Career Transitions

Turning chaos into careers.

Stuck, Bored, and Unfulfilled at Work

When are you going to take yourself seriously?

I just received an email with the plaintive title of “Stuck. Bored. Unfulfilled.” The sender was seeking any advice I might have to get out of this rut.  This person is not alone; a lack of meaning at work is a common refrain among today’s workers. And what is particularly sad to me are the numbers of people who have been feeling this way for years, even decades.  They hate their jobs, they hate their lives, they hate where they live, and yet…life goes on.

Readers describe never-ending to-do lists, meaningless assignments, pointless meetings, co-workers who don’t care, new projects that seem destined for failure, unrelenting politics, lack of promotion or recognition of talent, a poor economy, weak job prospects, unreasonable bosses— and they all lead to fatigue, boredom, a lack of meaning and ultimately burnout.  And they offer myriad reasons and justifications for remaining stuck—some completely valid and some just excuses. 

If this fits you, I am so sorry for the pain you are feeling.  I admire your courage in moving forward every day and doing what must be a challenging task.  And I encourage you to take heart. My experience with clients tells me that only in the rarest of situations must you remain stuck. Even small changes can ease your pain.

I don’t have a magic bullet to solve your situation.  But I do have some questions to ask you-- and the first one is provocative and hard: When are you going to take yourself seriously?  Because only when you acknowledge that you are worth it, and you are the one who has to create the life you want, will you make the hard and potentially difficult choices needed to change. You have to decide that finding meaning in your life is important and not a luxury reserved for a lucky few.

An interesting blog post by Nathaniel Koloc in Harvard Business Review, “What Job Candidates Really Want: Meaningful Work”, points out that people crave purpose at work—an opportunity to provide meaning and fulfillment. He quotes a Price-Waterhouse study that found “engaged employees are 50% more productive and 33% more profitable. They are also responsible for 56% higher customer loyalty scores and correlated with 44% higher retention rates, leading to great gains in productivity over the long run.”  So being fulfilled at work isn’t only an issue of concern for workers but for employers as well.   

Carl Rogers once wrote that “the only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn and change.” Before you waste one more hour at a “Thank God it’s Friday” or “Over-the-Hump Wednesday” celebration at your local bar, try answering these questions to help you learn about and change your situation.

1. Whose life are you living?

Why are you in the situation you’re in?  Did you end up in your current job by choice or default? Are you fulfilling a promise made to your family or others?  Are you in a career you chose at age 18 when you took a certain major in college?  Take some time to assess how you got into your current situation. No need to place blame on anyone or anything— take a rational look at what has brought you to this point.

2. Does anything about your current life work?

Are there moments of fulfillment, meaning, or joy in your work? Can those moments be expanded through doing them more often in your current job, or by seeking a new job that would provide more of those experiences? Can you craft a better job within your current job?

Don’t forget to consider your life outside your work. Where else do you find happiness and meaning?  Are there elements of your personal life that influence your attitude about your work—either positively or negatively?

As you ponder these questions, do you think it’s time for a major life overhaul—perhaps a new job, move to another location, or other significant change? Or are there some small but important changes you could make now?

3. What would you rather be doing and how would you prefer to live?

Are you living on “Someday Isle”-- that far-off land when you will actually do what you say you want to do (as in “someday, I’ll…”)?

  • Try writing about your ideal life: how would you be living? 
  • Start a list of “must-haves” in your new life/employment situation. 
  • Make a list of your talents and strengths and start to identify potential employers.
  • Notice moments of jealousy or envy: what does someone else have that you would like?  Whom do you admire?  How might you move toward what they have? 
  • Try my “lottery exercise” as a way to uncover your core values. 
  • Identify elements that might improve your life and incorporate them into your present life.

4. What steps could you take now (or have you taken) to move toward your new life?

This is where the contemplation ends and action begins.  If you’re full of ideas, but not moving forward you need to examine this. I highly recommend the book, Do the Work by Steven Pressfield for inspiration. Making major life changes is hard and important—and we all tend to resist what is hard and important. 

I hope these questions help you think more clearly about your situation.  Talk to a trusted friend or counselor for objective advice.  Avoid discussing your ideas and plans with people who might have a vested interest in you remaining the same.  There is a time to bring them into the conversation, but if you do it too early, you might remain stuck.

Finally—it’s very important to consider any medical or mental health issues which might be a factor.  Fatigue, sadness, lethargy, etc., may all be signs of serious medical issues.  Be sure to tell your healthcare practitioner how you’re feeling to determine if there’s a physiological reason for your emotional state.

©2013 Katharine Brooks. All rights reserved. Find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons Tim Patterson

Katharine Brooks, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of the Office of Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University. She is the author of You Majored in What?

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