Your Work Shouldn’t Make You Miserable

I recently read Ali Wentworth’s book, Ali in Wonderland: And Other Tall Tales, published by Harper in 2012. It’s another entertaining read, since Ali is a very funny storyteller and shares interesting accounts of her childhood, her marriage to George Stephanopoulos, and much more.

Ali Wentworth book from Amazon

One humorous comment Ali made really stood out to me, when she’s describing a job offer she received and turned down. Her reason?

“…I make it a point not to mix business with non-pleasure.”

I liked that phrasing! And it started me thinking about how, too often, many of us do the opposite, equating work with drudgery and then suffering through miserable jobs when we shouldn’t — sometimes for years and years! It’s one thing to stick it out until you get a better job, but sometimes we resign ourselves long-term to our present circumstances because we think, “Well, this is what work means. The way I’m feeling is how everyone feels.”

What’s funny is, that’s not true — and it certainly doesn’t have to be the case for you! That kind of thinking would be like saying, “Oh, everyone gets a stomachache now and then,” and continuing to eat rotten food.

We do not have to eat rotten food and suffer the consequences!

Now, there is some truth to the fact that work is work; it can’t be all fun and games. But there’s a difference between occasional stresses on the job, and a bad workplace causing you true unhappiness day in and day out. Below are a few of symptoms experienced by me, and others I know, during periods of deep unhappiness professionally. I’d say if you have more than 2 of the following, you should probably re-evaluate your job:

  • You find yourself watching the clock at the end of each work day just waiting to get out of there.
  • You feel despondent on Sunday nights as the new work week looms ahead (if it starts on Monday for you). The dread may even start as early as Sunday afternoon. The effect is magnified tenfold when you’re returning from vacation time off.
  • You find yourself crashing the minute you get home, or throughout most of your weekend, because you’re too mentally and emotionally exhausted during the work week to do much else in your free time.
  • You sometimes actually hope to get sick so you can miss work for a day or two without having to lie about needing a sick day.
  • You find yourself staring longingly at parks and other outdoor spaces you see on your commute to work, wishing you could be one of the people spending time there and not on your way to your own personal hell.
  • You find yourself unexpectedly having flashbacks to happier times; say, you’re at your desk and suddenly an image pops into your mind of a beach you and your family went to years ago.
  • You bitterly resent any “mandatory fun” events your job requires you to attend, like office lunches; haven’t you spent enough soul-crushing time there already to earn a meal to yourself?
  • You devise and cherish ways to steal some time to yourself while at work, whether it’s taking a longer-than-necessary trip to the bathroom, or coming in late on a regular basis when you know it won’t be noticed. You feel like these stolen moments help you get through each day.
  • You find yourself irritable with everyone close to you, particularly when they seem upbeat and cheerful. It’s not that you want them to be unhappy, but you simply cannot match their energy or enthusiasm, so you end up sounding short with them when you don’t mean to. You may not even be able to keep up with their calls and invitations; all your efforts are focused on getting through the workweek and trying to avoid being a downer around others.
  • You find yourself self-medicating with food, alcohol, cigarettes, or excessive amounts of time spent on video games, gambling, online shopping and mindless TV — whatever will turn your mind off and clear it of work dramas and stressors for a while.
  • You’re experiencing more physical ailments than you used to, like headaches or getting sick a lot. You might also have insomnia, or on the flip side, be unable to wake up easily no matter how long you sleep.

This is by no means a complete list; everyone’s reactions to work misery will vary, and one person’s response may differ depending on what phase of the I-hate-my-job situation they’re in.

I know one tell-tale sign for me was getting emotional in public, since I’m not really one to cry, and certainly not in front of others if I can help it! But one day while taking the subway home from jury duty, I actually found myself crying about my particularly miserable administrator job (due to unpleasant co-workers, tedious work, company-wide inefficiencies, a difficult supervisor and a long commute, in case you were wondering). What’s more, I was crying because I’d been happy to be picked for a jury duty case, since we’d been told it would likely last 2 weeks. I was thrilled about the sanctioned break from my miserable job, but suddenly, on just the second day, the case was abruptly settled out of court and we were dismissed.

Losing that 2-week reprieve was the final straw. My mind just couldn’t reconcile having to return to work so soon. On the train ride back from the courthouse, I started crying and couldn’t stop, surprising even myself. This was so not me, and it seemed ludicrous! Who cries about their jobs, and in public, I thought to myself. And who gets sad when jury duty ends? Most people want to avoid it all together! I seriously reacted to the sudden end of my jury duty service the way I imagine some would act if they’d lost their job.

I also felt bad because some people can’t find a job when they need one — I’ve been there and so have many other people I know personally. So I felt like an ingrate. Plus it’s not like my job was back-breaking. Like maybe construction workers would have the right to hate their jobs — have you ever seen them doing intense work outside on a 100-degree day? I don’t know how they do it! Or firefighters. Or waiters and waitresses…hotel housekeepers…you get the idea. They have hard jobs; from the outside, mine could technically have been viewed as a “cushy” office job, complete with air-conditioning and a comfy chair.

But with the help of a good friend, I soon realized what matters is what I feel — not what I should feel. To use another food analogy (I think maybe I’m hungry?), it wouldn’t make sense to tell a lactose-intolerant person they should enjoy a flavor of ice cream that other people have said is delicious. They’re just not made to be able to enjoy it — they either need to find a non-dairy ice cream replacement, or find another dessert option all together.

And that’s what we need to do with our jobs and careers when we know we’re not a match for the kind of work we’re currently doing, or the environment in which we’re doing it. We have to find another way. It’s not likely to magically get better if we stick it out or try to improve it.

Comedian George Wallace made an excellent point along these lines in his book, Laff it Off! (published by Chaite in 2013):

“There ain’t many things that start out crap, then turn out diamonds. You take a crappy job? That job will be crappy till the moment you leave it….Simple rule: if it starts out crappy, it probably ends up crappy.”

George Wallace book from Amazon

He’s so right. Don’t waste months and years in a futile attempt to make your job better if you’re profoundly unhappy there. I don’t just mean minor dissatisfaction; everyone dislikes certain aspects of their job, like maybe the commute is long, but otherwise you’re generally content. Plus in a scenario like that, you might be able to negotiate one day working from home; although that hasn’t been possible on most of my jobs, a friend of mine actually managed to get 2 days working from home for her employer.

No, I’m talking about when multiple problems exist, and the majority of them aren’t in your control, especially when you don’t enjoy the work you do or make use of your strengths on the job. George Wallace makes a good point in this area as well:

“If you find a job that doesn’t honor your essence, you’re going to hate it. You’re going to phone it in. You’re going to leave it or lose it….”

Transitioning into another job or career before you start phoning it in is important. Otherwise, you risk harming your reputation and your chances of getting a good reference later. Don’t let yourself suffer twice over for a job you hate, now and in the long run!

In the case of my miserable job that made me cry over the end of jury duty, I chose the “leave it” route. I never regretted it, even though I actually quit without another job lined up right away. I’d never done something like that before. I knew the Suze Ormans of the world would lambast me for my decision, but it had gotten to the point that leaving was a matter of self-preservation. I figured I would find something eventually, but even if I didn’t, I would have rather moved and made other tradeoffs just to be able to avoid going to that soul-sucking place for another day. I’d been there about a year but had known since the second month it was completely wrong for me. If anything, I regretted waiting so long to leave — and still regret it. Those are months of my life I can never get back. Although I was lucky enough to land another job I was much happier at soon after, I would have never questioned my decision to quit even if that hadn’t happened.

I encourage you to trust your intuition when you too are facing a miserable job; at least spend some time exploring other jobs and career paths you may be able to try. I once heard someone say that people spend more time planning their vacations than they do planning their lives and careers, and I think that’s crazy — yet true. Let’s not do that anymore.

In future posts, I’d like to cover this topic more, particularly more on how we can go about making a change like this, since I think it’s so important. Hopefully you’ll agree and find it helpful!