If you’re miserable at work, you’re not alone. Having written the workplace advice blog Ask a Manager for more than a decade now, I’ve answered questions from literally thousands of people who hate their jobs. Whether it’s due to a difficult boss, unpleasant colleagues, mind-numbing work, or a toxic culture, there are a lot of people toiling away at jobs they’d rather not be in.
The unsettling reality is that even if you do everything right in screening your jobs, you can still end up in a work situation that makes you unhappy. The great boss who you were so excited to work with could move on a few months after you start, and her replacement could end up being a disaster. Your office could have budget cuts that leave you with an unmanageable workload. You could be assigned a new client who turns your dream job into a nightmare. Or, if you’re like a lot of people, you might just end up in a job that sounded amazing in the interview but fell drastically short of your expectations once you started.
If you find yourself in this situation, step one is to get really clear about exactly what the problem is. Is your boss a hovering micromanager who doesn’t give you any autonomy, despite your years of experience? Or maybe the problem is your coworkers – is your work life lonely because you haven’t been able to form any rapport with your colleagues? Maybe it’s the work itself; you might have signed up expecting to do X but ended up doing Y, or the workload might be way too high or so low that you’re bored for hours every week. Or maybe it’s your company culture since not every culture will be a fit for every person. Maybe your office is slow-moving and resistant to change, while you’re more entrepreneurial and need a culture that values that, or maybe it rewards people who spend their off-hours golfing with the company bigwigs and you’re not up for that. Or maybe upon reflection you’ll realize that the problem isn’t this particular job, but rather the idea of having to work in general that’s making you miserable.
Once you’ve zeroed in on what the problem is, the next step is to figure out if it’s worth trying to fix it. If you have fundamental issues with your company’s culture, that’s not likely something you’ll be able to change. But if the issue is, say, that your workload is too high and you’re in danger of burning out, you might actually be able to get relief by talking with your boss. Not always – but if your boss is reasonable and has a track record of taking people’s concerns seriously, it’s worth raising the issue and seeing if anything changes. And if nothing does, at least then you’ll know for sure; you’ll have raised the issue, learned the problem isn’t going to go away, and then can make decisions for yourself from a place of greater information.
Of course, sometimes it can be hard to know if something is fixable. In the past, I’ve pulled complaints out of people who weren’t speaking up on their own because they were certain that the thing they disliked couldn’t be fixed, and yet once I knew about it, I was able to resolve the problem relatively quickly. So even if an issue seems insurmountable to you, it might still be worth raising – because your manager has a different vantage point and might be more able to address the problem than you realized. Not always, of course, but if you’re unhappy enough that you’re likely to leave over whatever’s bothering you, it might be worth a conversation.
That said, if your manager isn’t open to feedback, tends to punish people for rocking the boat, or just isn’t particularly reasonable, you might rightly conclude that there’s not much to be gained by going that route. And other times, even if your manager would be receptive, you might realize that there are so many problems contributing to your unhappiness that fixing a few of them won’t be enough.
Once you have a more solid idea of whether your problems with your job can be resolved or not, you can move on to figuring out what to do next. Even if the problems can’t or won’t be fixed, that doesn’t automatically mean that you should leave. At this stage in your thinking, you should step back and take stock of your situation, being as brutally honest with yourself as you can. Things to think about: What are you getting out of the situation if you stay (for example, pay, benefits, a flexible schedule, a great commute, interesting work, professional opportunities, and so forth)? How likely are you to find those things somewhere else? Do the advantages of staying outweigh the negatives? What are the negatives of leaving (such as missed opportunities or having multiple short-term stays on your resume), and how do you weigh those in this calculation?
In other words, this decision should rarely be as simple as “I hate my job so I should leave.” Sure, sometimes that might be the answer. But other times you might realize that if you can get through two years of this job, you can parlay it into something much better … or sometimes it might be as simple as deciding that while yes, you don’t like the work, you love your salary and your 10-minute commute and you can reframe your thinking so that you’re less unhappy day-to-day. Getting really clear in your head that you’re choosing to stay because you’ve calculated that the trade-offs are worth it to you can sometimes make the situation much more bearable – probably because it reinforces that you do have choices and some control. Yes, my boss is a jerk, you can think, but I’m choosing to stick it out for now because I’m paid well and I love my commute. I can always change my mind later, but for now this makes sense for me.
Or, you might come out of this calculation with a really clear sense that you do indeed need to move on. You might decide that the things that bother you are serious problems, aren’t going to change, and aren’t worth the pay and other benefits you’re getting by staying. That’s a good outcome too. The idea is just to be really clear-eyed about what you are and aren’t willing to accept, how you weigh all the different factors in the situation, and which matter most to you.
If you go through this mental exercise and still aren’t sure if you should stay or go, one middle-ground option is to try launching a casual job search. Look around at what job postings are out there, put out some feelers to people in your network, talk to some recruiters. You’ll probably start getting some useful data about the market that will push you in one direction or the other. You might find, for example, that the market is booming for people with your skills and that it’ll be relatively easy to find a new position without the problems at your current job. Or who knows, after seeing what else is out there, you might see your current job in a new, more positive light. But either way, you’ll get more data, which will help you make better decisions.
And of course, if you do decide to leave, it’s crucial not to be in such a rush to get out of your current job that you skimp on doing your due diligence about the new one. When you’re miserable at work, it’s very easy to grasp at the first life raft that comes along – but leaping too hastily can mean you end up somewhere else where you’re unhappy too. Taking time to be really thoughtful and deliberative about where you end up next, even if it slows down your departure a bit, will pay off in your next position.