How To Survive A Job You Hate (But Can't Leave – Yet)

You're miserable, uninspired and frustrated. You know you have to make a shift. But much as you'd love to quit, you're simply not ready. How do you stay sane? Natasha shares nine ways to make it through career-change limbo.

There were mornings when I had to pep-talk myself into getting out of bed.

There were commutes when I did an extra lap of the roundabout, just to delay my arrival at the office by ten more seconds.

Days of clock watching, wondering how it was possible that only four minutes had passed since I last glanced up.

Nights of lying awake, running circles in my head, desperately trying to think of a way out.

I planned and daydreamed endlessly of the moment when I'd put my things away at my desk and stand up from that chair for the very last time. But that moment was a long way off.

I was stuck, inert, in a torturous state of suspension.

I hated where I was, but I couldn't leave.

Sound familiar?

What do you do if you're not ready to make your shift, but the day-to-day grind is driving you up the wall?

Here are some strategies from real-life career changers on how they endured (and in some cases actually learned to enjoy) the jobs they weren't ready to leave.

1. Share the load

If I asked you what you hated about your work, I bet you'd be able to reel off a long list of things.

  • You feel undervalued.
  • You can't stand your boss.
  • Your skills aren't being used properly.
  • You're just a cog in a machine.
  • The office politics are killing you.

But, underneath all of those explicit items on your list, there's something else going on, too.

You're being a big fat faker.

And you hate it.

You get up every day and force yourself into your commute. You walk into the office and you feel heavy and tired before you've even sat down. You have to push yourself to get anything done. And on top of all of that… you smile anyway, don't you?

You say a cheery "Hello!" to your colleagues. When your boss asks who'd like to take on that desperately boring project that you just know will be a train wreck before it's even started, you put your hand up, right?

Your whole day is a series of little lies. And that's not who you are.

But you started doing it in small ways a long time ago: papering over the cracks. And as the cracks have slowly grown, so has the amount of time you're pasting a smile over the top of disinterest and frustration. It's been an insidious creep of inauthenticity, and it's eating you from the inside out.

This inauthenticity is at the core of most people's frustration with their work. It's what turns "I don't love my job" into "I cannot stand this life any longer".

Maybe you can't be entirely open about how you're feeling, all the time, but you can probably share the load with someone at work: an understanding colleague or a supportive boss.

Who could you share how you're feeling with? What would allow you to be authentic, find some relief and start creating solutions, even in a small way?

"I had a group of of people around me, and we used to moan about work all the time. That was just a part of day-to-day life.

"And then there was a team leader I worked with. He was about the same age as me, but further ahead on the career ladder in the company. I decided to trust him and I confided in him about how I felt. And he said he was thinking about the same thing; he completely understood how I felt.

"I didn't expect that from him; it was very moving and reassuring, and it gave me the validation I needed to know that how I was feeling was OK." – Richard (founder of Careershifters)

2. Reduce your hours

One of the most important principles we teach at Careershifters is that new ideas and opportunities come from new experiences.

And when you're working full time, getting time and headspace to have those new experiences is a real stretch.

So, although it might feel like a pipe dream, asking to reduce your hours can be an incredibly effective way of accessing more time and energy without compromising your security.

This isn't an option for everyone, but it's well worth considering. Many people are gloriously surprised by the freedom and support they can get if they just gather the courage to ask.

Maybe you'll get a no. Maybe it's uncomfortable. Maybe you're worried about the consequences.

But maybe you have more options than you think, especially if you start with a small reduction in hours.

And the impact can be incredible:

"Mainly it helped me unravel a large part of my identity from the job. My story when I met people then became: 'I work a few days a week at a corporate job, however, what I'm trying to do is this other, more interesting thing'.

"It's helped me gain perspective and to be less fearful, knowing I would survive if I left the job as I'm already OK with far less money. It's increased my physical and psychological energy, for sure. I have more space to pursue other things, and a feeling of already having one foot out of the door.

"It also meant that outside of the 9–5 office role I could mix with people who worked differently. For example, I started to learn Spanish, and in the course there happened to be a bunch of women who were all entrepreneurs.

"Locked in an office all week, being too tired in the evenings or weekends to do much else, meant that I wasn't even mixing with anyone who wasn't doing the same corporate grind, getting no exposure to fresh ideas.

"I did the hours reduction in quick stages – half a day, then a full day, now my hours are in the 20s and I want to reduce them further soon." – Kirsty (Oct 2014 Career Change Launch Pad participant)

3. Zoom out

You've been working on this spreadsheet (or sitting in this meeting, or trying to make a sale to a nightmare prospect) for ever, and you just can't bring yourself to care any more.

The day-to-day reality of most jobs isn't deeply inspiring and exciting. There will always be tasks and things to do that feel like hard work.

But there's something bigger at play, too.

No matter how mundane your job might feel, your work is in service of something that matters.

And connecting your immediate task with that bigger 'something' can bring a little extra motivation and enjoyment to what you do.

Find a way to get connected with the 'why' of what you're working for.

Maybe sitting on the phone with a disgruntled client isn't your favourite thing to do. But once you remember that you have the power to turn someone's bad day into something to smile about, it's a lot easier to throw yourself into the conversation.

Or perhaps crunching the numbers for the last big project you worked on feels like a nightmare task. But when you think of the impact that the information could make on the number of people you could help next time around, it won't feel so worthless.

Develop your own way to remind yourself of your bigger 'why'.

"I work for a well-known tyre company. Making and selling tyres isn't a very inspiring or meaningful cause, and I talk a lot about how I want to find a career where my day-to-day job has a real impact on people.

"One day I had a call with a client who let me know how much my work was helping them, and I realised that I can make an impact on the world, even if it's just with the people I get to work with right now.

"I wrote that client's name on an index card and I keep it stuck to the corner of my computer screen. When things feel like they couldn't get any less inspiring, it's a great reminder that even the boring, tough stuff can be worthwhile." – Dean (customer service manager)

4. Choose your superpower

If you're feeling as though your skills are underused and undervalued, or as though your life has become a Groundhog-Day-esque circus of sameness, it's time to turn up the volume.

Pick something specific that you're interested in, and take it on as a challenge. Maybe the one part of your job you enjoy is designing and making pitches to potential clients.

Focus on it. Read everything you can find about public speaking and presentation skills. Take a free online course in your spare time. Do whatever you need to do to get really, really good at the part of your job you enjoy the most, and bring it into your day as much as you can.

No clear need for a presentation at this team meeting? Ask your boss if you can do one anyway. Find clients and potential partners you wouldn't normally pitch to, and pitch to them.

It feels amazing to grow and develop and be really, really excellent at something, and people will notice.

The better you get, the more likely you are to be asked to do more of it. And the more you do, the better you get.

Plus, when you're finally ready to make your shift into a new career, you'll have an extra string to your bow to impress potential new employers, business partners or clients.

"I had a think about what I was doing and realised there was one part of the job I actually really enjoyed: organising and promoting events and doing photography. So I started squashing in the parts I don't particularly enjoy (course marketing, admin, finance stuff), and realised that they didn't take me that much time if I worked really quickly.

"That then left me more time for the other stuff, so I decided to refresh our photo library and have been able to organise new photoshoots. I've also been more proactive on the events side by proposing new events to run with a colleague that I'd previously worked with.

"No-one has seemed to notice what I'm doing, and it makes the work day less of a pain." – Miranda (Feb 2015 Career Change Launch Pad participant)

5. Take on a secret side-project (at work)

What makes a work day feel good?

When you come home with a smile on your face, what was it that put that smile there?

Figure out what makes a difference to you, and turn it into a secret project to get more of it into every day.

Love making people happy? Set yourself a challenge to do three random acts of kindness every day. Find five minutes to help your colleague with her project when she looks like she's stressed out, and make sure you leave her laughing. Secretly put a bunch of flowers in the middle of the table in the meeting room. Have an impromptu dance party in the kitchen.

Feel like you're trapped behind your computer all the time, and missing human connection? Turn conversations into a game: how many new people can you meet at work today? Do you know the caretaker by name? What does that woman on the other side of the office actually do?

"It sounds mad, but making an effort to be extra nice to my colleagues really helped.

"Making someone a cup of tea, asking how their weekend went, helping someone out with a problem, etc.: all of that helped take the focus away from my awful job and my awful boss!" – Corinna (Feb 2016 Career Change Launch Pad participant)

6. Take on a secret side-project (at home)

Just because you're not able to leave your job now doesn't mean you can't start working on your shift right away.

And having a secret side-hustle can work wonders for your mood and motivation.

Whether it's something like our Career Change Launch Pad, starting your business, or simply learning a new skill, nothing feels quite as good as making progress on your shift.

Why?

Because half the despair of feeling stuck in a job you don't enjoy comes from feeling like there's no way out. You wouldn't know where to go, even if you did quit today. Or you have an idea of what you'd like to do, but you don't have the experience you need to be taken seriously.

By building up experience, clarity, and an escape plan, you're de-risking your situation. You're not going to make the mistake of a reactive shift. You're not going to find yourself stuck in the same place a year from now.

And the confidence and energy this can provide you with is priceless in your day-to-day.

Even if it's just an hour a week, choose something to go to work on and turn it into your secret project.

"I decided I was going to give myself six months to learn how to code. It wasn't my dream job, but I knew it was a useful skill, and something that could potentially give me a lot of freedom to travel and work on my own terms while I figured out my 'real' next steps. I signed up to two courses: one online and one in-person at a local adult learning centre.

"It was so much fun. In quiet moments at work or in boring meetings, instead of thinking about how terrible my job was, I was planning my next website or solving a programming problem in my head.

"Having something different and enjoyable to focus on made all the difference." – Erica (operations manager, NHS)

7. Shift your focus

"What you focus on, grows."

It sounds like New Age, unrealistic hype, but it's worth paying attention to if you can't seem to escape the feeling that everything is doomed and there's no way out.

Here's the thing: the more convinced you are of the idea that your situation is awful, the more you'll find evidence to back it up.

"See? He's making another cup of coffee. Clearly everyone here is as disillusioned as me, and he can't be pulling his weight because he's always by the kettle."

"See? They're making me do all the name tags for the event. Menial work. They have no appreciation for my skills."

Your life becomes a day-to-day exercise in proving yourself right.

And this is what the inside of your head starts to sound like, all the time: self-righteous and hard done by, not because that's the kind of person you are, but because of where your gaze is fixed. It's even worse if you allow that stuff to come out of your mouth.

What you focus on, grows.

Maybe that colleague of yours is avoiding work by making 14 cups of coffee a day. They're procrastinating and hiding out, AND they could be exactly the person you can share how you're feeling with, becasue you know they'll understand.

Maybe you do have to print and cut up three hundred name tags this afternoon, AND you get to do it with a colleague you don't know that well. It's a boring task that doesn't use your best skills, AND it's a great chance to get to know someone new and give your giant brain a break.

However eye-rollingly Pollyanna it might sound, nothing is doomed and fundamentally awful. There's something to be celebrated in everything, if you look hard enough.

"For me, it really is a matter of focusing on the positive and being grateful for as much as possible.

"Is your job close to home, and thus your commute short? Be grateful! Do you work for a highly reputable firm that will look good on a CV regardless of your personal experiences there? Be grateful! Do you love your co-workers, but hate your boss? Be grateful – after all, you could be in a situation where you hate all of them! Ha!

"I know it sounds trite, but if you are truly 'stuck' there, you have to find a way to make the best of it. And I personally know of no better way to do that than to focus on the positive and on what you can control." – Cathy (programme manager)

8. Take the lead

One of the uncomfortable truths that nobody likes to hear is also one of the most empowering things you can consider: nobody owes you anything.

Nobody's here to argue that it's not wonderful when your boss has your back and your team is working like a well-oiled machine, and there is always, always paper in the printer.

But it's not your boss's job to have your life work. And if the IT guy is always late, there's probably a reason why.

Waiting for someone else to fix things (while simultaneously being miserable because your life isn't how you want it to be) is not a useful course of action.

What could you take on to have things be better at work? How could you lead the charge towards a more fun working environment, or a more efficient email system, or a flexible working policy?

If you're feeling unfulfilled and unhappy in your career, mustering the motivation to take the lead on something probably isn't going to feel like the obvious and enjoyable thing to do.

But if it matters to you, then it's up to you to change it.

And if it matters to you, it probably matters to other people, too.

Think about the one thing that could make the biggest positive impact in your workday, and let your boss know you'd like to work on improving it.

It could be as simple as finding a way to share all the positive feedback you get from clients with the whole team, as soon as it comes in.

It might mean finally gathering the courage to negotiate a day of working from home, on an experimental basis.

Or it could be something bigger and more complex – something you'd need to re-structure your day to implement.

Whatever it is, step up to the plate. Find the people you'd need on your team. Take the reins.

"In my business development role I was tired of chasing after corporate accounts and doing things I didn't find fulfilling.

"However, when I took a step back, I thought about what was missing from my role and what I'd like to do more of, and considered ways to bring this into my role.

"I wanted to network with people whose work I found interesting and I wanted my work to have more social impact. So, I started networking with local third sector organisations and community groups and finding ways that we could collaborate with them to provide services that helped a different client group.

"Not only did I start enjoying my existing job much more, it also gave me the kind of experience I wanted to have on my CV. This was a total game changer when it came to looking for my next job, as it gave me clarity on what I really wanted and experiences that I could talk passionately about with potential employers." – Matt ( June 2015 Career Change Launch Pad participant)

9. Fill your tank

Working in a job that doesn't excite you is draining. It takes energy to get yourself to work in the morning, to motivate yourself throughout the day, to work those extra hours on the task you've been dreading for weeks. And when you're coming home exhausted and empty at the end of the day, the thought of doing anything else can feel impossible.

But with all that energy going out every day, it's vital to find ways to get some energy coming back in.

Everyone has something that fills their tank.

It might be exercise, or art, or spending time with friends. It might be getting out into nature on a regular basis. There's something out there that leaves you feeling energised and refreshed, every time.

And even if the thought of making and taking time for it feels impossible and tiring, that 'something' can be your lifeline.

Exhaustion and frustration are signs that you're undernourished, physically and emotionally. And you need to feel nourished to make it through this in-between stage of a career change.

Assign time for yourself. Protect it fiercely. Do what you need to do to refill your tank.

"Monday and Thursday evenings are pure 'me' time.

"My husband takes the kids, and I go running in the park with a friend or shut myself away for an evening with my yoga and my books. I used to feel like I couldn't find the time or the energy to do anything outside of work, but since I've been doing this, everything's got easier.

"I have quiet time with myself inside my head to check in and think a little, and it's easier to get through the week knowing that I've got a treat on the way." – Diane (civil servant)

A little extra goes a long way

Not all of these strategies are going to be suitable (or even attractive) for you. And it's very unlikely you'll be able to put all of them into practice.

But choose one or two to play with over the next month. Experiment. Throw yourself into the process of exploring – what eases the stress and the boredom? Is it possible you could not just survive, but thrive at work, in this in-between career-change stage?

You matter. Your well-being matters. Your ability to feel strong and grounded and forward-facing as you move toward fulfilling work, matters.

Which of these strategies could you start using this week? Let me know in the comments below!

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is Head of Content and Head Coach for Careershifters. She also speaks, writes and facilitates events on the art of human connection.