Sometimes we know we are not happy at work, but we are just not sure what to do about it.
We might be overtly stressed and unhappy, or we may have more of a general, lingering sense of dissatisfaction. The difficulty can be deciding what changes, if any, to make because of these feelings and how seriously to take them. The steps below should help to clarify things a little.
How fundamental are the problems?
Take a deep breath, take some time out, and be honest. Consider whether the reasons for your dissatisfaction are to do with what you essentially do at work (your role, your purpose), or whether the problems are related to the environment that you do it in (your salary, the people you work with, promotion prospects).
If the stress is more to do with the environment that you work in, the issues are more likely to be ‘superficial’. This does not meant that they are not serious, on the contrary they will greatly affect how happy you are at work, but they are essentially external to your actual role and what you do. This means that, at the core, when all of the external factors are working for you, what you have going on is a good thing. So the next step is to look at how you can get all of those external factors working for you. This may not be easy, but at least now you have some focus.
Think carefully about what exactly needs to change. If money is the problem, consider asking for an increase and take on some new responsibilities as negotiating power. If the source of stress is the people you are working with, look into conflict resolution training or try manoeuvring a change of teams. If your hours are too long, try a time management course or defend your workload boundaries more strictly, and so on.
Remember, you can always change where you do what you do. So you could change your employer or you can first try making things better where you are – the choice is yours.
Sometimes the dissatisfaction goes deeper. You may feel like your values, needs, and interests are no longer reflected in the job you do, or that your true talents are better suited to something else (whether or not you know what that something else is).
There are two ways to deal with this more fundamental type of unhappiness – start making a move to something more fulfilling, or accept the fact that this career falls short but that you will live with it and make the best of it. There is no judgement either way, we are all different.
Exploring something new
If you are fundamentally unhappy and decide to explore something more aligned to your interests, take comfort in the fact that you are not alone. Studies suggest that the average adult changes jobs between six and ten times in their working life, and over 40% will re-train completely at least once.
When you are ready, begin thinking about what exactly it is that you want to achieve from your work. For example, is it to earn a specific lifestyle, help certain people, or enjoy using particular talents? What issue or problem in the world do you want to make a contribution to solving?
Once you start to build a picture of the next goal, break down what needs to happen into small manageable tasks. Add time frames too. This will vary enormously for everyone, but it may include steps such as ‘start researching and exploring alternatives’ or ‘sign up for job alerts and begin applying for roles’. You will almost certainly not stick to each and every step as your plan evolves, but the important thing is to start. Once you begin to take control of the situation, it will ease the stress and the next steps will come more naturally.
Still not sure
There are of course grey areas that fall between the two scenarios above. For example, it might not be clear whether the issues are fundamental or to do with the environment because they involve a combination of the two – maybe work-life balance is suffering or you are in need of a new challenge. Or you may know that the current set up is not right for the long-term, but the unease is perfectly bearable for the moment.
One way to gauge your desire for change is to try the Rocking Chair Test. Imagine yourself towards the end of your life, in a rocking chair, thinking back with true joy over your life. What would you like to have achieved in your working life? How do you want to feel about it all? This is a great exercise to help you pause and take stock of what you want to do, and you can then decide whether now is the right time or not to address things.
Whether or not you decide to make any changes in your work life, you probably owe it to yourself to at least not ignore those feelings of unhappiness completely – be they deep-rooted or just ‘niggly’ . Try exploring them, if only just a little.
(Want some extra support with all this? Why not consider some one-to-one coaching sessions with Red Arbre.)