How to Survive in an Unhappy Workplace
by Pat Olsen
When you don’t like your job, going to work every day can be a challenge. Your problem might be with a bad manager, that you constantly feel stretched to the breaking point, or that you are resentful about taking a pay cut. Or, the whole environment may just feel toxic. You might need to stay in your job because it provides health benefits, or maybe you’re only staying while you look for another position. Whatever your reasons for being unhappy, you need to maintain your professionalism and prevent a bad attitude from sabotaging you.
What the Experts Say
Timothy Butler, Senior Fellow and Director of Career Development Programs at Harvard Business School and author of Getting Unstuck: How Dead Ends Become New Paths, believes there’s something elemental about the statement ‘I’m unhappy at work.'” Butler, whose research focuses on personality structure and work satisfaction, says that to understand your unhappiness, you need to turn towards that feeling of unhappiness, experience it in a deep way, and not try to solve things too quickly. He suggests observing the feelings and not expecting anything. You may just find yourself at a frontier, considering what you’re going to do next. “The existential nature of unhappiness is a wake-up call,” Butler says. “There’s some part of the self that is not being heard, that wants your attention, and that’s the issue.”
Similarly, Joe Mosca, an associate professor in the Leon Hess Business School at Monmouth University, who specializes in human resources management and organizational behavior, agrees that looking within is the first step. “That may be hard for some people to hear,” he suggests, because while it’s true that sometimes people just don’t match well with their jobs, employees tend to rationalize their job dissatisfaction rather than consider that they may be part of the problem. But if you are part of the problem, you may be part of the solution, too.
Tammy Erickson, a workplace expert and author of Plugged In:The Generation Y Guide to Thriving at Work, advises that if you’re unhappy, see if you can upgrade your contribution to the company, or find a way to be more creative about your job. She once performed very dull work in a book bindery but avoided becoming negative about the job by finding a way to make it less boring. Erickson was “interested in the process” and tried completing the tasks in a different order, which made the work quicker, easier, and less monotonous. “No work is uninteresting if you can think how to do it differently,” she says.
That’s not to say unhappy workers don’t have valid complaints. One thing you don’t want to do, however, is let your feelings boil over at work.
Signs That You Need to Take Action
Perhaps you’ve heard of someone who was so unhappy he quit on the spot or blew up at a boss. Losing control at work helps no one and may have repercussions in both your current job and in the future — you never know when you’ll work with one of your current colleagues again.
Indications that you need to address your emotions may be physical or behavioral, explains Catherine McCarthy, a clinical psychologist and COO of The Energy Project, an organizational consulting firm. The signs include feeling distracted, sluggish, angry or irritable, not sleeping well or sleeping excessively, relying on alcohol or food to comfort yourself, and withdrawing from friends and activities. All may indicate underlying depression or anxiety, which you shouldn’t ignore.
If you feel you have nowhere to turn, are about to burst, or are depressed, one option is to seek out your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if it has one, adds McCarthy. Some EAPs will help you find a counselor, and all are bound by healthcare and workplace laws to keep your request confidential.
There are also things you can try to change in your approach to your job. Consider these solutions for surviving and even thriving in a job that’s less than optimal:
1. Face the reality head-on. China Gorman, chief global member engagement officer of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reminds workers that during a recession or slow recovery, people at all levels experience the pain. Such an economic climate makes it more difficult to leave a job, but it doesn’t mean you should feel stuck. Erickson advises that you “Accept that this job is not where you want to be, even if you can’t make a change today. But begin taking steps to change things.” McCarthy seconds this advice. “Practice radical acceptance,” she says. “Tell yourself, ‘This is where I am, this is where I’m going to be for a certain amount of time.’ You have more control over how you think than you realize.” Understand what you’re feeling, and that if you show up to work irritated, it affects your performance.
2. Develop a plan. Be proactive. Brainstorm with trusted friends and family members about your ideas. If there’s something you’d like to change, decide whether your boss is approachable and if so, the best tactics to use. If you have suggestions, discuss how they will improve your performance as well as others’. The Human Resources department may also be able to help in some way, suggests Gorman, from helping you find a job within the company you’re better suited for, to assisting with work/life balance.
You could also try learning a new skill. At the very least, it may help you prepare for another job. It can also lift your spirits and lead to new possibilities at your current job. If your problem is with your boss, Gorman offers advice from personal experience. She once had a boss who was smart and a strategic thinker, but terribly lacking in people skills. Gorman decided to be the boss she wished she’d had. “I made a list of what not to say, for example, and developed skills I still use today,” she says.
Finally, consider looking outside your job for fulfillment. Having an outside interest or two gives you another outlet and an activity to look forward to.
3. Find (or Accentuate) the positive. Make a list of the good points about your job, advises McCarthy. Gorman calls this a benefit log. You may be thankful to have healthcare and other benefits. You may like your coworkers, or the fact that you have a short commute. Maybe there’s a great gym on-site, or you enjoy the opportunity for travel or the mentoring you do. Listing what you do like about your job will help shift your perception and keep you from feeling so trapped. If you don’t take responsibility, “it will hurt your performance, erode your satisfaction further, and make your time at the job worse,” she says.
Principles to Remember
- Differentiate between what you can change and what you can’t.
- Take responsibility for making a change.
- Focus on making the best of a bad situation.
- Assume nothing will ever change.
- Allow negative thoughts to rule you.
- Go it alone.