Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
I’ve always received a lot of letters from people who hate their jobs and want to leave, but since the pandemic started, a sizable portion of those people feel they have no way out. The job market makes them pessimistic about their chances of landing a new position, and with so many layoffs, they worry that even if they do get a job offer, the new role might not be as secure as the one they’d be leaving behind.
I can’t blame them. Switching jobs can be nerve-wracking under the best of circumstances—you can’t ever know for sure what a new company, boss, or colleagues will be like—but if you’re at a company that’s keeping itself afloat right now, there’s a lot of appeal in hunkering down and staying put.
And that’s left a lot of people feeling trapped in miserable situations, like this person who wrote a few months back:
I’m working from home and my job said they aren’t cutting people but I’m miserable. I’ve been unhappy for a while and had just finished up a big project before the pandemic that was my “make it until then and you can leave” moment I had promised myself. Every day when I logged off at work, I’d tell myself it was OK to be miserable and cut myself slack about not giving 100% because there were other jobs and light was out there and I’d be out of here soon. And now, my field isn’t hiring and no one really knows how long or what the impact will be.
Some people had been actively working on leaving last year but had to put those plans on hold when the pandemic hit. They’ve been feeling stuck ever since, like this person who had been in talks to join a new firm before everything went to hell:
The last meeting ended with them telling me to expect the next step would be HR reaching out to me. Unfortunately, that meeting was on March 13—right before everything in our area shut down with a stay-at-home order. I haven’t heard anything from them at all since March.
I don’t particularly want to change jobs in the middle of a recession or worse. My current job is really stable and I don’t necessarily want the pressure of a new job and the pressure to perform in a consulting role when outside forces might make that even more difficult than usual. But at the same time, there’s a reason I was looking for a new opportunity in the first place.
Even in nonpandemic times, it’s not uncommon for people to feel stuck in a job they want to leave. Sometimes that’s out of a sense of obligation (they want to see out a project or feel guilty leaving their team in a lurch) or a fear that they might worry they won’t be able to find a job that pays as well or can match their benefits. Here’s someone speaking from the long-ago era of 2018:
For four years, I have been telling myself that my job will get better but it hasn’t. My employer is a mess with constant scandals in the news, reorganizations and firings with no explanations, and poor outcomes. In my role, I am being underutilized, don’t have enough work to keep me busy, and have no one to advocate for me due to the numerous leadership changes. The morale is terrible at work and I feel like this job is destroying my self-confidence and sucking the life out of me. When I actually have work related to what I was hired to do, I enjoy the work. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case, so most days I hate my job. …
However, my job works great for my family and personal life. My job pays very well (especially given how little work I have), has great health insurance, and lots of vacation and sick time. I am also part of the state retirement system which I already have 17 years into, and if I stayed in my job for 13 more years I could retire with 30 years of service at age 55. I also have significant flexibility with my hours which allows me to pick up my elementary age kids from school, attend school events during the day, etc. … Unfortunately, I know I will not find another job in this region that pays as well or has as good benefits.
So what can you do if you hate your job but, for whatever reason, feel you can’t leave right now?
It helps to start by getting really clear on what would need to change for you to be happy. Would it take an entirely new boss? A stronger buffer between you and a difficult client? A more manageable workload? Higher pay? Not every problem can be fixed, but narrowing in on exactly what you want can help you figure out if there are steps you could try before giving up on your current situation. Too often, people assume nothing can change, so they don’t ask for what they need. Sometimes a direct conversation with your boss can dramatically change your work life for the better—not always, of course, far from it, but often enough that it’s worth seriously considering.
If you conclude that whatever it would take to make you happier won’t happen anytime soon (for example, maybe you have a terrible boss who’s resistant to feedback and not accountable to anyone above, and there’s no room in your organization to move to a different team), then it helps to be really clear-headed about your bottom line. You’ve chosen to stay in the job for a reason, and keeping that reason in the forefront of your mind can sometimes make a bad job more bearable. For example, if you’ve chosen to put up with a difficult boss or mind-numbing work because of the highly flexible hours, the boost to your résumé, or (most commonly) the paycheck, reminding yourself of that regularly can keep you focused on what you’re prioritizing most. It’ll also reinforce that you have some control and have decided that right now this is what makes sense for you.
Meanwhile, are there things you can do that might not solve the core problems but will make life more pleasant until you can leave? A side project you can take on, a hated project you can make a case for jettisoning, a more comfortable workspace? Can you be better about setting boundaries, like sticking to a certain time each day to sign off and taking your work email off your phone? Can you invest more in something you find meaningful outside of work, whether it’s family, volunteering, a hobby, or learning a new skill?
But it’s also worth challenging the idea that you can’t leave right now. It’s true that the current job market isn’t great, but people are getting hired. And yes, it can be risky to move to a company that might be less stable than the one you’d be leaving, but interviewing doesn’t obligate you to take a job if offered. You can get more information, do some due diligence about the new employer, and decide from there—at least you’ll have options.