Barely anything assigned to me at work and I'm dying of boredom
July 12, 2021 11:54 AM   Subscribe

Help me find the right mindset or strategy to get through this

I started working for the government about 3 months ago for the first time, after working in non profits and startups where there is a very fast pace. I have about 8 years of varied experience in my field. I was repeatedly getting burned out in lower level jobs that had no possibility for advancement, even though, if I admit it, I enjoyed the fast pace of that work. Actually, I have gotten promoted 3 times in separate jobs due to great performance. The reason I left those jobs was that after the one promotion (which was essentially just one step above entry level) there was no more possibility for advancement. I need to advance in my career if I am going to be able to afford a home and retirement, and, what feels more urgent, because I am always very eager to build my skills and advance in my chosen field which I find very interesting.

So when I got an offer for a government job, even though it was a similar level to the job I had before, it had a 30% pay increase and all the great benefits that come with those jobs, so I decided to accept it.

I am really struggling with the fact that I have had barely any work assigned to me in the past 3 months. I was used to producing several pieces per week, managing many projects, providing strategic guidance, solving complex problems, creating strategic plans and being used to my full potential as an employee. The way things work in government, projects that I would plan and implement all by myself within the space of about 2 week, are worked on by like 5 people, and take a month. So I feel very much underutilised. On the positive side, the managers have indicated to me that they know what I'm capable of, and that I might get promoted some time in the future. I just don't know when that will be, or how true it is.

Some people would enjoy having a relaxed job for a while, especially in summertime, and be happy they get to work from home doing basically nothing for several days, and completing 3 or 4 insanely easy projects on the others. Try as I might to just chill, I'm never going to be one of those people. I thought carefully about the field I wanted to be in for my career, and I enjoy the work. I need fulfilling work in order to be happy with my life.

I find my self esteem is really struggling from this. I'm having thoughts of having made a huge mistake in leaving my last job (even though I did get a big pay raise), being a perpetual loser, a slacker, incapable of making progress towards my goals, bored to death and losing all my motivation. I really want to just jump ship and find a more challenging role so I can get out of this bad headspace as soon as possible. However, I don't want to ruin my reputation, and already my resume looks like I've jumped around quite a lot (I have had 5 jobs in the past 8 years. Some were temporary contracts but some I just left because I found something better).

Please help me find a strategy to make it through this? I know it's a first world problem to have, but I am having trouble getting out of bed in the morning. If I leave this job soon, I'll have a short stint on my resume and everyone who helped me get hired (references, managers) will be disappointed in me. If I stay in this job, I'm going to get more depressed and lose more self respect and feel regretful of my choices. I am tempted to jump ship and move back into the non profit sector, because I cannot stand the extremely bloated processes and absence of innovation and efficiency. But I know I can't keep jumping around like this and expect to make any real career progress. Can anyone offer some advice on a mindset or strategy for this?
posted by winterportage to Work & Money (20 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
If you see an opportunity for a new project or solving a problem you've noticed, propose it yourself. Or, propose spending your free time to take classes online in a skill you'd like to learn.
posted by pinochiette at 11:57 AM on July 12, 2021 [10 favorites]

I know a few people in somewhat similar situations who used the extra time to get certifications for their career. It's possible your job would even pay for a percentage of the cost, or all of it.
posted by areaperson at 11:59 AM on July 12, 2021 [9 favorites]

Read David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs to understand that you’re not tripping, and then decide how you can use your tenure there to get to where you want. Not sarcasm — despite the snarky title, this is a serious and thoughtful book.
posted by toodleydoodley at 12:15 PM on July 12, 2021 [15 favorites]

My first few months in my first full time government job were like that. I wouldn't say I remember those days fondly now, because they were boring as hell and it made me nervous to have nothing to do, but some middle ground would be good. Government tends to have more people than it needs right up until it has less people than it needs. So I wouldn't jump ship right away.

In the interim, look around at what free educational resources are available to government employees. In our government, we have a whole online campus full of e-learning resources on leadership, languages, cultural understanding, etc, etc. that can be accessed for free and worked on at your own pace.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:19 PM on July 12, 2021 [5 favorites]

On the positive side, the managers have indicated to me that they know what I'm capable of, and that I might get promoted some time in the future.

Is this a result of having talked with them about how you feel underutilized? If not, maybe have that conversation.

I just don't know when that will be, or how true it is.
Are there any people at your department/organization who do seem to be doing more? When you look at people higher up on the ladder, does their workload appeal to you? Are there other departments in the same organization where the work is more interesting?

Aside from spending your spare time on education, is there any room for improving current processes where you work, or for doing useful things like producing documentation or public-facing information, and, if so, any chance the management might be receptive to you taking that on? Also, while some processes might be unnecessarily bloated, some of them might have good reasons for being the way they are; if you've only been there three months, maybe you could take a few weeks to thoroughly get to know the reasons behind how the system works and all the people your work interacts with. At minimum it's something to do, and at best it could improve your own work and feelings about it, and your ability to make improvements where relevant.
posted by trig at 12:21 PM on July 12, 2021 [7 favorites]

Welcome to the public sector! I'm sure not all government jobs are like this, but you've just described my career in local/state government (though happily my role is fairly independent so I can do my core duties at my own pace).

I've found it useful to volunteer for committees and projects, network with other departments, and generally put myself out there as someone who wants to be active in the organization. I don't love committee work but that's how stuff gets done here, so I raise my hand for everything.

I've also been volunteering in my profession, which has been rewarding and is something I can do on the clock.

I would give it some time and then reassess. I understand the concern about job hopping, but if you're still unhappy in a year there's no harm in starting your search again.
posted by toastedcheese at 12:21 PM on July 12, 2021 [13 favorites]

I had a temp job once with almost nothing to do. Go get the mail a couple of times a day, open it up, take it to the nice lady who processes it. Eventually, I found out that auditors hadn't liked that the same person used to get the mail, open it, and process it; most of it had enclosed checks. So. they made them hire a temp. Like you said, you might think people would like a do-nothing job, but I found it to be weirdly horrible. Finally, I found how to login to the computer based training stuff, and that is how I spent most of my time there.
posted by thelonius at 12:29 PM on July 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm having thoughts of having made a huge mistake in leaving my last job (even though I did get a big pay raise), being a perpetual loser, a slacker, incapable of making progress towards my goals, bored to death and losing all my motivation.

I can really identify with this. I'm in a new-ish job too and even though there are times when it's extremely busy, even just the first few times I had nothing to do for a day or 2 these thoughts started flooding in. And you can tell from how much time I spend on metafilter how little I have to do right now.

My advice is to not let these feelings push you around. I just kind of tried to think about it from another perspective - this downtime isn't about me, it's not a reaction to anything I did, no one is looking at me negatively because of it, and doesn't reflect on me in any way. It has everything to do with this organization's running, its' own cycles and the other people who were already working here before me. This downtime is just something that's happening to me that will be over when it's over, like a rain storm. Once I thought about it this way the panic & anxiety that was drowning me one second ago stopped immediately.

At the very least, I think you can let yourself off the hook for "making a mistake" because it doesn't read to me like that's what you did at all. It sounds like you made a prudent & ambitious decision that could still work out the way you want if you give it some more time.

I look at my role right now, while I'm in a downtime period, of being available and open for whatever's needed from me. It's a good time to get your finances in order and make any other plans you want to make. Read a book or something you never felt you had time for before! Take an online class! Start up a conversation with your work team & get to know them better.
posted by bleep at 12:58 PM on July 12, 2021 [6 favorites]

I don't know what kind of government you're in or whether your position allows this, but my experience working with city governments in the US and Canada suggests that there can be a lot of scope for making things happen just by...doing them. I work with a lot of government employees and some of them have managed to achieve significant positive results despite not necessarily having the titular authority to do what they're trying to do. toastedcheese has some great suggestions for how to do this if you're interested in it.

The other piece of advice I'd give you when it comes to making stuff happen internally is, if you can figure out who the people are in your org who get stuff done, reach out to them informally to work with you rather than going through channels first. Doing this in a politic way is important -- you don't necessarily want to skip the official channels, just give people an informal heads' up and see what they can do for you. Similarly, if you become one of these people in your particular area, you will find people coming to you with help for their initiatives, which can also make you busier and increase your portfolio!

I hesitate to give this advice too strongly because it's absolutely possible that your particular situation doesn't allow you to do this without risking your job or your boss's goodwill, or even to really do this at all. might?
posted by goingonit at 1:19 PM on July 12, 2021 [8 favorites]

Therapy might help, and occupy some of your free time until you've been there long enough that you have a full portfolio of projects (slow though they may individually be) to be busy at a reasonable (humane) rate most of the time.

You have a number of - internally conflicting! - narratives about work, ambition, what other people think of you, money, responsibility, and the future that are going to burn you out to a crisp if you don't get a leash on them. It sounds like you're being driven entirely by anxiety and the need to reduce that discomfort by any means necessary instead of working the system to the best of your ability. You don't owe capitalism your misery and overwork for your self esteem; you have to do something to protect yourself before it grinds you down. Don't let panic drive your decisions here.

Given that you should probably stick this job out at least two years, are being paid well, and might make interesting contacts and/or learn valuable insider process information if you stay, you need to find a way to occupy your time that can be vaguely handwaved as job-related. Definitely find out what kind of learning resources are available to you through work, and if that's too limited maybe your public library membership includes a digital learning portal, or spring for a service yourself. Engage with your management often to touch base and look for opportunities to do value-add work. Absolutely get to know as many of your coworkers, peers, and near-peers in your work environment as you can, so that they think of you when there's work to be done. Meditate. Read books about philosophy and pretend they're for improving your management skills. Feed your mind, while you have the time.

But! No manager or colleague wants to only hear about the next job you want instead of the job you're supposed to be doing, so learn the line between engaged vs over-ambitious. Your impression of the job today may in fact be incorrect, so don't assume they agree with your assessment that there's nothing to do/the job isn't hard/you couldn't possibly have anything to learn there.

Maybe your particular industry isn't like this, but I know a lot of people who needed to put in some years in the government component of an industry before they were an attractive hire at the often large- or enterprise-sized vendors that actually service the projects (or large customers of the services provided). It does take a certain amount of patience, but what you learn during your time there isn't obtainable any other way. If this is true for you, and there are jobs that will open to you in the future for putting your time in here, do whatever you have to do to find some patience for this process.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:30 PM on July 12, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I remember when I started a job at a non-profit in a newly created position and hit I think the 3 or 6 month mark and thought I was going to have excess capacity forever. I even took on a volunteer gig to fill some of that gap, and I swear not a week or two after I did that, my capacity suddenly got filled up.

I would suggest that while it's nice to feel like you can contribute right away, organizations that need new staff to hit the ground running immediately are probably running dangerously lean. It should take some time for new hires to be using their full capacity and they should be taking that time to absorb as much context as possible about the organization, its goals and outcomes and challenges, and their fellow staff.

Government is probably slower than most - I know someone who took a job at a quasi-government job complaining about lack of work at 6 months - but when I saw him again about a year in he had more work than he can handle. Some of that is the ponderous nature of government work, but some of may be (especially if it's project-based) that it is easier to bring someone in at the beginning of the project and new ones aren't kicking off every day.

I've been in jobs where I wasn't challenged but the challenge isn't in the volume of work it's in the kind of work, and 3 months in is (IMO) too early to say if you're going to be provided those opportunities or not. I wouldn't panic just yet, and in the meantime take some of the very good advice in this thread about how to use that time AND shift your internal monologue around it.
posted by misskaz at 2:11 PM on July 12, 2021 [17 favorites]

Seconding taking certifications and / or continuing education classes, especially if there's an employee education reimbursement program. Or find projects to work on. BUT I would also suggest not stressing too much...I once had a very decently paying job, with my own office, that required about 1 hour of work a day to knock my quotas absolutely out of the park. Some jobs are just like that.

Admittedly I also got bored, and took it upon myself to rewrite the entire training manual for the company, which resulted in a fat pay raise and an additional 1 hour of work per week. I left after 4 years because I really needed to not be quite that bored for quite that long.

Note: if I had worked remotely for that company I would likely still be there and not done any of the above extra work. I have a cushy remote job in a field I love now that takes up maybe 3 hours a day, tops. I have plenty of things to occupy my extra time since I'm at home: making art, cooking, long walks, having friends over...I definitely suggest taking advantage of your remote status and light workload and find some things you just...really enjoy doing unrelated to work.

Times like this happen only rarely in most people's lives. You have a good income and lots of free time. I think as a society we idolize busyness to an unhealthy degree. Please do try to see this as the gift that it is. Not every moment needs to be bent towards advancement. You have plenty of time to dig deep with this job. It's ok to take your foot off the gas for a while and enjoy this.
posted by ananci at 2:24 PM on July 12, 2021 [15 favorites]

I'm glad you posted this question because I also work for the government and have been going through something similar to what you describe about feeling underutilized. I have been with my agency for going on six years, and for a few years in there I had so much to do I would frequently have to work weekends to complete everything. Part of me wonders whether this slow period for me is a reward of sorts. That logic could apply to your situation as well. You are new. You have time to acclimate, take trainings, get to know people, read recent issuances and such from your organization. A very slow period at the start of a new job is probably preferable to having too much work to do or being expected to lead before you really know how things operate there.
posted by ponibrown at 3:10 PM on July 12, 2021 [3 favorites]

So, I've had periods like this at work (in state government) and yes it can be demoralising, because I would rather be busy and useful. I am in a slightly better position however as the particular area of my work involves a lot of reading (which we might loosely term "research") and a lot of interpretation of complex material (what we might loosely term "syntheses"). So there's usually always reading and writing to do, just to have the doco ready.

The trick is to try and determine which way the wind is blowing, so to speak. You have to figure out who your Minister is and what they are about, and then who the top boss of your department is (a Director-General, in our case) and what they are about, and you need to be fully versed in your government's strategic plan, your department's strategic plan, and your business unit's strategic plan.

It isn't enough to just know your job and know what you yourself can do, or know what projects your little business unit is working on. You need to connect yourself (if you are willing) to the larger whole and start to see things more strategically while you continue to work tactically.

Communities of Practice (CoP) are things that we have had middling-to-good success with. Find out who else in your department does similar/identical work, find out who in other departments does similar/identical work (I can practically guarantee your entire business unit is essentially mirrored at least three times within the departmental family), and ask your boss if you can "spearhead" a "collaborative cross-agency initiative" in the form of a CoP. Reach out via your internal socials to find like-minded individuals, set up a terms of reference for the CoP or working group or whatever you want to call it, have an inaugural meeting two weeks from now, and determine how you can all help one another.

There will be some sour-faced old prunes (here we call them "longsocks") who have nothing good to say about anything: you can weed them out at the first meeting and simply never invite them again. But there will still be some energy and enthusiasm across the board, so find it and tap in to it. Discover what everyone else is working on and find - ugh - "synergies" where you can.

If this puts you in a position where a question gets raised in a team meeting and you can respond with something "Oh, I know that X over at Department of Y is working on something similar, should we Teams them this afternoon?", you are already halfway there.

Also, learn to write compelling briefing notes and convincing budget requests.

YOU CAN'T WAIT ON YOUR BOSS TO ASSIGN YOU WORK 100% OF THE TIME. They don't know what mad shit is going to land on their desk in the next five minutes so you can't rely on them for anything other than your timesheets and leave requests (and even then, I wish you good luck). Go and find the work for yourself - I guarantee it is out there. Process improvement, as noted above, is never wasted effort.

Memail if you have any questions.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:36 PM on July 12, 2021 [4 favorites]

I'm not sure how administrative your job is, but I'm currently a project-manager-type, and I find that there is ALWAYS more work to be done in every organization in terms of documenting practices and creating training materials (how things should be done), archiving completed projects, and in general, cleaning up files so that if something happened to you, anyone else could walk in and pick up the files and know what to do. For me, a lot of this work involves deleting working files - so many working files that sometimes I just go in, copy out what's actually of use for long term archiving (final reports, budgets, etc.), check that they are all clearly labelled, nothing is private that shouldn't be accessed, and put them somewhere (like a share drive) where anyone who might need it can access it. Sometimes, that person is me, and I'm so glad that it was organized because there is no way I would have remembered where to find it otherwise.

If your department has physical files, I can imagine that they've not been cleaned out in a while either. A couple of years ago, I worked for a university department and pulled out dozens of bankers boxes of things to be shredded, like unsuccessful job applications from a decade earlier. You find out what needs to be kept and for how long, and get rid of the rest. It can be tedious (I tend to listen to a lot of chatty podcasts while doing it), but also satisfying.

*I'd like to say that I delete the rest - and I would discard them if they were physical - but I'm mildly paranoid about deleting files and electronic storage is pretty limitless, so I just put them all in one folder and leave them.
posted by jb at 3:52 PM on July 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

I rescind my advice which was coming from a corporate perspective. In government I can see how it would work 100% differently.
posted by bleep at 5:47 PM on July 12, 2021

Best answer: Feel free to ignore this comment if it doesn't meet your needs, but if you would like a way to reframe what you're experiencing right now, I will offer you this:

I worked in non-profits before my current job teaching at a (publicly funded) college. What I realized after I had been out of the non-profit world for a while was how dysfunctional non-profits can be. (I understand that the non-profits you worked for may not have been dysfunctional, but from the jobs I've worked and many, many venting sessions with friends in other non-profits, I know that a LOT of them are.)

I remember the kind of adrenaline rush of getting projects done with less time, money and staffing than optimal. I put in a ton of hours and ended up getting used to doing everything (and so did my colleagues). I was always busy and working overtime because there was always more work to be done than people to do it.

Working in this kind of environment can affect you in a few ways: 1) you start getting addicted to the adrenaline rush of working without enough resources on very tight timelines 2) corners get cut and not everything is done according to official policy, because you can't afford it, and 3) you start thinking this is normal.

So when you go to an environment that isn't understaffed and where you're not rushing to put out one fire after another by any means necessary, the new environment can feel slow. Its insistence on doing things according to official policy can feel rule-bound. You can start missing that adrenaline rush and that addictive feeling that you are a superhuman who can pull it all together at the last minute, over and over, because you've had to do it so many times that you've learned how to do it and do it well.

I'm not sure I'm explaining myself very well, but how you're feeling now may be a form of detoxing from that kind of environment.

I second the people above saying volunteer for everything and join all the committees. Work on your own professional development--pick something you want to learn and start reading up on it, watching videos on it, taking courses on it. This is how you'll be able to eventually do the work and projects you find interesting, that actually use the good skills you developed in your previous jobs. I think your instincts that you shouldn't leave this job are good. It will not always be this way--soon you'll be given (or take on) more responsibility, and you will also lose some of that conditioning you may have picked up from working in non-profits for so long that's causing you to feel like you're not working hard enough. You'll be able to strike a healthy balance between working hard and getting proper down time, while getting paid well and having good benefits--things that everyone ought to have but sometimes are hard to find outside a government job.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:45 PM on July 12, 2021 [6 favorites]

I don't know if this describes where you are, but in some positions the challenge is not in zipping through work that's assigned to you -- it's in finding, or creating, and justifying your own work, constructing the need. This is not something anybody should be popped into unawares, but I wonder if you could have been.

Or you may just be spare capacity, if the budgeting and hiring systems are slow. The good news in that case is you can expect to be utilized, the bad news is it may take a fiscal year.

Talk to people.
posted by away for regrooving at 11:55 PM on July 12, 2021

Best answer: My loved one dealt with something similar (Canadian federal government after years in NGOs with lots of projects, evenings, weekends and overseas work) by joining optional committees and groups at their GOC position. This committee work eventually led to another more fulfilling job within the GOC. They also frequently attend workshops and other training activities that are paid for by work. Within the branch they are in there was an opportunity to meet with a higher ranking mentor on a regular basis. This has been very helpful. I would look for these types of offers. Several years on they are very happy with their position and things look great for the future (fingers crossed).

Speaking as the SO I was thrilled when my spouse finally left the NGOs and moved into the public service. It is true that the pace is slower, but there is tons of room for advancement and the workload is humane. It was an adjustment for my spouse to go from the excitement and constant emergencies of the NGO world but it has been a boon for our relationship and family life.
posted by Cuke at 7:40 AM on July 13, 2021

In addition to the above advice, I would create a template for yourself of what kind of work you would ideally be doing in your organization, then what skills and certifications you might need to achieve that type of work. Approach your managers with that and ask about mentorship opportunities- most places have formal or informal mentorship programs and it often involves the type of internship work and rubbing elbows with other people that leads to career advancement. You can also ask about volunteer spots and any special committees that you could be filling your time with.

I would not complain to your manager that you are not getting enough work without also bringing along some kind of proposal for what you could be doing instead- while it is nice to show initiative it may be remembered as needing micromanagement if your name comes across their desk for a promotion. In general, don't bring up a problem unless you're also bringing a solution.
posted by shesaysgo at 1:19 PM on July 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

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