How to Cope With a Bad Job (Without Losing Your Mind)

03/31/2015 02:39 pm ET | Updated May 31, 2015
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Most of us have probably created a "My Job Sucks, Make It Feel Better!" playlist at one point or another. There are many subtle and varied options for the discerning disaffected peon - 'Sixteen Tons' for the under-appreciated and prospect-less; 'Take This Job and Shove It' for the more assertive malcontents; and for the pacifists among us, maybe just a plaintive, '(Lord I) Feel Like Going Home'.

Everyone has moments of frustration, however much they may love their job - statistics indicate that the average length of a work-related moment of frustration is about forty years, so one option is to just hang in there and wait for retirement (disclaimer: this statistic may be a lie). Quitting a job, especially a secure and well-paid one, is a nuclear option which may not be available to everyone - for example, those whose wallet-based photographs of famous Americans have been replaced with photos of their kids. What can you do when you've loaded sixteen tons and you feel like going home, but there's no opportunity to tell your boss, "Take this job and shove it!"?

Both psychology research as well as field research based on crowd-sourced psychometric data collected by such companies as Good.Co and Cangrade support two ideas, both of which are suspiciously simple on the face of it. One is that people are happier in jobs where the culture, people, and everyday working experience matches their own preferences and values. The other is that some people are by nature better equipped to handle problems relating to poor cultural fit, which is the biggest single factor contributing to job dissatisfaction.

How to cope with a bad job

There are numerous ways to handle poor cultural fit without requesting your boss to insert your job vigorously into his or herself. One technique is to tolerate the unpleasantness until you retire or - more likely given that poor cultural fit is associated with increased stress and health risks - expire, gibbering, in a dusty corner of the office (disclaimer: this is not a recommended approach). Alternatively, depending on your particular set of characteristics (i.e. strengths and weaknesses), there are two less soul-destroying options, both of which require a bit of flexibility and innovative thinking.

The key to surviving a bad job is knowing this: if your workplace makes you unhappy, you have two options: the option to try to change it, the option to change yourself, or a little of both. Another way of looking at it is to accept the things you can't change, and change those you can.

Change what you can

If you can approach the powers that be with suggestions for changes to the working environment which benefit the whole company (as well as you!), they might just listen. Thankfully, it's no longer 1952 and many companies have finally come to embrace the importance of individual differences, recognizing that organizational culture is dynamic, fluid, and reciprocal - an evolving entity which responds to influences from the top down and from the bottom up. The key here is to know what works for you, and what level of compromise you're willing to accept - it's impossible to ask someone to fulfil your needs when you don't know what they are.

That being said, not all organizations or particular jobs have a level of flexibility which permits this kind of change, and it would be irrational to suggest that everyone can simply go into work and tell their boss how things are going to be. There are some lucky people who can get away with this by virtue of their own character or their boss's, but for most of us, this will result a scenario that goes from you saying 'take this job and shove it', to your boss saying 'I'm taking your job and shoving you out of the window'.

Actively accept the things you can't change

That said, nobody is really powerless in their organization, no matter how low down the pecking order they might be; your own attitude and perspective is always something you can control. Like the song says: they can't take that away from you. If your workplace is unfixably horrible, the fastest way to improve your situation is to accept it - not passively, but actively.

Consider ways to tolerate your situation better: improvements you can make within whatever limitations are imposed on you to make your everyday experience of work more enjoyable, no matter how small. Have something nice for lunch, take a walk in a park, put a comforting photo on your desk, make funny or motivational desktop backgrounds for your computer during breaks, or even print and hang a few motivational images, like this Career Happiness Manifesto.

The key here is to remember that work pays you; it doesn't own you. What matters most - in the workplace and everywhere - is not the place but your attitude towards it, and that is always within your own power.

"They call it work for a reason..."

Why does this all matter so much? Surely if you hate your job it's no big deal; don't most people collect their paycheck while dreaming of retirement? After all, your Aunt Mildred never fails to remind you that, "they call it work for a reason" - so aren't we supposed to be miserable at work? Well...no, unless you're a masochist, obviously.

The idea that suffering is somehow a good thing was invented to make people feel less bad about suffering being an inescapable part of life, but that doesn't mean we have to go looking for it. A job isn't just a job; it's a part of our self-identity, and when people are in jobs they hate, this impacts how they feel about themselves generally. Self-awareness and the capacity to take personal responsibility for our actions are crucial to fulfillment. As Viktor Frankl, psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor, wrote in 1946, "Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked."

What's your answer going to be?