Find Happiness on the Job

Last Editorial Review: 6/30/2005

Hate your job? You can find a way to match your personality with employment -- or  happily adapt to the situation you're in.

By Dulce Zamora
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

You hate your job. OK, maybe "hate" is too strong a word. At the very least, you're not happy and wish for a change.

Yet transformation doesn't come easy, because, like many others, you might get mired in the obstacles. There are bills to pay so you can't just quit, there aren't enough jobs available, or you simply don't know what to do next.

The quandary is enough to make the best of us snooze the alarm eight times before dragging ourselves to work, or impatiently watch the clock crawl toward the end of the day.

There is hope. According to mental health professionals, people can improve their occupational situations, either by switching employers, vocations, or attitudes.

The Right Job for You

The first step to loving your labor appears to be figuring out who you are, and what you want and need in a job.

"Different people have different needs, and different things that motivate them," says Roni Reiter-Palmon, PhD, director of the Industrial/Organizational Psychology program at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.

"For some people, the whole notion of having a secure job is more important than pay; for others, having prestige is more important. For a third group, they don't really care what job they have, as long as they're making a lot of money. You have those people who would take a low-paying job just to be satisfied; and then you have people who don't want responsibility."

In addition, Reiter-Palmon says people's needs change over time. At some point in their lives, some folks desire a flexible schedule because they need to take care of kids. At another time, they may want more hours because they're saving up for a car, house, or a higher degree.

Psychiatrist Jeffrey P. Kahn, MD, agrees that everyone wants something different in a job, but also points out a recent survey of American workers showing that most people want to feel like they're part of a big happy family, and that they are treated with respect and integrity at work.

Yet the occupational perks may have their limits in delivering inner bliss. Kahn, who is a member of the American Psychiatric Association's Committee on Business Relations, says people's personalities play a role in how they perceive the atmosphere and relationships at work. "Some people will think they're underpaid or mistreated almost anywhere they are," he explains. "Others will feel the opposite. They'll feel content no matter where they are."

An employee's personality is, indeed, a big factor in job satisfaction, says Frank Schmidt, PhD, professor of human resources at the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business. He says personality traits can be traced to the tendency for some to be emotionally stable and for others to be neurotic.

These traits have a genetic component, notes Schmidt, but past and present experiences in and out of work also affect perception of a job.

Making a Change

By day, Dan is a trader in a New York brokerage firm. At night, he dreams of someday becoming a doctor, a physical therapist, or a high school teacher. One thing's for sure, though. He's not happy with his current work situation, but sticks with it because it pays the bills.

The Los Angeles native is not just dealing with an unsatisfactory job, however. He's also trying to cope with a disappointing social life, uncertainty over whether he wants to stay in Manhattan or go back to L.A., and lots of sleepless nights.

"When I'm depressed, I hate my job even more," says the 32-year-old, who, despite his distress, remains optimistic that he will someday be able to change his work and life situation, and be happy.

In one sense, Dan has already taken one step toward his goal to find happiness: He realizes the scope of his misery -- a feat that isn't as easy as it seems, says Kahn.

"Unhappy people often don't know just how unhappy they are," he says, noting that people tend to focus their displeasure on things that are easier to think about. Instead of identifying a problem in a marriage, for example, they shift their attention on a boss who's mean, or on an inadequate salary.

After recognizing the extent of the problem, Kahn says it might help some people to discuss their dilemma with family, friends, and others who might be able to offer solutions. Next, he says it's important to find activities that will make them happy, such as exercising, praying, or listening to music. If these steps do not ease some of the misery, he recommends seeing an occupational therapist.

For those who suffer with problems such as clinical depression, panic/anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, visiting a mental health professional and getting proper treatment is also important. It may be beneficial to seek jobs that might be more comfortable for them. For example, people with panic disorders, may not want a job that requires a lot of plane travel. People with chronic depression may want to limit social contact at work.

This does not mean that people with ailments or problematic tendencies cannot pursue certain careers. With self-awareness, hard work, and the proper treatment, it is possible to make a change. Kahn says he once had a patient with social anxiety disorder who recognized that he needed better public speaking skills to move up in his company. After drug treatment and psychotherapy, the businessman was not only able to move into the inner circle at work, he also improved his personal life by finding a girlfriend and eventually marrying her.

If All Else Fails ...

Changing jobs or careers may not be a viable option for everyone, either because they live in a small town where there are not very many opportunities, or because of inadequate openings in the current job market, or because they need the money offered by their current occupation.

In such cases, people try to seek contentment in other aspects of life such as family or hobbies. That is possible, says Reiter-Palmon, but she recommends altering one's approach to a job. "Ask why you're not happy, and what you can do to find happiness," she says.

For some, this may mean looking into how they can reframe their jobs, either by talking to a boss and asking for more responsibility or for fewer hours. Or it may mean changing one's attitude about the job. A person who decides he needs more education and training to obtain a higher position or salary, for instance, could learn to stick with a current job because he knows it will support him while he's in school. "You may not be happy per se in that job, but you're working toward a goal so that provides a meaning to that job that you're holding right now," says Reiter-Palmon.

Originally published July 21, 2003.

Medically updated June 29, 2005.

SOURCES: Roni Reiter-Palmon, PhD, director, Industrial/Organizational Psychology program, University of Nebraska, Omaha. Jeffrey P. Kahn, MD, membeR, American Psychiatric Association's Committee on Business Relations. Frank Schmidt, PhD, professor of human resources at the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business.

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