How to escape an unhappy job and find real work-life fulfillment

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“I used to hate my old job – I mean, truly hate it,” says Trudy, a 35-year-old PR consultant who worked in London. “The work was stressful and 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.”

But that’s often the thing about a job that makes you unhappy — it can grind you down and make you feel helpless. The pep you need to make the jump isn’t there because you’re feeling down, and the 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.”

I would come home every evening full of angst about my day

Both Trudy and Ajay mustered up the courage to call time on their situations; Trudy decided to go traveling and Ajay secured work experience at a tech startup, before landing a full-time job there. Yet for every story like theirs, there’s another where someone unhappy stays put; stuck fast in a mudflat of resentment. Often, there is something – normally money, prestige, friends at work or convenience – that keeps us reeled in. If this sounds scarily familiar, take a look at our practical guide. From raising cash to finding a mentor, these tips cover everything you need to know about ditching a job you don’t like.

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Save up some money

However you look at it, more money will give you greater freedom when you’re 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 to pause and travel, sparking much-needed perspective and even a whole new career idea. At the very least, it will lift some of the financial burden that holds you captive in a particular role.

“It’s possible to save money on the side,” says Jasmine Birtles, founder and director of “It’s a bit like saving for retirement; it’s a great skill to have, no matter what. First, take a look at your current expenses and work out what you can cut back on. 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 paycheck. That way, you don’t even think about it, and there’s no temptation to spend.”

Give yourself a few months of financial cover to find a new job

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, jewelry or unwanted gifts may not fetch loads of money, but every pound counts. Then you could try something like bartending, babysitting or dog-walking at weekends. This will give you a double whammy of making money, while preventing you from spending it on socializing.”

Have a back-up plan

Tempting as it may be, it’s not always a good idea to jump ship on your job without a back-up plan (though this can work for some). However, you do have more flexibility if your role is particularly sought after.

“It’s all about weighing up supply versus demand,” says Alice Weightman, founder and CEO of freelance 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.

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Question your motives

Let’s say you have the income and type of job that means you can leave fairly easily. Start with why you want to leave. Motives can become muddled when we’re stressed, so it’s important to see the wood for 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, founder and chairman of employee engagement consultancy, Purple Cubed. “Maybe a) you hate your job, or b) you broke up with a partner, or c) you’re bored with your life? Or there’s some other reason entirely. Stop and think about what the cause is and what 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.”

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 for perspective

If you can afford to take a career break, great. But even a fortnight of annual leave spent at home may give you some much-needed perspective. With space to think, you can start to see options that might otherwise have eluded 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 “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.”

It’s hard to think about finding a new job when you’re stuck in a bad place

Karen Meager, co-founder of career coaching company Monkey Puzzle Training, agrees. “It’s very hard to consider and think through finding a new job when you are stressed, stuck or in a bad place,” she says. “Having a break can give you an opportunity to re-evaluate your priorities, put things into perspective and work out what’s missing in your current role.”

A change can often be as beneficial as a break. Depending on the time you have available, you could use your time off to test-drive new areas that you might be interested in by taking on work experience or volunteering. “Taking a break can provide an 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 work/life 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.”

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Find someone to soundboard with

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, who you spend an hour a week brainstorming options with. Or it could be someone in your industry who you don’t know well, but who you admire and trust.

Having a clear-headed ally works wonders for bouncing ideas around and untangling 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 has an uncanny way of unveiling your own career progression, bringing you back in touch with the needs that motivated you.

Find a friend or work colleague whose advice you particularly value

Consider seeking 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.”

Get networking

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 or asking for favors. Interested in a new career? Ask friends of friends who have that job to go 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.

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 the 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 if that’s not what you’re in need of — get out in the world and let it help solve your problems.

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Amp up your skills

If you’re feeling stuck at work, try taking on an evening class – like a language course or joining a choir. At the very least, this can 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 hone 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.” If you’re unhappy, it can be hard to take action like this, but getting through can help you begin the process; the difference will come as a result of shifting your view and sparking new ideas.

Leave gracefully

If you’ve got to the point of leaving, it’s important that you smooth the path beforehand. You won’t have to work with the same people or do the same old tasks for much longer. So handle your exit professionally, without leaving anyone in the lurch. Agree on your notice period, and stick to it. “The world is hyper-connected; it makes sense to manage potential business disruptions maturely with empathy and effort,” says Sunley. “Proceed honorably and transparently, make the transition as easy as possible for your employer. You never know whom you might encounter again in the future.”

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Images: Flash Pack, Unsplash

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