How to Cope with a Job You Hate and Can’t Quit

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 “Americans Hate Their Jobs, Even with Office Perks”, a June 24, 2013 CNBC News headline declared. But do they hate them enough to quit and, importantly for the discussion to follow, what about those who, for whatever reason, simply cannot quit?

There are lots of reasons—many very good ones—for being unable to quit, including heavy family responsibilities with no available alternative way to earn an adequate income. So, what can anyone who has to cope with a job (s)he hates, but can’t quit, do to make the situation bearable, if not better?

1. Think of the good your job does or something about it to be proud of.  I have a true story, from my childhood, to tell, about an immigrant who, long ago, for more than 30 years, worked like a robot in a U.S. industrial plant at the height of American industrial supremacy, ceaselessly pounding out piles of silverware every day at a cramped, noisy work station, one spoon at a time, operating a deafening, enormous mechanized drop-hammer.

       To get himself through his thousands of shifts, he drew upon one of the few reserves he possessed—a reserve of pride.  

Although numbingly bored and exhausted by his job, whenever he’d spot his company’s silverware at a restaurant table, he’d proudly beam as he pointed to the stamp that he may have banged onto the spoon in his hand. Although not enough, that pride and the wages helped him cope all those years.

He was my dad.

(Despite being gently lampooned in the “King of the Hill” series, cartoon Texas family man Hank Hill’s expressions of small-town. small-scale pride as a myopic “propane and propane accessories” sales manager are emblematic of this kind of professional and existential coping, and, in his case, celebration.)

Even though spoons don’t save lives as often as other things, unquestionably nurses and seat belts do. So, if your job, like nursing or seat-belt manufacture, saves lives, or merely makes them substantially better or safer, take comfort in deserved pride for a job not only well-done, but also for one that does good.

2. Beef up your free-time satisfactions. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, and probably since the dawn of man, offsetting dreary or otherwise unsatisfying work with free-time pleasures has enabled generations of workers to cope with the worst kinds of work—whether through cheery gatherings at the local pub, DIY hobbies, community involvement or just through spending time with one’s family or cat.

But, giving this coping strategy a modern, savvy spin, it is worth noting that the compensations of post-work activity may get a bonus boost by including anything that upgrades one’s employment skills, e.g., a software design course that is enjoyable as well as professionally valuable.

Interestingly, free-time satisfactions are neither “intrinsic” nor “extrinsic” job rewards—the two most commonly cited forms of job benefits. For Mozart, as employed, commissioned composer, music provided both kinds.

There was the intrinsic, exquisite pleasures afforded by composing and performing perfect and immortal music, enhanced with the extrinsic cash payments and perks from patrons (which, unlike the intrinsic aesthetic rewards are separable from the act of composing or performing).

As a historical matter, we are left to wonder to what extent in his free time Mozart continued to compose, just for—and only for—the intrinsic fun of it.

For the rest of us, it may be thought that post-work free time is an extrinsic reward at the end of the work day—a payoff for having stuck to the job for yet another shift. But this seems incorrect, not only because “free time” is not synonymous with “good time”, but also because the amount of free time one has is inversely proportional to the amount of time spent at work.

This is quite the opposite of money earned as a reward for the same work time, since that extrinsic cash reward increases proportionately with the work effort, as presumably most other extrinsic rewards should and do.

No, punching the time clock on the way out from work is merely the cue to resume other activities in the free-time zone, activities that may or may not be especially rewarding and that can include going home to fight with a battle-prone mother-in-law.

The challenge is make that free time a sufficiently effective offset to whatever it is about the job that makes it hated—or, even better, to make the free-time satisfactions a way out of that job.

Perhaps we should recognize, in addition to intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, a third category of job-related rewards—the offsetting.

 3. Ignore status-consciousness. What do you if you hate your job because it is “demeaning” or incapable of financing your status strivings? Michael Jordan, Paris Hilton and Justin Bieber may have enormous wealth and status stratospherically higher than a nurse, a wheat farmer, a seat-belt assembler (if human), a welder or you, but we have to ask ourselves, who is more indispensable to our lives and civilization—Hilton?

As for general socioeconomic status cravings measured in terms of things other than a job or its associated income, we must ask exactly what is accomplished when they are satisfied. Chances are that even when the latest specific cravings, e.g., for a pricier car, are satisfied, most people aren’t—or at least not for very long.

4. Reframe the boredom. When I, at 19, whined to a co-worker standing at his machine next to my gargantuan aircraft-plant center-drive lathe about being bored, he found my boredom unfathomable. That was because, he said, with visible signs of genuine excitement, the huge room-sized jet-engine turbine disks we made might be titanium one day, steel the next or some exotic alloy the third.

He had averted or overcome boredom through a Zen-like fascination with some of the details of his job, framed or re-framed as a varied and therefore engaging experience. (I lasted about two weeks on the job, until he snitched on me, reporting my boredom to the foreman, and before I was reassigned to the parts inspector department, which I stoically held down until I returned to college.)

5. Improve your stress-management skills. As an offset to a hated job, this is huge. Assuming that you can’t quit your job, you cannot do what the average savannah zebra will do to manage sudden stress at the first whiff of a pride of lions: flee. Also, if you can’t wage a war at work for improved conditions, mission, etc., without getting fired, “fight”, as well, is unavailable as an option.

So, with “fight or flight” ruled out, it would seem that, following zebra and general animal logic, the only alternative is to freeze, which, although useful for well-disguised rodents in the bush, is unlikely to work for zebras—or you, since, absent a better strategy, the job, if not a lion, is likely to “eat you up”.

Situations in which “freeze” (which is to be distinguished from unhelpful paralytic “fright”) may pay off are those in which the stressor is not extremely intense; engagement would be too risky, ineffective or premature; when you do not believe you can immediately control the stressor or when you require more feedback or other information before taking any other steps.

Fortunately, you are neither a zebra nor a rodent, and have far more stress-management options available to you, including “forgetting” (tuning out) and “framing”  (and “re-framing”) of the kind mentioned above, in connection with the aircraft plant.

If you hate your job (or are merely stressed by it) and don’t have the time, energy or opportunity at work to formulate additional stress-management strategies like these, you can explore and develop them by taking another piece of advice presented above.

Beef up your free-time satisfactions—by using your free time to devise more ways to manage the stress of your un-free, on-the(-hated)-job time.

Even if you don’t have the time of your life, it will be well-spent time for your life.

By Michael Moffa