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Why People Stay in Jobs They Don't Like

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I had a conversation with a CEO recently. He was exhausted from work.

His business did well, but it wasn’t what he really wanted to do. His dream was to work with leaders to overcome cultural differences and collaborate to improve local communities. But he never did anything about it. He stayed in his entrepreneur role year after year, feeling exhausted and dissatisfied.

He’s not alone. According to surveys, up to 85% of employees are disengaged from work amounting to a $7 trillion loss in productivity, globally.

I’ve had many conversations with successful people who stay in jobs they don’t like. Entrepreneurs among them. Just because you’ve created your own job, doesn’t mean it’s the right one for you.

But what keeps them trapped in unhappy success? Here are three key reasons and a few solutions.

1. Survival instincts

Survival isn’t just a physical issue of basic needs like food and shelter (and therefore money) to survive and provide for the family. Survival is also a psychological issue.

We’re wired to seek to belong to a tribe. So we value the validation we get from impressive job titles in an organization because it makes us feel accepted and, therefore, safe. These survival instincts are very hard to break out of.

For change to happen you have to somehow overcome or at least harness the survival programming. This is possible, if you have a strong enough reason or “why” (see point 2 below).

Solution: Take care of your finances and basic needs

It’s really scary to go against your survival instinct to live your dream. So help yourself by reassuring what some call ‘the monkey-lizard brain’ and have a stash of money and food to keep it calm.

In other words, have a runway of savings before you change jobs if you can, downsize where needed, or rearrange things to make sure you don’t have to worry about basic needs every day.

2. Culture of fear

Culture tends to reinforce survival fears. If you mention you want to leave your job, the response you might get is: but how will you pay your mortgage...?

Never mind that you can restructure your expenses, rent out a room in your home or work a part-time job while you build your business.

But happiness – particularly in developed economies – doesn’t just come from ensuring physical and psychological survival (like a big salary or impressive job title). Other factors like how much free time you have, your relationships to others and nature, having a sense of purpose and whether you get to use all your talents, matter to your happiness.

You just have to take some time to think about it.

If you identify what you really care about (not what the culture tells us we should care about) and see the advantages of a job change clearly (not just the risks) the change can happen more easily.

3. Timing

There are three stages to change as described in psychological research:

  1. You think about the problem
  2. You decide it's important to do something about it
  3. You take action

But you won’t act unless you’ve gone through the first two steps.

Then, a little nudge might be all it takes for a big change. For example, you might have a casual conversation and suddenly find the courage to resign.

I remember having a chat with an accountant in a big firm after a conference. I asked him a few coaching questions for fun. A week later, he messaged to say he’d left his job and finally went for the role he really wanted in a more creative company.

Every now and again, I’ll get a message from someone who reads my book, The Success Trap. Someone once sent me their resignation letter quoting "people don't leave jobs they leave toxic work cultures...".

But sometimes life has to give you a nudge. The most prepared person I’d ever met - an executive with a rock-solid early retirement plan - was hanging on desperately to a job he hated. He said he wanted to wait a bit longer… A few days later, he wrote saying he’d been fired and asking what should he do now...

Solution: Pay attention to the signs

Something inside you always knows what’s best. If you’re feeling exhausted all the time or wake up at night wondering what the point of it all is, something’s off.

Don’t ignore these inner-nudges. Take some time for yourself and consider point 2 above. What’s really – yes, really – important to you? Remember, two of the top regrets of dying people: I wish I’d worked less and I wish I’d let myself be happier.

Making a change/Taking action

When people have had enough of their jobs or careers, they often ask me one of two things:

  1. I'm not sure what I want anymore, how do I figure it out?
  2. I've had enough and I want out, what do I do next?

if someone isn’t ready, they’ll just keep making excuses until they really are ready.

In any case, not everyone is meant to change job or career. Sometimes you just have to change HOW you do your work. Many of the doctors I coach don’t want to leave the NHS. So I help them figure out how to look after themselves better and improve the system where they can.

But one way or another, if it’s time for change, you’ll know it. And when that time comes, if you’ve put in place the basics and figured out what’s important to you in life, you’ll be ready to fly.

The future belongs to those who aren’t afraid of it. So if you feel it’s time for change, make sure you can answer the question: what’s most important to you in life? What do you want to invest your work time into?

And if you need a little help, grab a copy of The Success Trap and go straight to chapter 7 for tools to help you get clear on your next steps.