Why You're Unhappy at Work -- And 4 Ways to Fix It

06/03/2015 04:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2016
Shutterstock / Andrey_Popov

By: Stacy Kim

When I worked at the Families and Work Institute, I regularly analyzed data from The National Study of the Changing Workforce. One of my responsibilities was to field media requests. If reporters called needing a stat about employees at large companies, it was my job to find them the answer.

I don't remember many of the facts and figures I uncovered, but I do remember one critical finding that has remained true throughout the course of this multi-year study -- there are two critical components to job satisfaction: meaningful work and a supportive supervisor.

Having coached many smart, caring women, I strongly believe that the study's findings are relevant to not only the "work" related to one's career, but also the "work" related to one's family. That is, I've learned that to be happy, you have to find the work (child care, elder care, maintaining relationships, maintaining a home and so on) of your everyday life to be meaningful. And you need supportive people (partners, family and friends) in your life.

For example, a stay-at-home mom's work can often feel quite meaningless. Women tend to do the maintenance part of child care and most of the housework. These tasks (waiting on hold for the pediatrician, doing the dishes and so on) can easily feel mundane. And, most women I've spoken with, regardless of their employment status, find motherhood to be, at times, very lonely.

Thankfully, working with my clients has also taught me that there are ways to improve your situation. You don't have to feel stuck being unhappy with your work. (Note that I believe all mothers work, whether they are employed or not.)

Here are four steps to take to feel better about your work.The first two are short-term strategies, while the last two are long-term game plans:

First, train your brain to find meaning that already exists in your work. Your brain will naturally focus on what is wrong in your life. Therefore, even if it is something small, you have to find something meaningful to which you can redirect your thoughts. One of my stay-at-home clients continually reminds herself that she quit her job to focus on raising her children. Another client tells herself that even though she hates her job and long commute, she gets to use her train ride to think, read and write.

Many of my clients have found it helpful to put these reminders into physical form, such as post-it notes on their computer screen or electronic pop-up reminders on their smartphone. Though these may seem like small gestures, they have prevented my clients from becoming overwhelmed or feeling depleted.

Second, remind yourself of the people who are supportive of you, and do something to support them. This step is helpful when you feel powerless to change your situation and especially when you feel stuck. It helps redirect the focus away from your unsatisfying work and toward thoughts that will energize you. Again, the action you take can be small, like surprising your assistant or coworker with an ice cream or complimenting your partner on something he or she regularly does for you. Telling your child, "It looks like we both had a hard day today. Let's give each other a hug!" is a nice way to empower both of you to be mutually supportive.

Third, start looking for more meaningful work by taking small, enjoyable steps. In The Lighthouse Method, I describe how smart people often feel they need to have a master plan before they can embark on making significant changes in their lives. But small action steps, especially those that are pleasurable, add up quickly and therefore get you on a roll much faster than ruminating or planning. They might include taking a peek at a course catalog, finding the class you've been dying to take, spending 20 minutes doodling if you like to draw and emailing someone whose job you think is interesting to have coffee with you next week.

It helps to do little these things as often as you can. Keeping track of such small activities by recording them on a calendar also helps. Again, creating some sort of physical representation of your progress is motivating, further building your momentum.

Finally, build your personal board of directors. The BFF and Prince Charming metaphors from our culture seep into our mindset more persistently than we realize. They make us expect that our best friend and our partner should be able to fulfill most, if not all, of our needs. But that's simply not realistic; no one person can be everything for another. Just as corporations and nonprofit organizations need board members with diverse resources and skills, we each need a diverse team, composed of supportive family members, colleagues and friends, to help us throughout our life.

For example, I have two friends to whom I turn for spiritual guidance. When I need medical or health support, I turn to two other friends. I have two writing friends and two writing coaches. I have a financial adviser and a marketing specialist I can lean on. Identifying in advance who these individuals are for each important arena of my life helps me know who to turn to when I feel overwhelmed or confused. I'm less likely to feel panicked or pressured to react just because I heard or read about something I "should" be doing that I'm not. (If you'd like an easy, systematic way of building a personal board of directors, please contact me.)

Most works -- 52 percent -- are unhappy at work. This is one time when it would be good to be in the minority, wouldn't you say?

Stacy S. Kim, Ph.D. is the author of The Lighthouse Method: How Busy, Overloaded Moms Can get Unstuck and Figure Out What To Do With Their Lives. She is a certified life and career coach helping high-achieving, deeply caring women and parents balance their ambitions, passions, and energy for the people they love. You can find her at and follow her on twitter: @stacyskim