07 August 2009

Should I stay or should I go?

Earlier this year a former colleague got in touch to have a chat about their current job. They were unhappy with the direction it was going, and had been sounding out friends and family about whether they should leave and look for something else. I threw in my own 2 cents in an email, and to be honest forgot about it until this afternoon when they got back in touch with an update. I seriously doubt that my advice made any difference to their decision but, reading back over it, it still makes sense to me so I thought I would post it here and share it with everyone...

Should I Leave My Job?

If there is one thing that I have taken from my own experiences over the last few years, and that of many close friends, it is that in the long run being unhappy in your job far outweighs any material benefits that the job may provide. Your health and happiness should always be your number one concern. Knowing when to leave a role is never clear cut though, as most day-to-day work involves a ongoing trade-off between the stresses and other negative aspects of the role and the material benefits that put food on your table and a roof over your head, and our instinct is always to put up with a bad situation out of fear of the unknown.

My own experience makes me think that its like the whole "one pint too many" thing, more often than not you don't realize that you've had enough, you only know when you've had too much. It is very difficult to walk away from a job at the right time, you normally only do it when you are burnt out and will need time to recover. However while you often don't recognise that its time to go, those closest around you often do, so if folks have noticed a change in you, its worth listening to them. The caveat with this is that we rarely tell our friends the good stuff that happens in work, we only talk to them about the bad stuff, and so they tend to get a distorted picture.

A couple of things to think about, or at least a couple of things that I thought about when making my own decisions:

1) How is your current job making your life better?

a) Money - this is the main reason everyone works. Your rent is paid, there is food on your table and you are able to save a bit.

b) Professional growth - are you learning new things by being in this job? If you stay another twelve months, will you have a better insight into your role and industry and approach things in a better way than you do today? Even if the answer to this is yes, the follow on question is how much does that knowledge matter to you, ie, do you see your next role or even the one after that as being a continuation of this one - will the knowledge you gain in six months be of benefit to you in five years time, or will it only benefit you in seven months time?

c) Personal growth - very nebulous, but are you learning things about yourself in this role? Does it teach you things about yourself that you can use outside of a work context?

d) Is it challenging, and do you actually need to be challenged? A lot of folks talk about the need to be constantly "challenged" in a role, but this is more often than not just something that is said in interviews because it sounds good. I always think that somebody who needs to be challenged all the time actually has a short attention span, bores easily and has a short term view - not a great combination, and there is something to be said for hitting and maintaining a level of competence and expertise in a role. However really being bored in a role can make you dead inside. There is a balance to be struck between trying not to be too bored in a role, and constantly being under pressure.

e) Also to consider are other intangibles like networking and relationship building, even if the job itself isn't great, does it give you the opportunity to build up a strong network of industry contacts that you can use/call on in later life? Again - this is only relevant if you plan to stay in the industry over the long term.

f) Friends - we usually make friends in work. You spend 40+ hours a week with your colleagues, and sometimes they can make a positive difference in ones life. This can often be a factor for field workers (sales folks etc), who genuinely experience loneliness in a role because they do not have regular positive human contact, the same goes for folks who work from home. The reverse of this is when you have too strong a bond with colleagues, and that prevents you from seeing the negatives in your role, ie you end up staying longer than you should because while the job is dreadful the friendships make the pain better.

2) How is it making your life worse?

a) Stress - we are often told that stress is a good thing, I have my doubts. Constant stress leads to all sorts of mental and physical problems, and while everybody's job produces some sort of stress, its very difficult to see how much is too much until its too late.

b) Self-worth - are you still the person you want to be? Some roles can make you a better person, happier with yourself and proud of your accomplishments. Others can erode your sense of self-worth through the actions of others around you (bosses, co-workers etc) or through the nature of your own work. If you aren't getting either the development, challenge or recognition from the work you are doing it becomes very easy to start to blame yourself for the situation.

c) Toxic environment - American business culture will tell you that your destiny is in your own hands, and that if things in work are bad its your own fault for not making them better - this culture is designed to remove collective responsibility and absolve leadership from any responsibility for their employees. However many environments are rotten from the leadership down, and no matter how strong you are in your own role this will not compensate for the environment you are in and the benefits you gain from your own personal achievements will be outweighed by the cultural negativity of that environment.

d) Compensation - not as important in many cases as the other factors, but are you genuinely being paid enough for the work you are doing? Nobody thinks they are being paid enough, its a fact of human life, but it is worth examining this in a bit of detail. On paper your salary might look good when benchmarked against a notional 40 hour week, but if you end up doing 60 hour weeks, or working weekends regularly, then if you look at it on a per/hour basis it starts to look considerably weaker.

e) False expectations - Sometimes, more rarely, a person may genuinely not be a good fit for the role they are in. This is difficult to see particularly if they like the idea of that role, and normally a person will attribute all their problems to the above external factors long before coming to terms with the fact that the problem actually lies with them.

3) Is the alternative better?

a) What will you do - Do you have something else lined up? Have you explored this role in detail - will it actually be a different environment than the one you are leaving, or will it generate similar problems?

b) Timing - Are you able to move right into the new situation, or will there be a transition time? Do you need to take time between the roles to recover from the effects of the previous role? If so can you afford to take the time off financially, or what is the cost to your health and well being of not taking time off? Are you going to need any preparation or upskilling to move into your new role?

The Bottom Line

Your happiness should be your number one priority. If you are unhappy in your role and there is no prospect of it improving in a way that matches your personal goals, you should leave, and it is just a matter of devising a proper exit strategy. In fact I think that once you start to think of leaving, your decision is already made, you are leaving, and its just a matter of timing.

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At 1:23 pm, Blogger Jonathan said...

"No, my son. The areas of the journey where there is only one set of footprints is where I carried you."

Where were you in the summer of 2007, when I needed you, Uncle Dave? Seriously, though, you raised some excellent points there. The only thing is now (and I should point out that I am happy in my current role) in Ireland is not the best time to hunt down a new job, especially in IT. Should this stop you leaving a role that makes you unhappy and is affecting your life? No. That said, if leaving your job means losing your house and having to squeeze back in with your folks' place with your wife and seven children, I urge caution.

Dave, I love you and want to have your babies.

At 1:32 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

@Jonathan - having my babies could actually be a progressive career move, but I would still advise against it in this market.

As for where I was in the summer of 2007, I believe it was somewhere in the middle of 60+ hour weeks, ridiculous stress and little job satisfaction (but with surprisingly good friendships with work colleagues that have survived to the day). This list of stay/go options was drawn up the hard way.


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