How do I stay sane at a job I hate?
November 29, 2010 10:02 AM   Subscribe

How do I stay sane at a job I hate? I am desperately unhappy in my current job and have been looking for something else. It's taking awhile though... how do I keep from jumping out the figurative window?

I have been looking for a new job for a year now. I live in a small city in the Northeast. I have a graduate-level education. I've been networking and doing informational interviews and everything I can think of to squeeze in during non-work time.* I've had a few interviews but nothing has panned out. I have consulted with people on how to improve my resume (it's fine) and whether there is anything different I should be doing during interviews (not really). I've kind of resigned myself to the fact that The Economy + Where I Live are just not conducive to finding something new quickly.

But I despise my job right now. My work consists of doing things that the proverbial college intern usually does. I type things that I had no input into the creation of. I guess I thought that I'd be doing something a little more involved after all the time and effort I've expended in education. The worst part is that one of my bosses is also a graduate of one of the same grad schools I went to and he's the worst about giving me the secretarial stuff** to do. I have no authority to create billable work, but I get reprimanded for creating non-billable work (the stuff I thought I was getting hired to do). I don't have enough to do, but I still have to figure out how to fill in my time sheet each week.

I could go on, but, long story short, the atmosphere is dysfunctional, the work is dismal, and the pay is nothing special. One of my co-workers just quit for a new job a few weeks ago and had many of the same issues I did (which made me feel ever so slightly better that I wasn't a big baby for not being happy here).

But until I find something new, I can't quit. I have a small family and we have a house and bills that need to be paid. Things are very tenuous financially right now due to my husband having to take a pay cut a few months ago at his workplace.

I'm trying to stay optimistic that something better is around the corner, but every day I feel my insides clench up as I enter and I dread every work day. I've lost confidence in myself and my abilities and it's affecting my non-work life. Moving to a different place with possibly more opportunity is not really an option right now.

And I know I'm supposed to be happy that I "have a job at all" these days.*** But most of the time I feel like telling my daughter (who can't understand yet) that she too can excel at school and college and beyond and maybe she can also have the wonderful opportunity to type stuff for old men. Yes, I'm starting to get bitter.

What can I do to stop feeling so awful and try to make it through this time? What am I not doing right in my job search? Will any of you at least commiserate with me and tell me it will all be ok in the end??

Throwaway email account at

Thanks all.

*I do have a small child and I also do freelance work.
** There is nothing wrong with secretarial stuff, but I didn't think that's what I was getting hired to do.
*** And yes, the one nice thing is that I can secretly post my laments to AskMe during work hours (BUT HOW WILL I FILL IN THIS NON-BILLABLE TIME ON MY SHEET?)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, I do sympathize with you, and yes, I also do believe that it will all be OK in the end. Although I don't know how long that will take.
As for how you can fill in the time you spend on metafilter on your sheet, why not call it personal development? Metafilter is very edifying.
In my own case, my employer doesn't know or care what I do in my non-billable time, since it has no consequences for him. I only bill for the time I spend working, so there is no dishonesty involved in the time that I spend amusing myself on the internet.
It is, of course, unfortunate that your job does not allow you to make full use of the abilities and skills which you have worked so hard to develop. But sometimes we just have to be stoic about such things. You will eventually have a better job. In the meantime, you are making money which you need to have.
I have had lots of different kinds of jobs, and I can assure you without doubt that it is far better to have a job in which you don't have enough to do, than it is to have a job in which you have too much to do and not enough time in which to do it. Your job, although it is not satisfying, is at least manageable.
posted by grizzled at 10:20 AM on November 29, 2010

Welcome to the new normal. Having just mercifully been laid off after a similar situation I can see the frustration levels rising. I too tried to find a new job while working, and came to the conclusion that finding a new job is a full time occupation. However, leaving one position to look for another is a black mark on your resume, unless you are an exceptional interview who can sell herself as being undervalued at the former position, and only feeling like a real contributor doing what she does best...yadda yadda.
If you can do it financially, then I would say leave the current position and devote your time to finding the best job you can.
posted by Gungho at 10:30 AM on November 29, 2010

Make a game of it. Make yourself bingo cards of every annoying thing that comes up at work. When you get Bingo, reward yourself with a little nip from a flask! (OK, maybe chocolate instead.) Or you could write a novel.
posted by stoneweaver at 10:31 AM on November 29, 2010

Have you talked to your boss(es) about how unfulfilling your current position is? You may be surprised and find they would be willing to find you more compelling work, if you expressed interest in such.

If neither you nor your boss can make the work a bit more engaging - suck it up and get it done until you find a new job.
posted by RajahKing at 10:47 AM on November 29, 2010

I've felt the same way. Several years ago I went so far as to quit my last crap job without a solid plan B (but with, rather amazingly, my wife's support). I don't exactly regret it, but it wasn't a great move. I went on to start a small business that I wasn't really prepared to run.

One thing that has since become clear to me is that the fact that I hated my job was always my problem, and finding a solution to that problem had always been my responsibility. I could complain 'til the end of time about my incompetent boss and his incompetent management, and it would accomplish precisely nothing. The terms of the arrangement were clear; I could keep showing up, experiencing the same work environment, receiving the same treatment and the same pay. If I didn't like it, my sole remedy was to leave. I wasted a lot of time, before I quit, imagining that I could somehow escape that basic choice. Instead of consciously choosing to make the best of the job or to leave it, I refused to acknowledge my responsibility in the matter, and suffered in resentment.

So I suggest you look really, really closely at your options and make an affirmative choice to accept your current circumstance for some limited, defined period of time, or to not do so. Make the choice, then make the best of it. Don't wallow in resentment, because when you unpack that resentment you'll find that you're only resenting yourself, or your spouse, or your kid, or your house, when it's really been your choice all along.

Reading what I've written, I'm afraid it sounds simplistic and preachy. I don't mean it to be. The choices you face are hard. You may have to deal with conflicts that you'd rather not face, like the possibility that you aren't going to find work like the work you expected to do, at the rate of pay you expected to make, in the city where you expected to live. Some "non-negotiable" link in these chains may have to be broken. It's hard. It's okay to feel that it's hard.
posted by jon1270 at 10:53 AM on November 29, 2010 [9 favorites]

Oh boy, do I hear you. My way of coping is throwing myself wholeheartedly into applying for other things - jobs, schools, fellowships, you name it. I WILL be out of here by the spring, once I see how the chips fall with said applications. Even if I don't get in anywhere, I will re-evaluate and come up with Plan B. But I do not have a family or a house, so I may have fewer financial restrictions than you do.

I like the idea of setting a deadline for yourself, if that is financially feasible for you. If worse comes to worst, if you haven't found anything else by that deadline and you're still so fed up, see if you can leave. If it's TRULY unbearable for you, then do your utmost to get out. I mean, TRULY unbearable.

How long have you been at the company? Is it the kind of situation where you can bring your concerns to a superior and try to work on making your circumstances more engaging? There may be pro-active steps you can take to mitigate the situation.

I also completely understand that "it's better to have a job than no job." It's true. I have been using this maxim to cope so far, and to try to have a fulfilling life outside of my office to remind me of myself, if that makes sense. But, the low-level, insidious depression that this kind of under-employment (at a similarly odious kind of workplace) has been inflicting on me is getting to be too much, so I have set myself a timeline. After nearly three years, I have exhausted the resources and options here. Just knowing that SOMETHING will be different at that date is enough. As Andy Dufresne would say, hope is a good thing.
posted by bookgirl18 at 11:05 AM on November 29, 2010

Another thought, as cliched as it sounds - I have lately been trying to think of five things I am grateful for, every single day. Even if it's "my boss didn't yell at me today." Even if it's "the dog DIDN'T pee in his kennel today." Five. Every day. It helps.
posted by bookgirl18 at 11:11 AM on November 29, 2010 [5 favorites]

OP, I feel your pain, I could have written exactly what you wrote at a quite a few previous jobs.

However, this helped me survive for the week or month or months until I implemented a plan B, C, or D.

• If it is a mindless task that you need to do, teach yourself something that you want to learn at the same time (I actually listened to lots of podcasts at previous jobs, about every topic imaginable, from the news to how to start a business)

• If it is a mindless task and you have a creative project, work on it at the same time (I wrote out ideas for scifi stories, just little notes on the side of a piece of paper)

Also, happiness for me came from just viewing the workplace as a temporary landing. What can I learn from this place that I want for the next job or place? (Will they train you for anything if you ask? Do you have coworkers who do what you would like to do or learn that you can suggest will increase your efficiency to the boss?) I also did everything to implement steps to get out (so if I were in your shoes, I would spend one day a week during lunch going to an info interview, and another day of the week calling up businesses that do what you want to do – or email them from an iphone, whatever (I would not use work resources, though, so just use something else rather than their computer)).

For me, the ultimate solution was along the lines of what jon1270 is suggesting (if you jump ship, you will find a new job and make the changes), but only you can decide what is best for you. I still think the short term survival tips should help.
posted by Wolfster at 11:19 AM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Count me in as another of the millions with a postgraduate degree who has, since about 2003 or so, more or less constantly been in this situation. As Gungho said, it's the new normal.

What can I do to stop feeling so awful and try to make it through this time?

The best advice I got about how to cope with this came from a Jungian psychologist who I talked with at about my lowest point during this cycle. She suggested that rather than seeking fulfillment on the job, that I should put my energy into having a fulfilling life *outside* of the workplace.

Easier said than done, and tricky (and hey, even radical!) in our culture of "your job defines you" - it took me about a year to actually incorporate this into my life. And you know what? It makes a world of difference. Getting through the not-very-meaningful workday is so much less painful when I am able to keep in mind that I'm doing it for a reason - not just for survival, but to enable myself to do meaningful things in my non-work hours.
posted by chez shoes at 11:29 AM on November 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

I sympathize, but as a former recruiter, let me just say: do not quit your job to look for a new one. I didn't find this out until I started working in the industry, but it's true: even people laid off through no fault of their own are at a disadvantage against currently employed, otherwise comparable candidates. And someone who quit because she was bored would be at an even greater disadvantage.

The advice above regarding focusing on fulfillment outside of work is good. Boredom is no fun, but it beats stressful overwork. When you have nothing but busywork to do try to get Zen about it, and think about buying something useful for yourself or your family with the money that you're earning.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:43 AM on November 29, 2010

Until I found my new job, I lost about 40 pounds from the stress of a Really Terrible Work Environment and Wrong Job for Me. Other than trying really hard to be happy outside of work, I coped by taking quick 5-10 minute walks around the block every 90 minutes or so and by streaming lots and lots of really interesting university / radio lectures.

I also had a lot of lunches with two former co-workers who had escaped the toxicity of this Really Terrible Work Environment. I could commiserate with them without feeling I was jeopardizing my job search networking and I could prove to myself that my turn to leave would come soon.
posted by crush-onastick at 11:50 AM on November 29, 2010

I think that most of the problem people in your situation have is that they know they hate what they do but do not really know what they would like to do. Why don't you dedicate some of the time you have to analyze what you really would like to do?
Once you decide what that is approach your boss(es) with some ideas that would fulfill your desires and help them out as well. You may have a win-win situation in your hands, right where you are.

If that is not a possibility and your current job is a dead-end job then you must look for another that fits what you would like to do, but keep in mind that it is certainly easier to find a job when you are employed.
posted by dupedyestafada at 1:50 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

It will all be okay for you someday. It absolutely will. I agree with the comments about making your non-work life more fulfilling. You didn't mention anything about your hobbies and interests beyond your job, but do whatever you can to immerse yourself in stuff that you love outside of the working day. You'll probably end up networking a bit that way too.

Another thing: exercise. I have been in your situation for the past 4.5 years and tried a bunch of different things to bolster my happiness: talk therapy, group therapy, three career counselors, sleep aids, increasing the freelance work that I love, volunteering, getting new projects at work, etc. The one thing (and miraculously, one of the cheapest) that has increased my sense of happiness and satisfaction with my lot has been regular exercise. I would have mocked you if you had told me that four years ago, but damn, it's true. Give it a shot, if you aren't getting sweaty a couple times a week already. Picture your boss's face on the punching bag if you have to.

Also, I started to use the same technique with work goals that I use in running: visualize a big goal, then break it down into little manageable chunks. With running, it's "I want to run a half marathon in 6 months. But for now, I just need to keep going until I reach that street lamp/stop sign/whatever. Then I have permission to check in with myself and see if I can do more." I almost always can, and it helps me not be overwhelmed by the vastness of the time or distance that lies before me. It can help with bad situations. "Just keep going for three more months. Then I will reevaluate, check in, see what I've been able to accomplish, and re-set my priorities."

I finally got a new job, by the way. I set the goal of leaving by April 2010. It took a bit longer than that, but I am about to get out of there. Give yourself permission to find inspiration in cheesy motivational advice, set big goals, tell people about them, and relish the tales of Others Who Have Gotten Out. I don't know if you suffer from this, but I made the whole problem worse by berating myself and my inability to get out. The most valuable thing I learned from the career counseling was to go easy on myself, to be okay with the fact that not everything can happen when you want it to. You will get out too.

Good luck. And stay in touch with that coworker that just quit if you can. You never know.
posted by chummie26 at 5:28 PM on November 29, 2010

I posted this in another thread, but this was my solution, that kept me soldiering on a full year after I thought I couldn't take it anymore:

Counterintuitively, I gave myself permission to quit. Not, "I'm going to go in and quit today." That would be a bad idea for all the reasons you've mentioned. Instead, I said, "If it really gets so bad that I can't take it anymore, if it really gets so bad that my psychological well being was in serious peril, I will quit with no plan B." In the meantime, I'm not going to stress about this job that doesn't matter to me. If I do start to stress, I can say, "whatever. let them fire me."

Just giving myself that mental permission was enough to reduce the anguish. I was there not because I was trapped, but because I was making certain choices to maintain a temporary position for good reasons.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 2:20 PM on November 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

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