Conventionally held beliefs encourage workers to grind out a living through thick and thin. But during a crisis, many are rethinking their professional path. Here’s how to know when it’s time to go.

By Linda Moon

Locked down under coronavirus, many people have had time to reflect on what matters, including job fulfilment.

While the disruption to business means fewer opportunities in some fields, it may be a golden opportunity for those feeling career ennui to plan a new vocation, study or upskill into something more meaningful to them.

Dissatisfied workers

A 2017 survey by SEEK Learning suggests 57 per cent of Australians feel unfulfilled and stuck in a job they loathe.

Workers are most miserable in roles where they lack control, autonomy, complex work utilising their skills, security and good pay, suggests an ANU study.

The age of work discontent seems to strike at about 35. In a UK survey by human resource firm Robert Half, those over 35 were twice as likely to report job dissatisfaction as their younger peers. Common gripes were workplace stress, work/life balance issues, feeling unappreciated and undervalued, while about one in six didn’t have a good friend at work.

With the average Australian man spending half, and the average woman 38 per cent, of their waking life at work (according to a Curtin University report), why do so many keep turning up to a job they dislike?

The job myths and fears that hold us back

Clare Mann, a Sydney-based organisational and coaching psychologist with more than 30 years in the industry, blames big mortgages, debt, family responsibilities, social expectations and our fear of the unknown. However, staying put causes inner conflict if we’re denying our own happiness and leading second-hand lives dictated by social expectations, she says.

“For a person, their job is their life, their identity, their security, their community. And yet, the organisation says you’re comparable, you’re dispensable, you’re measurable; and if the figures don’t add up, I’ll have to get rid of you.

“This is giving rise to anxiety, depression and panic attacks,” Mann says. “A lot of people tell themselves, ‘If I just get financially free, one day I’ll then be able to do the things I really want’. But that day never comes.”

According to Mann, author of The Myths of Life and the Choices We Have, false beliefs keep us trapped in work we don’t like. These include the belief we lack choice, can’t change later in life, are selfish if we pursue our own path and are better off fitting in with society’s expectations than being true to ourselves.

Fear of uncertainty plays a huge role. Common fears include fear of failure, social humiliation, running out of money, not being able to climb back on the ladder and isolation due to breaking with the status quo.

The psychology behind throwing in the towel

Getting out of a work rut requires cultivating new belief systems, Mann says. 

Take responsibility for your own happiness, then take action, she suggests. “If you want to have what you have not, you must do what you do not,” Mann wrote in a 2017 LinkedIn article.

You know better than others what life you want to lead, so trust yourself, Mann says. Suppressing your uniqueness is a betrayal of yourself and the contribution you might make to your community.

Importantly, realise no one’s watching. People are too preoccupied with their own problems to worry about yours, she reminds us, while those who criticise you often simply feel threatened.

Mann recommends challenging the status quo and the assumptions under which you live your life. “Ask people who have successfully made the shift for their advice,” she suggests.

Embrace uncertainty. Nothing in life is certain, Mann says. Embracing and preparing for change gives us the chance to live more meaningfully and take up opportunities.

On the positive side, think of it as a chance to entertain your freedom, she says. Regardless of your reason, staying in a job you hate is a choice.

“Real freedom comes from recognising that we already have complete freedom now to be who we want to be,” Mann says.

She warns against letting doubt and over-thinking the practicalities sabotage your dream. “Create a vision of the future you want to create. Think big. Romance and build your dream.”

On a practical level, it can help to reduce your living costs. Values absorbed from society encourage us to live lifestyles that trap us in unhappy work, Mann says.

“The person in many ways is giving into society’s myths, the unquestioned assumptions with massive mortgages, holiday homes and private schools. They often can’t escape without feeling the threat that the whole lot’s going to go up in smoke.”

She advises looking at what adjustments you can make to your life and financial outgoings to enable you to leave your job. Scores of frugal blogs exist to help people reduce expenditure.

Typical strategies include downsizing, moving out of the city, forgoing restaurant meals, exploring cheap entertainment options, repairing instead of replacing, and embracing DIY. 

As the saying goes, you only have one life.