“I used to hate my old job – I mean, truly hate it,” says Trudy*, a 35-year-old PR consultant who used to work in London. “The work was stressful, and at the same time, boring. I didn’t really gel with any of the people I worked with. My friends knew how I felt, and urged me to leave. But somehow, I couldn’t do it. I felt properly stuck, and I stayed there for months longer than I should have.”
That’s the thing about an unhappy job. It grinds you down, and makes you feel helpless. The pep you need to make the jump isn’t there, simply *because* you’re feeling down. And your unhappiness breeds apathy. “It was the most frustrating thing,” remarks Ajay, who hung onto his city trading job a long time after doubts first set in. “I would come home every evening full of angst about the day that I’d had. I knew I had to move on. And yet, something was holding me back. I couldn’t shake the thought that maybe it was just me.”
A happy job will set you free…
Both Trudy and Ajay finally mustered up the courage to call time on their situation; Trudy decided to go travelling and Ajay secured work experience at a tech startup before landing a full-time job there. But for every story like theirs, there’s another where the unhappy protagonist simply stays put; stuck fast in a mudflat of resentment. Often, too, there is something – just one thing (money, prestige, convenience) – that keeps them reeled in.
If this sounds familiar, take a look at our practical guide, below. From raising cash to finding a mentor, these tips cover everything you need to know about ditching a job that you don’t like. Stop merely feeling your instinct – and get set to act on it…
Start by saving money
More money affords you more choice
However you look at it, more money will give you greater freedom of choice when faced with an unhappy job. Save up enough, and it may mean you can work fewer hours, clearing more time to build your dream life. Or, it could allow you to afford a holiday, sparking much-needed perspective and even a whole new career. At the very least, it will lift some of the financial burden that holds you captive to a particular role.
“It’s perfectly possible to save money on the side,” says Jasmine Birtles, financial expert at MoneyMagpie.com. “It’s a bit like saving for retirement; it’s a great skill to have, no matter what.”
Every penny counts
“First, take a look at your current expenses and work out what you can cut back on,” says Birtles. “Create a lump monthly sum. Then, set up a savings account (shop around for the best interest rates – some banks will pay you a reward to switch current accounts) and put that sum on standing order direct from your pay check. That way, you don’t even think about it, and there’s no temptation to spend.”
How much you decide to save, she says, depends on how much you want to escape your current work situation: “This will dictate the sacrifices you’ll have to make, whether that’s a ban on eating out, or living with your parents for a while.”
Birtles also suggests setting up a separate income on the side. “You could take a look around your house, and see what you can sell on eBay,” she says. “Clothes, jewellery or unwanted gifts may not fetch loads of money, but every pound counts. Then you could try waitressing, babysitting or dog-walking at weekends. This will give you a double whammy of making money, and preventing you from spending money on socialising.”
Think about your job in context
Are your skills in high demand?
Tempting as it may be, it’s not a good idea to simply jump ship on your job without a back-up plan – no matter how frustrating it’s become. However, you do have more flexibility if your role is particularly sought-after. So, in deciding your game plan, it’s worth putting your job into the wider context of its industry.
“It’s all about weighing up supply versus demand,” says Alice Weightman, CEO and founder of freelancer start-up The Work Crowd, and executive search consultancy Hanson Search. “If you’re in a market where you’re in high demand for your skills, you won’t have a problem finding a new job – it may be worth the gamble.”
But even in this case, she says, “give yourself two or three months of financial cover to allow time to find a new job, and make sure you get good references – both from employers and clients – before you leave.”
If you do decide to leave without another job lined up, Weightman also recommends staying up-to-date on your skills; particularly if you work in a fast-changing environment.
Interrogate your ‘why’
What road leads to happiness?
So, say you have the income and type of job that means you can leave fairly easily. You’ll still want to think carefully about *why* you want to leave. Motives can become muddled when we’re stressed, so it’s important to see the woods from the trees. More crucially, identifying your “why” will give you your “how”.
“Unless you’re very brave, avoid knee-jerk reactions unless you’re prepared to take the possible consequences,” says Jane Sunley, chairman and founder of employee engagement consultancy, Purple Cubed. “Maybe a) you hate your job, or b) your boyfriend dumped you, or c) you’re bored with your life? Or there’s some other reason entirely? Stop and think about what it is that you want to achieve (the positive motivation) rather than what you’re running away from (the negative motivation). Then consider whether, by changing your circumstances, you could overcome these.”
Read more: Career resolutions for a happier life
Sometimes, what seems like an awful job can transform overnight due to a change in department, responsibilities or working structure. Can you transfer to a new team, or lose a project that’s dragging you down? Take your head out of the immediate circumstances, and look at the bigger picture.
Take time out
Create space to think
If you can afford to take a career break, so much the better. But even a fortnight of annual leave spent at home may dial you down enough to gain some much-needed distance on your job. With space to think, you can start to see options that might otherwise have alluded you.
“When we’re in a stressed or anxious state the amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for the fight or flight response – takes over,” explains Chloe Brotheridge, anxiety hypnotherapist and founder of calmer-you.com. “Meanwhile, your frontal cortex – the rational, clear thinking part of your brain – takes a back seat. That’s why it can be hard to make good decisions when you’re anxious. When we’re relaxed, our minds work more efficiently. Archimedes had his ‘eureka’ moment while chilling in the bath, while Issac Newton came up with his law of gravity while relaxing under a tree. Taking a break could help you to come up with your best ideas, too.”
Karen Meager, managing director of career coaching company Monkey Puzzle Training, agrees. “It’s very hard to consider and think through a new career when you are stressed, stuck, or in a bad place,” she says. “Having a break can give you an opportunity to reevaluate your priorities, put things into perspective and work out what’s missing in your current role.”
Take some alone time – at home or abroad
They say a change is as good as a break. Depending on the time you have available, you could even use your time off to test-drive new areas that you might be interested in – by taking on work experience, say, or volunteering.
“Taking a break can provide opportunity to think, far too rare in today’s fast, furious and often chaotic world where change is the only constant,” says Sunley. “This, together with any life/work skills and renewed confidence acquired, may well equip you to be able to go for it when it comes to that role you’ve dreamed about but didn’t believe you’d be able to achieve.”
Get a good mentor
Find someone to hear you out
Identifying what drives you can be difficult, especially if you’re weighed down by work stress. Sure, you can write lists of the pros and cons of different situations. But what you really need is someone neutral to hear you out.
This could be a friend or work colleague whose advice you particularly value, and whom you spend an hour a week brainstorming options with. Or it could be someone in your industry who you don’t know all that well, but whom you admire and trust. Most people are flattered to be asked for help and guidance. Even if they don’t have time to lend support directly, they’ll be able to point you in the right direction.
Read more: 5 ways to make every day an adventure
Having a clear-headed ally works wonders to bounce ideas around and untangle your thoughts. Together, you can figure out what it is that you really want. Don’t forget the benefits of being a mentor, either. Giving advice to someone in a junior position to you has an uncanny way of unveiling your own career progression; bringing you back in touch with the needs that motivated you.
Consider hiring professional help, too. “If you can’t afford to leave your job, stay put,” says Corinne Mills, author of Career Coach, and managing director at Personal Career Management. “Instead, work with a career coach to manage where you are and work on a plan for the future. Do some thinking and start applying elsewhere.”
Expand your network
Network to build your options
We are, apparently, the sum total of the five people we spend most time with. So, in order to throw your horizons wide open, you’ll need to get chatting to new people. Be bold and thorough in your quest, throwing aside any qualms you might have about approaching new people/asking for favours.
Interested in a new career? Cajole friends of friends who have that job into coming for a coffee, to share their insight. Sign up to newsletters and events in the industry you want to break into. Wherever you go, look out for potential avenues of help and support.
Read more: Why straight-talking wins in the workplace
The fact is, we’ve all been stuck in a rut at some point. Tapping into other people’s expertise, and widening your network, can hold the key to new and inspiring solutions. You may get offered work experience, or you may just hear a story that makes you think, ‘Huh. I could do that, too.’
Don’t withdraw – get out in the world and let it help solve your problems.
Train in new skills
What really inspires you?
If you’re feeling stuck at work, try taking on an evening language class – or join a choir. At the very least, this will help to shift your perspective, and leave you feeling more invigorated. “Learning can help us build confidence and a sense of self-efficacy,” says Vanessa King, positive psychology expert at Action for Happiness. “We have a natural desire to learn and progress.”
But beyond that, developing a new ability – say, in coding, or photography – can help you to pivot careers. You don’t even have to know exactly what it is you want to do: evening or weekend courses, or a stint of interning, will help you zoom in on the things that inspire you.
“You can learn new skills in search of something more meaningful,” says Mills. “You can try your skills anywhere from fundraising to event management, marketing campaigns or helping vulnerable people. You can dip in and out and see what suits you.”
Again, if you’re unhappy, it can be hard to take action like this. But don’t wait around to begin this process; the difference will come as a result of it. Even if it’s something as minor as a free evening art class, it can shift your view and spark new ideas.
Leave with grace
The farewell is half the battle
So, let’s say you’ve navigated your way out of your rut. You’ve planned ahead, saved money and figured out an alternative route. Hooray! Hi-fives all round! Now’s the time to negotiate your exit.
It’s important that you smooth the path here, no matter how fraught your job situation has been. Remember, you won’t have to work with the same people or do the same old tasks for much longer. So, grit your teeth and make sure that you handle your exit professionally, without leaving anyone in the lurch.
“The world is hyper-connected; it makes sense to manage potential business disruptions maturely with empathy and effort,” says Sunley. “Proceed honourably and transparently, make the transition as easy as possible for your employer. You never know whom you might re-encounter in the future.”
Go forth and conquer – good luck!
*Names are changed to protect privacy