Maybe you’re trapped in a toxic environment. Your coworkers are catty. Your boss rarely appreciates your efforts and just piles on more (and more) projects on your already-full plate.
And you might not be able to leave for all sorts of reasons. At the top is likely money or good benefits. Job openings in your area may be slim (to none).
Whatever your reasons, if you’re not able to leave a job you hate right now, therapist Melody Wilding, LMSW, shared these helpful suggestions on what you can do.
1. Pinpoint what you’re unhappy about.
Wilding works with high-achieving professionals and entrepreneurs. When her clients reveal they’re unhappy at work, nine times out of 10, work isn’t even the issue. The real problem is at home.
For instance, a person’s relationship is deteriorating, and they’re regularly fighting with their spouse. Their emotional needs go unmet, and they feel empty and discouraged. These feelings and lack of motivation follow them into their workday, she said.
Wilding also has seen people self-medicate with work. They might do this because of many reasons, everything from they just ended a relationship to they’re caring for a sick loved one.
“They use work to fill those emotional holes,” she said. Consequently, work stops feeling rewarding, because it becomes “an escape route.”
If personal issues aren’t affecting your work, explore what’s specifically causing your frustration at the office. “For one week (or a month, depending on how ambitious you are), catalog everything you work on including all the projects, tasks and meetings you have,” Wilding said.
Next, sort them into categories based on how satisfied you feel or how engaged you are with each one. This helps you identify the specific tasks, projects or people that are causing your dissatisfaction, she said.
2. Set boundaries.
If your workplace is toxic, Wilding suggested working on how you set boundaries. For instance, you might be crystal-clear about the hours you’re available and not available, she said.
In fact, it’s important to communicate clearly overall, she said. This includes asking others to repeat what you said to make sure they understand you.
You also might delegate your workload or say no to taking over a colleague’s responsibilities, she said.
3. Do a negativity detox.
This means not complaining about your job for a week, Wilding said. “Don’t vent to your friends at happy hour, or go home and complain and stew about things that happened at work for hours.”
Ruminating about all the reasons your job is terrible only keeps you stuck in pessimistic thought patterns and prevents you from seeing any upside, she said. Not complaining provides distance so you can see your situation more objectively, she added.
4. Think of your job as a testing ground.
Instead of wasting or passing time at work, Wilding said, focus on developing your skills for future opportunities. What can you learn at your job? What skills can you acquire or sharpen and put on your resume?
For instance, you might collaborate with different departments or teams at your office, she said. “You can speak with your manager about specific areas you’d like to grow in, say learning to code or learning web design, then work together to find a project in another department, which you could pitch in on.”
Another option is to use your workplace as a lab. If you want to sharpen your negotiating skills, practice negotiating in different situations, and test out different approaches through email and meetings, Wilding said.
Take courses at a community college or online. Wilding shared these websites: Udemy, Skillshare, General Assembly and Khan Academy. Talk to human resources to see if your job offers continuing education or training options, she said. (Many do.)
5. Remember your job isn’t who you are.
“Your happiness at work does not define your self-worth,” Wilding said. Instead she suggested writing about who you are outside your job title. This includes your values and what you stand for, she said. For instance, maybe you stand for compassion, community and open-mindedness, she said.
If you’re not sure, think about what you’re drawn to and what’s most important to you. Look for themes and patterns when it comes to what inspires and infuriates you, she said.
Wilding shared these additional exercises: Take an inventory of values words, many of which are available online. Then circle the five words you gravitate to first.
Also, ask 10 people you’re close with to describe your best three qualities. “Put their responses in a word cloud to see what pops out as most prominent.”
6. Explore your “shoulds.”
Sometimes, we stay in a job we hate because we’re clinging to “shoulds.” As Wilding said, “We often feel beholden to the expectations our parents or we created for ourselves, even if they are no longer productively serving us.”
This might include everything from “I should stay even if my boss is horrible” to “I’m supposed to be a lawyer.”
According to Wilding, we’re taught to believe that our lives must follow a stringent script: attend college, pick a profession, get a job, follow a projected career path.
“But life is messy, our personalities are fluid, we grow and change.” Clinging to such “shoulds” only keeps us stuck in jobs that make us unhappy, she said.
Explore the reasons why you can’t quit, because it’s possible that your underlying reason is actually a “should.” And you might want to explore other opportunities.
Being in a job you hate can feel demoralizing. But there are ways you can improve your situation. And, if you realize that you’re staying because of certain shoulds, consider what you really want to do.