -- then immediately backtrack and
deny these feelings.
One highly talented banking executive was miserable for many years -- but felt
it was unmanly to be "taking his emotional temperature."
He also thought his father would be disappointed in him if he quit. After all,
this is not the stuff that ambitious, career-building men are made of.
For others, it's not so much a matter of denial as it is of stoicism.
"You're not supposed to like everything you do," a vice-president of human
resources told me. "You are making a living and have financial responsibilities.
It feels indulgent to be acting on how you feel."
Our sense of competence also plays a role: If you feel you have skills that you
can sell, you're much less likely to tolerate a toxic work situation.
But the key word is sense: I have counselled people with a distorted sense of
how employable they are, underestimating their talents -- in particular, young
people who have had little work experience and those with long job tenure who
have not been forced to test the marketability of their skills.
Often, this ties in with feelings of self-worth. People who suffer from low
self-esteem are more likely to put up with bad work because they don't believe
they deserve any better. Those who value themselves, however, will be more
likely to draw the line.
"I wouldn't allow myself to be in a bad personal relationship -- well, work is
also a relationship. And if it's bad, it has the same impact on your sense of
self," one friend said.
Low self-esteem also makes us doubt our ability to change our situation. It's
true that some people -- by virtue of their age, financial position, or skills
-- may lack options for change. But even they often overestimate the negative
challenge, in particular the money issue. After all, it's really not all about
the money, so feeling like you can't afford to make a change isn't a valid
Who else unhappily hangs in? There are also many who stay put out of a sense of
loyalty to their colleagues and staff. These are often caring managers in toxic
work environment who feel they have to protect their staff and don't want to
But while such loyalty is admirable, it ultimately doesn't serve anyone to
sacrifice this way. Rather than shoring up a bad situation, these managers would
actually do better to redirect their efforts to helping their staff take the
necessary steps to leave -- and join the exodus.
Fundamentally, however, the most important obstacle standing in the way of
change is fear.
People are terrified that making a move means they'll have to redefine all their
relationships and turn their entire life upside down. They fear that they will
crack the comforts they have enjoyed. They fear it will be hard work. And they
fear failure: What if it doesn't work out? What could they lose that's important
Not all of us look to our work as an
important or principal source of happiness.
But all of us pay a price when our work makes us feel like less than ourselves.
Resolve career distress
How do you overcome all the obstacles in the way of resolving career distress?
- Hone in on the real issues. Don't use global language
like "I hate this job." Be specific in figuring out what you don't like.
Sometimes just articulating a specific issue brings insight for a solution
which may actually be a minor adjustment rather than a cataclysmic change.
- Acknowledge you have a problem. It doesn't make you
weaker. Indeed it takes a strong and optimistic person to say "I am
unhappy. I deserve more. I am prepared to identify what I need to do to be
happier." Think about the consequences of not doing anything versus the
consequences of trying and failing. There are no guarantees in life. How
will you feel if you didn't try?
- Don't expect a magic-button solution. Be prepared to
live with uncertainty and confusion while you dig through the issues and
possibilities. It also takes time to envision what's next.
- Make a plan. It can take a couple of years if you need
to get your finances in order, upgrade your education, or develop a
network of contacts in a future field.
- Identify what's holding you back. Is it fear of
failure, a lack of clear vision, loyalty to others, insufficient
confidence in yourself? Whatever it is, face up to it. Write it down or
say it out loud. Everyone has these fears. They don't make you foolish.
Are your fears and anxieties realistic?
- Give yourself permission to dream. Often people feel
silly or self-indulgent when they fantasize about a dream job. But it can
actually provide important clues about what you feel you're missing and
what you need to feel good about your work, whether at the same job or in
- Don't overestimate the consequences of change. You may
fear that your world is going to be turned upside down but once you
develop a plan, you will realize, or find ways to ensure that a move will
have only a modest impact -- and improve your happiness factor.
- Get support. One of the most significant contributors
to successful transitions is having a group of people you can go to for
cheerleading. Friends and family can provide important emotional support
but they are not experts on work and cannot see you objectively. As well,
complex psychological issues often underlie career distress. Considering
consulting a career counsellor who can act as a neutral sounding board and
provide structure to help you identify the problem, overcome inertia, work
through critical decisions and develop a realistic course of action. Check
the International Association of Career Professionals for a listing of
consultants by location.
- Think about the consequences of not doing anything
versus the consequences of trying and failing. There are no guarantees in
life: How will you feel if you didn't try?
Barbara Moses, PhD, is an organizational career management
consultant, speaker and author of What Next: The Complete Guide to Taking
Control of Your Working Life: firstname.lastname@example.org