When your job makes you miserable, here’s how to decide to stay or quit.
We have all been there. The feeling of impending doom that starts midway through Sunday as the prospect of going back to work the next day looms large. The knot in your stomach that will not go away. The increasing tension in your neck and shoulders adds to the insomnia you’ve already got from worrying about it. All signs of stress and anxiety.
You may be reaching the point where you feel it is just not possible to continue like this for much longer. The burning question is, should you stay, or should you go?
You are probably receiving pressure from your friends and family to do something about it. You may even be blaming or punishing yourself. The temptation is to resign the next day and leave as soon as you can. But is this the right thing to do?
It is by no means uncommon. Last month alone 3 of my clients in different countries and with different roles raised this as an issue for them. In this situation, there are two things I help them work through. The first is to understand the cause of the discontent. This is important because it is only when we fully understand the problem that we can know whether (or not) it is fixable.
What (specifically) is the cause of your discontent?
There are a wide range of causes of unhappiness at work. It could, for example, be due to tension with a specific individual – a colleague or a boss. Many of us are uncomfortable with conflict. Operating in an environment of seemingly perpetual conflict can be extremely stressful.
Your angst might be due to the culture of the organisation. There are many features of culture which might be at odds with your values or preferred way of working. If, for example, the culture is haphazard, last minute and reactive, and you are an organised planner who thrives on certainty and preparing in advance, the clash between the organisational ways of working and your own preferences might be too much to bear.
The problem could also be linked to your perception of how valued you feel. If you are paid less than your peers, are consistently overlooked for promotion, or are taken for granted for the work you do, every passing week can be frustrating.
Recently, I am also finding that several of my clients are struggling with overwhelm. As mergers and acquisitions take place, people are laid off and the work piles up for those who remain. The job can feel untenable. The challenge of work may feel so demanding, both personally and emotionally, with seemingly very little respite or support. You may feel that you are at the end of what you can (or want to) cope with. Combine this with feeling unappreciated or undervalued and you have a recipe for quitting as your best option for respite.
What is the (real) problem you are trying to solve?
So, you can see how understanding the problem and establishing why you are feeling the need to leave is crucial. There are two reasons for this. First, it creates an opportunity to work on the specific cause of the problem. Continuing with the previous examples, do you need to figure out strategies to resolve conflict with your manager or colleague? Or perhaps you are wanting more recognition for the work you do? Or, maybe you need to ask for and establish more support.
The second reason is equally important. It is to make sure you do not move into a new situation which has the exact same problem!
Are you moving towards or away from something?
There are two types of goals. Think of these as ‘towards’ goals; or ‘away-from’ goals. Aim to create the former type of goal and avoid the latter. Anger or frustration can be a great motivator to persuade you to move but, as Dr Peter Fuda warns us, it is not sufficient for sustainable change.
A towards goal is one where you know what you want in the future and you actively work towards it. This might be to secure a salary increase, an executive-level position, a promotion, or move to work in a certain company or sector.
Away-from goals are those where you are trying to move away from your current problems. This can be illustrated as – you want a new job because you want to move away from your existing role to escape your current boss, rather than particularly wanting the new job you are moving to. One risk with away-from goals is that you may inadvertently create negative mental loops and negative self-talk about why you need to move.
The biggest risk with away-from goals is that when you move away from something, you may move towards something that is not what you really want. Even though you may have got rid of the problems of your old job, all you have really done is replace them with a set of different but equally stressful problems in a new role. Hence it is crucial to unearth the cause of your current stress and the reason you want to leave. In doing so, you can ensure that you do not inherit the same issues elsewhere.
After my clients have worked through and established the specific causes of their discontent, we work on developing an action plan for what to do next. If the root cause is potentially fixable, then the plan will focus on attempting to fix the issues identified. If leaving is evidently the best option, I support them to develop an exit plan as well as their action plan. Both plans are made up of small steps not big leaps! If you need more help to develop goals and a plan take a look at my earlier blog on this here.
Just because you have decided enough is enough and you want to quit, the next step is not necessarily to hand in your resignation letter immediately! There are three reasons why this is not a good idea. First, you are in a much stronger position to find a new job while you are still in your current one. Second, if you resign and leave rapidly, you may feel pressurised to find a new role quickly which could result in you accepting a role that is suboptimal. This can hugely increase the risk of experiencing difficulties in your new role. Third, it is better to leave on the best terms possible (however bad you are feeling about your current employer!). They may be able to help you – and you never know what the future holds.
Your exit plan
An exit plan starts by exploring and developing opportunities for yourself and your future. Start by listing what you do and don’t want.
Make a list of the characteristics of your dream job. Be clear on which of these you are prepared to compromise on and which ones you are not.
Next it is important to alert and invigorate your existing networks. Re-connect with those you have not been in touch with for a while. Let people know that you are actively looking for work. Register with recruitment agencies. If your relationship with your boss is good (and this was not your main reason for wanting to leave), ask them for help and support. They may be able to connect you with others in their network, or alert you to opportunities that they are aware of.
Putting your exit plan together can be liberating. It helps you confirm to yourself that you really are leaving and there is a way forward. It creates choices, opportunities, and momentum. Without such a plan you may feel disempowered and devoid of choice. Crucially, it is your plan. Rather than leave in haste, make your plan work to your own needs, wishes and time-scale.
However bad things seem in the moment, reflect on the situation and work to understand what might really be going on. Resist the urge to walk away immediately without a plan. Take time to understand why things are so bad – coaching can help with this if you are not sure. Work on a plan to either resolve issues or to move to a brighter future. When you take proactive control in this way you will ensure that things will get better.