Globe & Mail, October 03, 2008
Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.
When I was in my mid-thirties, I got a job working for a prestigious consulting firm.
I needed that job: It was my first real professional work post-PhD, so it was important to my resume.
And it was during the eighties recession. My husband was a freelance magazine journalist, which meant, in his words, writing stuff between the ads. In a recession: Fewer ads, less stuff, less work for freelancers.
So, with a large mortgage, no savings and no parents who could help, I had good reasons to want to stay in that job.
But I also had good reasons to want to quit.
My bosses were, to my mind at least, the meanest and nastiest men in the universe. Going to work every day was a trauma.
Despite being so profoundly miserable, it took me about a year to finally quit.
Why did I hang in? Like many people, I came up with all sorts of excuses and justifications: We couldn't afford the loss of my income. I had a resume to build. Nobody else would hire me. Things would change - the nasty guys would drop dead from terminal meanness.
At some point, most people will find themselves clinging to unsatisfactory jobs long past the time they should have left them.
At best, they have outgrown what they are doing or where they are doing it. At worst, they hate their work or their boss.
Why would people sacrifice their emotional well-being rather than stop doing work that undermines it?
Just like me, they tell themselves stories and hold beliefs about why they can't leave. They are often not based on reality or may be only half-true. Yet, they fuel the fear most people have when they think about quitting.
A softening economy, like the current one, seems to be the last environment in which someone would consider taking the risk of packing in a job. But like other justifications, it can be a false rationalization or excuse to stick around.
If you're in that position, it may be time to start reappraising. Here's a look at some of the most common beliefs people come up with - and ways to look at them to tell yourself whether or not it really is time to move on:
I can't afford to quit
This is the most common comment I hear. It is a kind of knee-jerk explanation about why one can't leave, typically said by someone who has never even given serious thought to their financial requirements.
Most of us overestimate how much money we really need, or the dire consequences of an income dip. Of course we all have to pay the mortgage, but often the sacrifices of a loss of or decrease in a paycheque are much smaller than losing the house.
Think about how much money you really need and what expenditures are essential to your well-being. If you really can't stand your job but can't afford to quit, then continue working while you embark on an aggressive job search.
The economy is too risky
I'm always wary of the "bad timing" excuse. The timing is never right, and you can always find a good reason to wait. Certainly, right now, some workers in some sectors are bracing for terminations. But, at the same time, most of my client organizations are still hiring. So it may take longer, but if you are talented and have the skills employers are looking for, there are jobs out there. Ask yourself: Have you been using the excuse of bad timing for some years? And if you stay in your current job, what are you giving up in terms of emotional well-being relative to what you would get if you were to leave?
I'll never find other work at this level
As a result of the coming mass of boomer retirements, there will be jobs opening and, if you are a young or mid-life worker with transferable skills, modest talents and a personality that at least does not turn people off, you will likely find other employment at a similar income level. Current recession anxieties mean it just might take a bit longer.
If you are an older or long-service staffer, it's true that you may experience age discrimination, or recruiters may perceive your skills as being too tied to your present employer. And so, it might be more difficult to make a transition.
But it's not impossible, even if it means some cut in pay. Based on my experience, most people do find a way. And they end up with enough money to pay the bills, cover their other financial requirements and salvage their mental health.
Not a bad trade-off.
I can turn this situation around
All evidence to the contrary, you continue to believe that, with just a bit more pluck, you will be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat: Suddenly, that boss who has warned you repeatedly about your performance and coached you for over a year will start to like you and see you for the high-performing, talented professional that you are.
This is your ego talking. The little engine's "I think I can, I think I can" story had a happy ending. But that was a fable.
Sometimes, despite all efforts and affirming self-talk, you really can't, and it's hubris to think otherwise.
Sometimes you can't because - and I hate to say this because it's something human resource and coaching types often tiptoe around - you may simply lack the capability: You just don't have the skills, intelligence, creativity or temperament for the job, and no amount of training or support will help.
And sometimes you can't because, as one vice-president of human resources once somewhat indelicately put it to me: "Once you've crapped in your nest, you can never get rid of the smell."
He was referring to an arrogant and much-despised staff member who, after several months of coaching, was starting to become less obnoxious in dealing with co-workers.
Unfortunately, it was too late - even though the staffer was demonstrating greater interpersonal sensitivity, he would never be able to shake the perception of being a jerk. The vice-president counselled the staffer to look for another job.
If you've tried and tried and things aren't improving, it may be time to take similar advice to heart.
Things will change
Yes, you may get a new boss as a result of a reorganization, your months of travel may end once the company has finished its latest round of acquisitions, or those never-ending meetings may suddenly become a thing of the past.
But all of that is unlikely, especially if you have been saying something like this for several months, or years, as is often the case.
As they say, the past is the best predictor of the future.
Unless you have bullet-proof evidence to support your theory of imminent change, ask yourself: Can I continue to work under these conditions? If the answer is no, then move on.
It's not really so bad
Every now and then, the boss or someone you work with will throw you a bone.
If you remember your psych 101 course, this is called intermittent reinforcement, and it is one of the most powerful ways to maintain behaviour.
It's the same type of reward schedule that gamblers are on, which is why it is so difficult to get them to quit the tables.
Don't let the bone throw you off. When people say to me, "It's really not so bad," what I hear is that they just like to present themselves as long-suffering martyrs, or it really is that awful and they should act on it.
Nobody else will hire me
After you have been fed a steady diet of a boss questioning your competence at every turn, or tasks which don't play to your strengths you may begin to believe it, .and begin to lose perspective about your skills.
This is why it is so important to make the leaving decision earlier rather than later. If you are feeling so badly about yourself, not only does your effectiveness decline but so does your ability to present yourself well to other potential employers.
Fight this drift into self-doubt: Remind yourself of your accomplishments. Better yet, write them down and say them out loud. You are more employable than you think. And it's time to prove it to yourself.
(That said, if you are fresh out of college or returning to work, you may want to give it a year to gather important work skills and to show at least some degree of stick-to-itiveness to future employers.)
My partner says the timing isn't good
Or my parents will disapprove. Or, or... I have had many clients tell me things like this.
Then I've met the named family members who expressed shock and said that discussions about the person quitting had never even come up.
It's true that sometimes spouses or parents are disappointed.
But you are adult now and it's your life. You can seek the input of others but, in the end, the decision is yours. Take your own counsel.
Better the devil I know
This is really code for inertia. How do you know that there is nothing better out there unless you have seriously researched alternatives?
I've never heard this comment from anyone who has actually looked at the devil they don't know. So maybe it is time to check out what else is really out there.
I won't find something better, and look like an idiot
Many people may have that fear: that they will leave and, six months later, they'll be on the unemployment lines, having overestimated their abilities, aimed too high and have other people laughing at them for making an idiotic move.
But most people who make the decision to leave, rather than being kicked out, do end up landing on their feet.
Even if you fail, nobody is going to call you an idiot. People are actually more impressed with someone who has the guts to put themselves on the line than someone who clings miserably to a job because they don't want to disrupt their security or fear failure.
It's not fair
I have one client whose boss went on an aggressive campaign to make her work life so miserable that she would quit.
My client, no surprise, hated her boss, so much, in fact, that she would lie in bed at night fantasizing about scenarios of her superior leaving the office and being run over by a cab.
Nonetheless, my client refused to consider leaving her job. "It's not fair," she said, "that after 25 years of solid performance and service, I should be treated this way. I'm going to stick it out no matter how badly they treat me."
Lots of things that happen at work may not seem fair. Long-serving workers are told their skills aren't up to snuff or that they are blocking younger workers. People are hired to do a particular type of work, then, as a result of industry or company changes, that type of work is no longer acceptable.
But life isn't fair. People die prematurely. Kids get sick. Houses burn down. It's the lottery of life.
But you don't win by sticking at a job that makes you miserable just because it's not fair. That's not sticking it to the boss, it's sticking it to yourself.
Park your ego. And move on.
Nothing else interests me
If it's true that nothing else grabs your attention, then maybe you should stay. But often, people who make this kind of statement are using it as self-defence against acting on their discomfort, or they may even be depressed.
They've shut down and don't realize that there are lots of things they really do enjoy doing or thinking about on the job and off when they aren't under a fog - whether it's hiking, gardening, or mentoring.
Take a clue from these interests. Can you build on them to make a transition into a new line of work?
I'll become a nobody
Many midlife and older workers are held back by fear they will lose their identity. Shed of the status and definition associated with their work, they worry they will become diminished in the eyes of themselves and others.
Psychological ties are powerful. But people who take the plunge are ultimately successful, even if the transition can initially be challenging. A year or so later, they have embraced the new rhythms of their life, which come with new networks and sources of engagement.
Who you are and what your title is are not the same thing. Once you have made your decision to move on, stay the course: Fight the moments of self-doubt.
Sure you are, and, in the end, that may be what it's all about. But underlying your anxiety may be any of these irrational beliefs. And an irrational belief or a belief based on a half-truth should not keep you in a job that doesn't work for you.
Time to overcome your fears, deal with the uncertainty, and move on.
Quitting For The Wrong Reasons
People often quit jobs for the wrong reasons. Here are some of the questions to ask yourself before you hand in your resignation letter:
Are you just flirting with an idea?
Some people like the idea of being open to possibilities. Every time they read about an animal tamer or a tightrope walker, they think, "Maybe that's what I should do."
But if you're just playing with the idea, you have no real intention of leaving. Certainly it's fun to play the game of fantasizing about other possibilities, but recognize it as a game.
Are you expecting too much?
Just like some people expect all their personal needs to be met in a romantic relationship, some expect all their professional needs to be met in a work relationship.
No job is perfect. Whether it's working with a colleague you don't like or more meetings than you care to attend, all jobs come with some unpleasantness; the issue is the unpleasant versus satisfying ratio.
And despite the zeitgeist that says you should be passionate about your work, it's okay to find it merely pleasant. For some, real life is what occurs outside the workplace, and work is merely a means to an end.
Do an analysis. Think about the number of things you really like about your job relative to the number of irritants.
Are you overreacting?
One slight from a co-worker or a single critical comment from a boss can put thin-skinned people off their game.
But this is not enough reason to quit a job. You need to toughen up.
Is one thing colouring all?
Whether it's an annoying co-worker or a short project you've been assigned to, one thing may get you down and take on disproportionate significance, colouring how you feel about your job.
Step back and put it into perspective. Can you live with it? Can you reconfigure your life to minimize it? Will it soon be over? Are there enough pluses to outweigh this minus?
Do you need to put in your time?
If you're young or have just re-entered the job market after a long break, you may need to hold your nose and stay longer than you would have wished to gain necessary resume-building skills and experiences.
Still, no job is worth sacrificing your mental health. If you are coming home crying every night, it's time to go - resume-enhancing experience be damned.
Is the grass really greener?
Most people overestimate how much fun others are having.
The truth? Everyone today complains they are overworked and underappreciated. Chances are that work expectations are not much different across the street.