When Work Becomes Intolerable


By Sara Harrup

Many years ago I landed a job which looked to be a real coup. Great salary and conditions, fabulous location, nice people and a charismatic boss. I did a fair bit of due diligence on the organisation before I accepted the position and I thought that although challenging, I would be able to do the job competently and be happy there.

The honeymoon period was fantastic. The first couple of months was energising and exciting. As the honeymoon wore off the reality became something that wasn’t so appealing. It became clear to me that the role I had accepted was incredibly broad and the scope of the responsibilities too much. Large scale change was necessary to turn around performance and although I managed to implement it whilst trying to manage the change process it ended up being me that suffered. As others in the senior management team tried to wade in and help me manage the huge portfolio things became more complicated and conflict ensued.

As the months dragged on I realised I didn’t like who I had become in this role. I felt incompetent, sensitive and unhappy. I was in a hole. In the end I decided the only way out was to leave. When I did finish up I was relieved but also a little battle scarred. My confidence was battered and to be honest I just wasn’t sure exactly what went wrong. Years later my confidence has recovered and I reflect on that job with a great sense of insight and feel grateful for learning some very painful but valuable lessons.

Many people have been in situations like me, where they find themselves in a hole at work that they just can’t seem to get out of. Like me, many of them leave, thinking this is the only thing they can do. Finding work isn’t as easy is it once was and leaving is not always an option. It also isn’t always the only way out. Trying not to get into a hole in the first place is a good option. But how do we safeguard ourselves from that .

1. Know yourself and what sort of work makes you excel. I’m a great all-rounder but there are particular sorts of work which don’t suit me, even though I may be able to force myself to do them with some degree of competence. For example, large scale process redesign is something that quite literally makes me want to tear the skin from my body. Performance measurement and financials make me feel energised and excited. That job I was talking about? You guessed it. The processes of the entire business needed rebuilding. I would now see that as a major red flag in terms of my suitability to a position.

2. Whatever happens at work, don’t take it personally. Workplaces, whilst made up of people who can be wonderful, or not so wonderful, will at some time disappoint us. Things will happen that, if taken personally will lead to disappointment. Don’t forget that whilst good workplaces will value their people, they also value their business and sometimes good business decisions will disappoint good people.

3. Leave your ego at the door. Letting your ego rule your actions and behaviours at work will put you on a roller-coaster, some days will be great and some will be appalling.

4. Know what your professional boundaries are and work with them consistently. Is it ok for colleagues to work in ways which impede your own work performance? How do you feel about saying no to things? There is no need to be aggressive, just quietly firm and confident that you have a reasonable set of boundaries around actions and behaviour in the workplace.

5. The workplace is not the place for too much emotion or feelings. You may disagree with me here but the reality is that people in workplaces are all trying to do the best they can for where they are at. Sometimes that means they will step on your toes, on purpose or accidentally. It’s great to communicate when something is not ok, but the focus should be on “what would really work for me next time is…”, rather than “I feel really upset that you did…” Don’t forget that if you communicate to people what upsets you or makes you anxious or angry, you might actually be telling them how to push your buttons.

6. When things happen that aren’t so great, move on. Holding onto things is the fastest way to ensure you end up in a monster sized hole. Stuff happens so try to find a way to get over it.

If all that fails and you find yourself in a place you’d rather not be, try these things:

1. Refocus…on yourself. Most often when people find themselves in a hole there is a fair bit of focus on others or “the organisation”. Focusing on what other people do or don’t do means you cannot focus on yourself. Don’t be a victim. Whatever your predicament, own your share of it and consider what you can do to make it better.

2. Get someone to challenge your view. A skilled coach may be able to work wonders here. When people are in a rut they can often have ways of thinking that are extreme and don’t necessarily have a moderate view of the situation.

3. Consider the most important things which need to happen and then work out what needs to be done immediately to take you a step or two in the right direction. You don’t need to know the whole plan, just the next right thing.

4. Get some perspective and clarity. Some coaching may be able to help you reframe the situation and set some goals to get you on track.

5. Do your absolute best to stay out of office politics. People in a work rut are drawn to office politics like a moth to a flame. Office politics will not help you to feel better. In fact it will almost definitely make you feel worse.

6. Take some time out if you can. Sometimes a few days away where you can work on steps 1 – 5 can help you return with renewed enthusiasm.

Sara is a Cause & Effective Associate and a highly experienced not for profit, CEO, Senior Executive and Board Member.

About B-Cause

B-Cause is published by Cause and Effective. We help good causes find and attract effective leaders.

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