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What to Do When You Can’t Quit a Job You Hate

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Photo: Olena Yakobchuk (Shutterstock)

The past two years have seen a wave of people quitting their jobs—the phenomenon that came to be known as the Great Resignation. This year we also learned of the Great Reshuffle, which refers to workers hopping occupations or industries altogether. The message is clear: Never before have so many people quit what they used to be doing to do something different.

What we hear a lot less about are the folks who are stuck. The people who can’t leave their current gigs, for any number of reasons, from the personal to the professional. While the statistics on how many are in this situation are hard to come by, these stuck workers definitely exist. I work with them, you probably know a few, or you might be one of them yourself.

Employees who can’t leave their jobs often get blamed for choosing to be a victim of their circumstance or not having enough grit, perseverance, or courage to find something else. What many may not fully realize is how the benefits provided by an employer can act like a leash, tying someone to a job they don’t want or a work environment they hate.

An example: due to the health condition of a spouse and the insurance provided, a former client I worked with couldn’t quit a toxic job. Their family’s health needs were too great (and the coverage too good) to leave. Another client completed a degree using the company’s education reimbursement program that they’d be responsible for paying back if they quit within five years. In both circumstances, the employees were stuck.

There are dozens of other reasons and indeed, some of them might also be due to a fear of change. Wanting to quit and knowing you can’t is stressful, even depressing. Taking care of yourself is priority one. Here are a few tips.

Try a “could be worse” journal

When feeling stuck in a job, a common recommended strategy is to keep a gratitude list: Write down three things you are thankful for each day. Some research points to the technique improving mental health. It’s widely touted as a strategy for building resilience and resolving that feeling of being stuck.

But for some people, gratitude lists don’t work. For these folks, the lists feel fake, and the exercise is unhelpful. In my experience, these are people who tend to see the glass half empty, notice deficits before strengths, or may be first to criticize new ideas. I find they may also be people who tend to have a darker sense of humor.

These folks might get more out of a“could be worse” journal. This is a place to chronicle all the things that could be worse than being in a job you want to quit but can’t. This is a negative visualization exercise that dates back to the Stoic philosophers from ancient Greece and Rome. For some, this approach induces gratitude in a more authentic way. It is not to revel in the misfortunes of others, but to recognize being stuck in a present circumstance may not be that bad after all.

Prioritize rest and take more breaks

Being in a job you want to quit but can’t, especially one that is fast paced with a heavy workload, is physically and emotionally taxing. It will deplete your energy and leave you with very little at the end of the day. This means you’re not just tired but also probably a grump to be around. The best way to get that energy back and improve your mood is through rest—not just at bedtime but throughout the workday. So take frequent breaks.

The Human Performance Institute, a leader in providing evidence-based strategies for wellness and high performance, determined that shifting between energy expenditure (working) and energy recovery (taking breaks) not only leads to better performance overall, but an improved sense of wellbeing.

The breaks don’t have to be long. Just 10 minutes of walking or stretching (away from a screen) every couple of hours is enough to maintain mood and focus. Not only will this help you keep a healthier attitude about the job, but your friends and family will thank you. You’ll have energy leftover at the end of the day for them too.

Prepare yourself for the next step

As cliché as it sounds, it’s true: This too shall pass. The present situation of being stuck in a job is, in the grand scheme of life, likely to be short-lived. Sometimes, keeping a temporary mindset and recognizing that circumstances will eventually change is enough to maintain a productive attitude.

This also speaks to the importance of being ready to act when things do move in a new direction. So prepare now just in case an opportunity crosses your path, because eventually, one will. Can you describe what you want in a new job? How about your strengths and what you contribute to a team? Is your resume updated? Have you met with someone recently to discuss your career aspirations? Being prepared means you answered yes to all these questions. If you said no, you now know where to start putting in some time and effort.

A lot of career satisfaction comes from having a sense of progress and forward momentum. This is why it’s so jarring to be in a job you can’t get escape. Keeping a productive attitude, managing your energy, and readying yourself to answer when opportunity does come knocking are the best ways to keep moving forward, even when you’re stuck.

  

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