What to do if your job makes you unhappy

We all have bad days at work – but what should you do if your job is making you miserable? We asked careers coach Kat Koh for advice on dealing with short- and long-term unhappiness

Even the most exciting and fun creative jobs have their downsides, whether it’s punishing deadlines, tricky clients or having to work to meagre budgets. No matter how much you love what you do, you can guarantee that at some point, there will be days when work puts you in a bad mood.

But unhappiness at work could also be a sign that you’ve fallen out of love with your job. All too often, creatives spend years in roles that don’t make them happy, either because they’re scared to leave, or because it can be painful to admit that the job you thought you wanted – the one you studied, interned and slogged to get – isn’t as enjoyable as you’d hoped.

It’s a situation that Kat Koh, a careers coach for creative people, knows all too well. Koh started out as an art curator, working at MoMA, the Brooklyn Museum in New York, San Francisco’s San José Museum and the Venice Architecture Biennale. But after years of studying art history, and gaining experience at leading museums, she found that curation wasn’t quite what she imagined.

“What I realised through being a junior curator at these places was that my favourite part of the job was sitting down with artists or designers or filmmakers, whoever we were working with to put on an exhibition, and helping them work through conceptual ideas, and [decide] what would be their contribution to this – but I only got to do that around 10% of the time,” she explains.” The other 90% of the time, I was doing a bunch of other stuff that I really didn’t care for and so, after years and years of this, I realised I had to leave.”

We all get overwhelmed or bored or burnt out from time to time, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that your career is not going well or there’s something that isn’t working

“I really sat on this decision and I wouldn’t recommend it. I knew I wasn’t happy, but I felt so bought in, because I’d done a PhD programme, and I was in all this student debt … but [eventually], I thought, there must be something I can do where I can do this more than 10% of the time,” she adds. “I didn’t know what that job was, but I found my own careers coach to help me in this process … and I realised through getting coached that if I could support creatives in this way, then I’d be spending 90% of the time doing what I could do only 10% of the time as a curator.”

Koh left the art world, retrained as a careers coach and has since worked with over 1,000 people, from product designers to filmmakers and entrepreneurs. Her clients range from junior designers fresh out of college to creative directors in their 40s, and most come to Koh because they’re feeling unsatisfied at work and want to make a change.

As Koh points out, it’s perfectly normal to feel unhappy at work, but there’s a difference between short- and long-term unhappiness. Feeling frustrated isn’t necessarily a signal that it’s time to quit your job – it could just be that you’re just overwhelmed and need to take some time out.

“We all get overwhelmed or bored or burnt out from time to time, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that your career is not going well or there’s something that isn’t working,” says Koh. “We’re so hyper-connected all the time and as someone who lives in San Francisco, I’m acutely aware of this. The phones we have, the computers we have, the software we use, there are brilliant people who are paid lots of money to think of brilliant ways to make you stay on them … and that’s very fatiguing, so it might just be that perhaps you need a break from it all. A lot of creatives work mostly on the computer, so the number one thing I’d suggest is going on a bit of a detox, even for a day.” For those who are feeling particularly overwhelmed, she advises spending a weekend catching up with loved ones and doing something you enjoy – whether it’s painting, making something tangible or going for a run. It might sound like common sense, but as Tanya Livesey recently explored in CR, rest is important for wellbeing and creativity.

If that doesn’t help, Koh recommends an exercise that, ironically, is borrowed from the tech world. “There’s something that is used quite often in tech called a retrospective. Often, it’s done after any major project is finished, and there are four columns: what went well, what can be improved, what do we want to do differently next time, and what still puzzles us? I’d recommend doing a present-day retrospective on your job – what are you really happy about, what is not going so well that could use some improvement, and in terms of the next time column, it could be rephrased to say, how do I want to move things forward?… What still puzzles you is a great one that I always recommend people spend some time with – what is still confusing or unclear to you about your current job or the work that you’re doing?”

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The vast majority of folks that are very unhappy that I speak to are unhappy because they’ve been asking themselves, what should I do next? What is wrong

If your unhappiness persists, then Koh believes it’s time to assess whether your job is really for you – or whether it might be time to make a change. But this realisation can often bring with it fresh anxiety over what to do next.

This is perfectly normal  – after all, human brains are hard-wired to fear uncertainty, and Koh says she is yet to meet someone who isn’t anxious at the prospect of changing jobs or careers, but it can leave people feeling stuck and unsure about what their next step should be.

This can be particularly stressful for creatives who pride themselves on creative problem-solving. “Creatives can be really hard on themselves about this – people will say but I’m a creative and I can’t think my way out of this, I feel so stuck, but there’s nothing wrong with them, and nothing bad happening to you – it’s just your brain doing its job because change is afoot,” says Koh. However, Koh believes that many people also feel anxious because they’re asking themselves all the wrong questions.

“The vast majority of folks that are very unhappy that I speak to [are unhappy] because they’ve been asking themselves, what should I do next? What is wrong? Questions that start with what? What should I do next is a great example, because as we know, you can just hop on the internet and there are so many possibilities, and everyone has an opinion – your parents have an opinion, your partner has an opinion, everyone has something to say – so this question causes a lot of swirl, and it can keep people in a holding pattern for a decade if you let it. I’m going to be bold and say this is the wrong question you should be asking when you’re unhappy,” she explains.

Instead, Koh believes it’s important to focus on the whys: “Starting with the question why is much more helpful, because why is connected to what’s meaningful and important to you. It could be why do you love this kind of work? Or why do you love design? Why do you love this company? Why do you hate this company?

“We’re bombarded with information all the team, so if you’re not clear on what’s important to you in your next job, whether it’s flexible working, or collaboration … it can be easy to get distracted thinking, maybe this is [the answer], or maybe that’s it – but when you clarify what’s meaningful to you, it gives you ground to stand on. It’s a great question to come back to when you feel like you keep coming back to the same question.”

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If someone works at a really cool design house, often people will be really excited for them. Internally, they might be having a very different experience

Koh says this method has helped many of her clients figure out their next step – in some cases leading to promotion and in others, to a whole new career path. “One of my clients, when we first started working together, was the only designer in a very big company in New York. He was constantly getting pulled into meetings to represent design, and he didn’t have any creative time – so one of the things we clarified was that he wanted to be part of a collaborative, creative team of designers, and he also wanted to be a design leader. He’s now a head of design at the company, and he has five direct reports.”

Another of Koh’s clients left her job as an in-house creative director to set up her own graphic design practice, but soon became frustrated with the fact that she was spending most of her time on computers. After taking up painting, she discovered the world of surface design, and now splits her time between screen-based and physical work.

In the creative industries in particular, people can often be reluctant to admit they’re unhappy at work – especially if their job is one that might, on the surface, seem like a dream role.  “If someone works at a really cool design house, often people will be really excited for them and say that’s so cool that you work there. Internally, they might be having a very different experience, but there is this feeling of who can I really talk to about this, because everyone keeps saying you have such a great job, why would you be unhappy?”

As someone who has made a career out of helping creatives who are feeling stuck, frustrated or unsatisfied, Koh is keen to point out that it’s not uncommon – especially if you’ve reached a point where it’s time to make a change, either because you feel you’ve outgrown your job, or because you’ve decided it isn’t for you.

The most important thing if you’ve found yourself in this position, says Koh, is to identify the cause of your unhappiness through identifying what makes you happy – and what doesn’t – before you start trying to work out how to get yourself out of it.

“Just like certain recipes must be followed in a certain order and the meal is disastrous if you don’t, I really believe that the order in which you ask these questions is really important, because when you get clear, the part of your brain that is excellent at coming up with ideas and problem solving, that can kick into gear in an amazing focused way, rather than like a firecracker … once you have that clarity, then you can get up and do other things in your life and not worry so much because you’ve laid out a plan and a path.”


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