3 ways to survive a career you hate

Just because you hate your job, doesn’t mean you have to hate your life…

2024 marks the 15th year of my career in the public sector. Now, I haven’t always hated my job. There was a time where you could call me “job pissed”. I was obsessed with work, it was all I talked about, it was my identity, and I was desperate to progress. But around five years ago the shine started to wear off.   The pivot for me was realising the singular goal I had been focused on wasn’t what I wanted. I became lost and unsure of myself. This led to some unhelpful behaviours. 

 

I started to overwork, developed poor boundaries between professional and personal life, I chased external validation, and focused on people pleasing as opposed to living authentically. 

 

I outwardly had all the trimmings of a successful career. A couple of good promotions behind me, a varied CV, well thought of throughout the organisation and the backing to go on for further promotion if I wanted it. But the truth was I didn’t want it. I was dreadfully unhappy and the culmination led to a very difficult and painful downward spiral. 

 

Where did this all get me? Burnt out. 

 

Burnout is complex. It’s not as simple as being overworked. The irony for myself was that I had actually reigned my hours back in. But the damage had been done at a much earlier stage and it was a gradual build up of numerous factors that led me down that path. 

 

My dislike of my career was among one of the reasons I burnt out. But it need not be that way. You can find a way to manage the dislike of your career with the life you want.

 

What I’m not going to tell you to do… 

 

This article would be a lot easier to write if I was to simply tell you the solution is to drop your career and start on something new. To simply quit. But the reality is for many of us that isn’t an option. 

I recently read a post by an individual who had worked in a similar organisation to me for around four years. They were still in their mid-20s with little to no long-term responsibility. They have since gone into coaching and are parading the rhetoric of: 

 

“I quit the job that burnt me out so you can too!” 

 

To say this triggered me is an understatement. When you’re still in the early stages of your life, with little responsibility or financial commitment of course you can just up and quit a career you’ve barely started! Straight out of uni I was a recruitment consultant for a while. It was absolutely no drama for me to quit this at 21 after realising I bloody hated it!! It’s a slightly different picture when you’re late 30s/early 40s, have a family, mortgage and commitments that prevent you from simply quitting with no plan B. 

 

Of course, I’m not advocating staying in a job you hate if you can avoid it. If there is a way you can up and leave then do it! This article is about how you can reconcile a dislike of your career with still living a meaningful life (and how you can plan a way out that is more fitting with your specific situation). 

 

I am living proof that you can go back to a job you dislike, even after severely burning out from it, make it work so that you can pursue other meaningful activities and dreams.

 

Lesson 1: Separating your career from your identity

 

Modern life would have us believe that we are largely defined by our career and external achievements. When someone asks you what you do, is your first response to answer with your job title? 

 

My career was my identity. It was who I was. I think this is extremely common, especially in vocational jobs. If you’re a teacher, work for the NHS, an emergency service worker or even in the military your career path is a large part of who you are as a person. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this if you have other parts of your life that make up your identity. The problem comes when your career is the only part of your identity, especially if you then start to dislike or even hate it. 

 

A singular identity is fragile. When we have only one element that makes up all of who we are, if for any reason that is taken away, we are left with nothing else. I speak from experience when I say I know how distressing this is. I thought I was going to be in my career for my entire working life. I saw no other option and didn’t wany anything else. When it all started to unravel for me and I realised it wasn’t what I wanted, I had no idea who I was. I couldn’t see the value I had outside of the job I did. Even my skill set felt extremely limited because it had been in one particular vocation. 

 

I had become too tightly coupled to my career and it was causing me to devalue myself in other aspects of my life. 

You are not your job. Yes your job may be where you spend a lot/majority of your time. But it is not the only part that makes up who you are. When we are in a place of hating our jobs we can end up reflecting this feeling onto ourselves but it is so important to make the distinction of hating what we DO FOR A LIVING and hating WHO WE ARE. 

 

When I felt like a failure at work, I felt like a failure in my personal life. This was an unhealthy and unhelpful crossing of boundaries. 

 

Creating a new perspective of who you are can greatly help with this. When I felt that my career had been the only “positive” aspect of my personality, I had to spend time reflecting on the other elements of who I was. This was actually quite hard! Especially when so much of my social circle was made up of people in the same organisation. 

 

How can you define who you are outside of your career? Take stock of how you spend your time outside of work. If it is extremely unbalanced and all of your waking hours are spent thinking/doing work, get imaginative with it. What would you do if work wasn’t a limiting factor? What skills would you like to develop? What makes you feel like you’ve contributed meaningfully in your life? What piques your interest? What did ten-year-old you want to do with their life? What’s on your bucket list? What qualities as a person do you want to develop? 

 

My biggest tip for separating your identity from your career is to find multiple new hobbies and experiences you want to cultivate. For me this looked like setting up my own business, pursuing writing, trying to improve in a new sport. It’s important to have MULTIPLE interests and facets. You can of course have one main passion that you throw yourself into, but having other things that interest you, round you out and help develop you in lots of ways prevents the same danger of one dimensionality that overly identifying with your career can bring. 

 

Lesson 2: Stop pursuing goals in your career and instead chase your values

 

I had gotten caught up on the promotion train. Back in 2022 just before I had to take time out for burnout I was temporarily promoted and about to push myself for yet another promotion board. Why was I doing this? Because I thought I should. Despite feeling incredibly stressed and unhappy, I was too busy listening to everybody else’s opinion. And I almost went through with it. The forms were written, my boss about to press send, when I said “I can’t do it.” I am so grateful that I managed to stop myself from making a BIG mistake in seeking a result I didn’t want but thought I should. 

 

Why did this almost happen? Because I was chasing the stereotypical “career goals” and I was listening to my ego and not my gut. Over-identifying with our egos can be dangerous. My ego was telling me, “well if X is going for promotion then so should I because he’s useless!” This is NOT the reason to seek career progression. Especially if you’re already unhappy. But I see this often. People are not happy in the role/position they’re in, they think getting promoted is the answer so they work their arses off in a job they’re already hating, thinking the next step will solve all their problems. Does it? No. Ask yourself, why are you not enjoying your job? What is it about your career that you don’t like? If the answers suggest a deep rooted issue (such as the organisation itself not being the right fit, or the type of work you find unfulfilling and boring) is going up the career ladder really going to help that? 

 

So instead of going after yet another promotion or career step that you don’t REALLY want, how can you focus yourself in a job you don’t like?

 

The word “values” is thrown around a lot. But for good reason. Values can be described as a way of navigating your life. They are entirely separate and different from goals. Goals are finite. You achieve them and move on to the next. You never achieve values. They help to define the action you take and how you show up in the world. Why are they important when you hate your job? You can hate your job but still show up in a way that is meaningful for you. 

 

By identifying your most important values, you can choose every single day to focus on fulfilling those values in your career. This can bring focus to your work in a way that traditional “goals” won’t. When we’re living in line with values that are important to us we are taking committed action in a direction that is meaningful to us. You might hate the day to day drudgery, but if your focus is on showing up as a positive and enthusiastic co-worker as a core value and you do that, it will greatly impact how you feel. 

 

Research has demonstrated that people who spend 20% of their working time completing tasks that are personally meaningful to them, they have a much reduced chance of burnout. 

 

Who do you want to be as a PERSON. Bring that into your day to day work life. For me I want to be the best manager/leader that I can be. Regardless of the other nonsense going on, how can I show up best for my team? That’s always been the favourite part of my job – the people. So that’s what I want my focus to be on. This change of perspective was incredibly beneficial. It helped me to put the rubbish to one side and give myself a focus that meant something to me. 

 

Lesson 3: Understand there is always a choice

 

We often think there are no choices when we are trapped in a career we hate. But there are. Russ Harris (a fantastic author and ACT therapist) proposed this model of options when you feel there are limited choices in a stressful situation.

 

The options are: 

  1. Leave 
  2. Stay and make changes
  3. Stay and give up 

 

As we’ve already discussed, leaving may not be an option. Perhaps this is because financially you can’t take the hit (but remember this in itself is a choice – you are prioritising your financial commitments over the career situation – I know that’s harsh but it’s true because I’ve made that same choice myself) or perhaps it just isn’t viable with your family situation to leave. Whatever the reason, if leaving isn’t an option then you’re left with stay and make changes or stay and give up. 

 

Both are choices that you can take. If you choose to stay and give up, then chances are you are going to slide into further mental distress, feeling more trapped and overwhelmed. I know this happens because again, I’ve experienced it. 

When I first came back to work after burnout I didn’t want to be there. I felt so trapped it was causing my anxiety to spike. Because I didn’t want to be there I thought that meant I didn’t want to put any effort in. But that wasn’t me. I’m naturally someone who wants to be busy and to work hard. “Quiet quitting” was not something I could do. It made me feel worse. 

 

So, I ended up with choice two purely by default. I realised if I had to stay, I couldn’t just give up. I knew I’d end up falling back down into a black hole and I didn’t want that. My only option became to stay and make changes. 

 

Knowing what is in your control to change and what isn’t is imperative. I had previously become extremely frustrated and annoyed at organisational culture at senior management levels. I had let this impact me in such a way that it had a hugely detrimental effect but the reality was I had little to zero control over it. Similarly, I had no control over the actions of others in the organisation. I could do my part as a manager/leader but ultimately how others chose to behave was their choice. 

 

By recognising what was in my gift to change and what wasn’t, I was able to “let go” of some of the frustrations and difficulties I had experienced previously. 

 

Wasting energy on elements outside of our control is a sure fire way to exhaust ourselves unnecessarily. 

 

You don’t need to stay stuck 

 

The final lesson I want to leave you with is that you don’t have to stay stuck. Going back to lesson 3, there are always choices. You can choose to stay and make changes as the short-term plan but you can also include a longer term strategy to eventually get out and leave. Just because at the moment leaving isn’t an option for you, it does not mean that will always be the case. 

 

Sometimes the less obvious path is the long-term game. That’s the path I’m choosing. Whilst I’m implementing all of the lessons I’ve talked about in this article in my own life I am also planning my escape. I know that could be a long way off but just knowing that I have a plan to get out makes each day slightly more bearable. You can do this as well. Even if it’s a ten-year plan, it’s still a plan. It’s still a way to eventually get out of the career you hate. 

 

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