Over the years, I’ve had several jobs that went from enjoyable to miserable.
At one job, I had to deal with an utterly toxic coworker that sucked all positivity from my job.
At another job, I wound up spending most of my time doing almost mindless maintenance of a bunch of computer code.
At a third job, I found myself frustrated because I was getting blamed for problems that were completely beyond my understanding at the time.
At a fourth job, I found myself doing endlessly repetitive physical labor, where I did the same four or five tasks, day in and day out.
At yet another job, I mostly sat around until things went haywire, and when things did go haywire, they were extremely stressful, almost to the point of overwhelming.
Finally, I found myself in a position where there was simply more to be done than I had the time to do and the work was interfering with my life.
In all of these positions, the job started off seeming completely reasonable. I was glad to have a job where I was making money to pay my bills and the environment and tasks seemed sensible, manageable, and even fun. Over time, though, either the environment or demands changed or elements that were hidden at first became visible, putting me in a situation where I either had to simply numb myself to a bad workplace environment or search desperately for a way out.
When I was a college student working at part time jobs, it wasn’t a big deal to move onto something new. Later on, though, when I was earning a nice salary and I had a wife and children relying on me, such situations became terrifying. When people become dependent on you or you’re working toward major financial goals, it can often feel like you don’t have a choice but to stick around and numb yourself to a painful work environment. Every other option carries significant risk – you might end up someplace worse, for example, or word of your attempt to find other work might make it back to your current job.
What do you do in those situations when a job has become miserable but quitting and moving on isn’t a viable option, either? At each of those jobs, I developed different strategies for coping – some worked and some did not. Here are the strategies that have actually worked for me in terms of coping with a miserable work environment.
The Poisonous Co-Worker
There are lots of variations on the “poisonous coworker.” Perhaps it’s the person who does absolutely nothing other than suck up to the boss. Maybe it’s the person who constantly gossips and maybe even makes up lies about coworkers. Perhaps it’s the person whose only contributions to most discussions are negative and toxic.
Whatever the case, the poisonous coworker can transform a good workplace into a bad one quite quickly. Here are four tactics that can help when you’re stuck in a workplace with someone who is poisonous.
Remember that you are not horrible, the other person is. No matter how acidic that person is, keep in mind that it is their acidity, not yours. If they’re criticizing you unfairly, it’s on them, not you. Their acid is not a fair or apt description of you. Let your own actions represent you, not their acidic words and behaviors. You are not defined by that poisonous coworker.
Be professional. Treat everyone in your office with respect and courtesy. Interact with others in professional ways. Do your work as well as you can. Build relationships with other positive people in the workplace. In essence, act like you wish all of your coworkers would act, and you’ll find that most of them will act that way toward you.
Don’t give into the temptation to be negative at work. In a poisonous environment, don’t become poisonous yourself. Treat others with positivity and respect in a professional way. Don’t let the behavior of others degrade how you act. If you maintain professional standards in how you act while others do not, then you make the poisonous words seem hollow and false.
Directly involve the toxic person in meaningful discussions. Believe it or not, many toxic coworkers find themselves behaving that way because they feel marginalized. You can remove that source of negativity by simply not marginalizing them. Simply ignore the negative talk and engage them sincerely and professionally. Ask for their input on work projects. Listen to what they say and ask questions. Most people simply desire the feeling of being taken seriously, and that’s something you can provide. Give them an easy path to be taken seriously in a positive way and many toxic coworkers will take it.
The Repetitive Physical Work
What about a job that you don’t strictly hate, but one that just makes you incredibly numb and bored? You find yourself doing the same physical tasks over and over and over again and, after a while, you’re incredibly bored and mentally check out.
I had a job where I worked forty hours a week doing one of four things over and over again: sifting topsoil through a sifter to remove pebbles, ferrying that topsoil up to a planting room, and planting seeds in small planters with that sifted topsoil. Forty hours a week. I filled what seemed like endless racks in a greenhouse with little planters according to this diagram I had been given. Talk about drudgery. Talk about checking out mentally.
The thing is, I learned how to adapt. I did several things to pull that job back from the brink of pure hatred. Here are four strategies that you can employ if you have this kind of job.
Make sure your clothing is as comfortable as possible. Any sort of repetitive physical work is likely going to stress certain parts of your body. Do what you can to take care of those parts. Wear comfortable clothes. Wear good shoes. Wear good gloves. Wear pads or guards. Do what’s needed, because you will quickly grow to absolutely hate the job if you find yourself getting blisters or some sort of repetitive work injury.
Engage your brain on something useful or thoughtful. It was this job that made me fall in love with NPR talk radio, with audiobooks, and with the nascent podcast industry. I found that merely listening to music didn’t really engage me (with one exception, which I’ll get to in a minute), but thoughtful talking kept me mentally engaged. If you have a smartphone with a podcast app, download several hours of podcasts on topics you enjoy (preferably ones that challenge you a bit) and listen to them while working. Another approach is to spend time on self-reflection while working.
Spend time analyzing how you can make the work more efficient. When I was first trained on how to do the work I was doing, the job involved several extra steps that were unnecessary. I was originally told to sift the dirt into buckets, load the buckets onto a cart, take the cart up an elevator, unload the buckets, and use the dirt in the buckets for planting. After doing this for a while, I started to wonder if there wasn’t a better way of doing this. Later that day, I spied a wheelbarrow outside, so I asked the greenhouse manager if I could use that wheelbarrow to ferry dirt. He was fine with it, so I changed the process to sifting dirt into the wheelbarrow, riding the elevator up to the seedling room with the wheelbarrow, and filling planters directly from the wheelbarrow. This actually saved a ton of time – my productivity jumped abut 20% per hour. This gave me some breathing room to look for other productivity tweaks. By the end of my time there, I was probably planting seeds at three times the rate of when I started and my performance reviews were glowing.
Sing. One last tip: either find a radio station or create a playlist on your phone full of music that you know really well and can sing along with. Don’t choose challenging or new music, as it’s hard to get into a groove with that. As the music plays, sing along with it. You’ll find that this is extremely effective at getting you into the flow of even the most boring job. I used to sing along to Pearl Jam albums, myself.
The Repetitive Desk Job
On the other side of the repetitive physical job is the repetitive desk job, the kind of job where you shuffle papers and do small tasks in an endless cycle. Many administrative assistants know what this is about, as do computer programmers who find themselves “maintaining” code.
What I found with this job is that, if you get lost in the drudgery, it becomes incredibly boring and soul-sucking. A much better approach is to take advantage of the relative advantages of white collar work to turn the job into something with a lot of breathing room, within which you have tons of opportunity for self-learning and personal growth. Here are four strategies for doing just that.
Use downtime to figure out how to automate common tasks as much as possible. A lot of office work and computer work can be automated. Almost every task that you take on in front of a computer or involving information has some element that can be incredibly simplified or automated, especially if you have programming skills. Start breaking down the common tasks that you do and look at each specific step. Can you automate that step, or find a way to simplify it? Eventually, you start looking at ways to automatically ferry the information from step to step.
Step back and look at the requirements. This is the next step in the idea of automation. Quite often, office tasks involve some sort of input and some sort of output, with the office worker figuring out how to make that transformation happen. Usually, the process used is one that’s not well-considered – it was designed a long time ago by someone who isn’t doing the task all the time and it might even revolve around technology that’s no longer even in the workplace. Look at all of your tasks in terms of what you start with and what you end with and ask yourself what the quickest path from input to output is.
Do something physical at lunchtime, like taking a long walk. One of the biggest challenges of an office job is what I call the “afternoon doldrums.” It’s easy to slip into a lower level of productivity in the afternoons and sit there in a bored daze. However, that’s usually the best opportunity for doing the kind of automation described above. You can drastically improve your afternoon energy level by spending your lunchtime doing something physical, like taking a long, brisk walk. You’ll come back to the office with a lot of energy which will carry you through the afternoon feeling good.
When your work is efficient, box off time for self-improvement. Many office jobs do involve some downtime, as you’re often waiting for more information to come in. On top of that, if you’ve automated things and made your job more efficient, you likely have plenty of downtime. Take advantage of it. Take some online classes to learn new things. Build a professional network or some transferable skills. Invest in yourself!
The “Panic Mode” Job
Another type of miserable job is one where things coast along calmly for a while and then suddenly switch into complete “panic mode” where you’re handling a very stressful crisis. Those waves of stress can be very hard to deal with, especially if they come with any degree of rapidity.
I once had a job where I mostly just dealt with three or four minor crises a day and one major crisis about once a week. The rest of the time was largely downtime, yet the job was extremely stressful because of the pressure put on us when a crisis would happen. Here are four techniques I used to deal with it.
Spend your downtime preparing resources to be used in panic moments. Crisis moments are much easier to deal with if you have tools ready to go for the next crisis (just ask a fireman if you doubt this). Spend the time between crises preparing tools to handle the next crisis as efficiently as possible. Make backups. Make sure spare parts are available. Prepare a “go” bag, if necessary.
Encourage coworkers to do similar preparation, and even help them in doing so. If you handle crises as a team, you’re going to be relying on your teammates to handle their part of the crisis resolution. Make sure they’re prepared, too. Help them with their preparations if necessary. Walk them through what they need to do to get ready for the next crisis so that they can see for themselves how much the situation is helped by proper preparation.
Build up strong communication and rapport with your coworkers. Crises are much easier to handle and far less stressful if you know how to communicate well as a team. Do everything you can during your downtime to build up a strong relationship with your coworkers, particularly those you will be interacting with in a crisis. I have found that playing games together, both cooperative ones like Pandemic and competitive ones that require some cooperation like fantasy football, is a great way to build rapport, friendships, and communication.
Create written, detailed plans of attack for the most common crises. If you face similar crises on a regular basis, make sure that you have a written plan of attack spelling out how you handle such crises. Write all of it out, then share it around the group for feedback. Make sure that it includes everything. Why is this useful? It gets everyone thinking about the process, it gets everyone thinking about how to improve the process, and the resulting document is extremely useful in helping get new team members up to speed (which can be very stressful in a crisis environment).
The “Too Much to Do” Job
Quite often, people find themselves with far too much to do than they can possibly get done in a reasonable amount of time. The tasks pile up and it seems like it never really abates. You’re constantly doing task after task after task without a breather of any kind and eventually you feel overwhelmed and burnt out.
For this type of job, I have five suggestions.
Identify which tasks aren’t mission critical and put them on the back burner. Use your time, energy, and focus on the tasks that are actually important for your organization and for your role in it and let the other things dangle. Focus on your key deliverables above all else, and make sure you deliver quality there. If you deliver good things on the things that actually matter, skipping the minor tasks isn’t really a problem.
Identify which tasks can be delegated to others and start delegating them. What things on your to-do list can be handed off to others with relative ease? Look for tasks that can simply be redirected to others and redirect them. Simply tell your supervisor that you are focused on delivering quality results on this task and that you need to hand that task over to this other competent person who can handle it.
Write out workflows for your most common tasks and look for ways to automate them. Quite often, jobs that feel too busy are burdened with lots of tasks that are repetitive and dull. Although it might be painful to do so, step back when you can and look for ways to automate or speed up those repetitive tasks. Shaving five minutes off of a task you do three times a day saves you more than an hour every single week, and that can make a big difference.
When you need to get things done, disconnect from email, texts, calls, and other distractions and close your door or relocate. Just turn them completely off. If something is truly urgent, you’ll hear a knock on your door or someone will come and find you. By disconnecting, you enable yourself to focus directly on the larger task at hand that you need to complete, and applying that focus means you will make far faster progress than you would in an environment full of interruption.
When you do feel overwhelmed, say “no” to some things and demand self-care time. If you never say “no,” you will keep getting stuff piled on your back until it breaks. You are far better off saying “no” to some things. You are also far better off standing up and insisting on some self-care time – vacation time, in other words. Take time off to recharge, because without it, you’re going to actually be a far less productive employee over the long haul.
The “In Over My Head” Job
This type of misery comes when you’re placed into a position where the skills and knowledge that are expected of you are beyond your current abilities. You get lost in conversations where the other person takes for granted that you understand what they’re talking about. Things that are expected to be very simple for you feel overwhelming.
Many people fall into a pit of stress and personal frustration in jobs like this. I know I did. I was asked to essentially launch, manage, and write much of the code for a large software development project that was orders of magnitude larger in scope than anything I had ever worked on, using a programming language I didn’t know, a database system I didn’t know, and software development methodologies I had never used, and, oh yeah, I needed to have a fully functional demo in about two months. (I later learned that this project was literally set up to fail.)
I was incredibly stressed and frustrated at first, but then an old mentor took me out to lunch and gave me four pieces of advice. I managed to deliver that demo on time and with a well-organized codebase behind it.
Ask questions. Lots of them. Ask and ask and ask and ask. If you don’t know something, stop and ask what they mean. Yes, you might look “dumb” in that moment, but that’s a small price to pay to gain knowledge and to be able to follow the conversation and the points being made. If you sit there nodding your head while being completely lost, you’re actually going to leave in far worse shape than you started, as the other person now has false expectations of you and you don’t even understand what they were telling you. Ask questions. Learn all you can. If you don’t know, ask.
Whenever you encounter something you don’t understand, don’t keep pushing through; stop and educate yourself. Use that “question” method whenever you’re reading, too. When you get to a word or a sentence that doesn’t make sense, stop. Figure out that word or what that sentence means. If you keep going, that sentence is going to be used as a foundation for later stuff and you’re going to get more and more lost. Yes, this means that some of your early reading is going to be incredibly slow. That’s fine. You’ve got to build that foundation rapidly.
Take notes on what you’re learning, as it serves as documentation of a lot of your effort as well as a valuable learning tool. When you have a conversation where you learned things, take notes on them and fill in any blanks you still have with your own research. Take notes on your reading. Take notes in meetings. Take tons of notes on anything you don’t fully understand, and even on things you think you do fully understand. Not only will the notes help you figure things out, it’ll provide evidence of your hard work in educating yourself on what’s going on. I wound up with several notebooks full of notes in just a few weeks!
Get involved in writing down standard procedures for common tasks. One of the best ways to really understand what’s going on at work is to document, in detail, some of the tasks expected of you. Write down each step in the process, then add a note explaining why you’re doing that step. If you don’t know, figure it out by… you guessed it, asking questions and doing research. By doing this, you’re working out the processes of your workplace and the reasoning behind them, which makes you far more ready to deal with the complexities of your job.
Some Final Thoughts
While I haven’t covered every possible bad job situation, the key message to take home here is that every miserable job has some action you can take to relieve the misery. The thing to remember is that when you’re miserable, your productivity isn’t very good, and when your productivity isn’t very good, you’re not nearly as valuable to the organization, you’re not going to get raises or promotions or opportunity, and you’re not going to have the kind of security you want, anyway.
Yes, your job might not be fun, but when you seek to make lemonade out of those lemons and succeed even a little bit, it has nothing but upside for you. It increases your security and likely opens up opportunities that didn’t exist before.