August 17, 2019 (Updated )
I’d love to say that I decided to leave my job because I found a better career opportunity and went for it.
I’d love to say it was the happy, celebratory kind of departure, the kind where you get a card and a cake and tearful hugs at the pub round the corner from the office. But I would be lying. The truth is that after exactly eight months at my job, I left because I wasn’t happy.
‘People Would Give Their Right Arm For Your Job’
I worked for a well-respected magazine. In my interview and throughout my first few weeks, there was a lot of talk about how people would “give their right arm for this job”. I knew what it a big deal it was to work where I did, how many people dream about it all their lives. But right from the start, I could never really feel it. I never fit in, because it was never my world.
The main reason I decided to leave, though, was more to do with the office culture itself. When I tried to speak to senior staff about it or escalate things, I was told to “toughen up” and nothing was done. I lost count of the number of lunch breaks I spent in tears on the phone to my boyfriend in the middle of a public square, men in suits shooting conspicuous glances my way as I wiped my face with my sleeve.
Leaving A Job Isn’t Easy. Without another stable source of income lined up, just quitting and leaving isn’t an attainable choice for most of us who have bills and don’t live in a movie plot.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything you can do. If you’re unhappy at work the first step is to ask yourself questions about why, and then take actionable steps towards an exit or solution.
It may be that there are problems at work which could be fixed, for example, or that you should scout out freelance opportunities or back-up plans.
I felt as though my job was about survival – about covering myself, about making sure I never screwed up so I couldn’t get fired. I didn’t have time or energy left over to put any heart into what I was doing, to care about whether the pages of the magazine looked great and were a pleasure to read – which is what my job should have been about. Instead, I’d spend five hours trying to fact-check the age a pop star was when they married their first husband and still wake up that night in a cold sweat, convinced I’d got it wrong somehow.
One day, after a particularly bad run-in, I decided to put feelers out and look for some freelance work. Once I was fairly confident I’d have enough to keep me going for the first few months at least, I handed in my notice.
But how do you know when it’s time to leave your job? It’s definitely an opportunity to do a lot of soul-searching – and to ask yourself some tough questions.
An Opportunity For Soul-Searching
The first thing I asked myself was if this really was my dream job. Or, to put it another way, could it lead to my dream job? This is an important one to get out of the way, as it sort of determines how far you’re willing to go to overcome obstacles and help give you a sense of perspective.
Although I did speak to senior staff, I never went to HR – something instinctively told me that since I didn’t love the job anyway, it would have been a waste of time and energy. I’m usually pretty relentless when it comes to these things, so the fact that I didn’t really want to take it further told me a lot.
If you do want to stay, but there are certain things that are making life difficult, it’s then a case of whether or not these issues can be resolved. Have you been to HR, for example? While it might seem like a drastic step, if you’re having problems at work – whether that’s bullying, your workload or reasonable adjustments for your health – their job is to sort them out, as an independent third party.
A key question for me was also whether the job aligned with my values. It’s worth asking yourself the same thing – is your job something you’re proud to talk about at parties? The longer I was in my job, the more I realised that the magazine stands for lots of things I don’t like. So maybe it’s best that someone who actually would give their right arm for that job can do it. To be honest, I quite like my right arm.
Then, finally, it’s worth questioning whether you’re definitely unhappy at work, or if it could be something else. It can be easy to project all our unhappiness onto our job, when it could be that we’re having other problems that make focusing at work difficult. Quitting, in that case, could just make things worse.
Solid Plans For What’s Next
So, you’ve decided you need to leave, but what will you do next? Obviously, most of us can’t just leave a job without having something else lined up, but that doesn’t always have to mean another permanent position straight away. Take some time to formulate a plan (and a back-up) that allows you to make an exit but still feel a sense of structure, and put in mind some timeframes for when things should happen.
You could pick up some casual shifts in a café or do temp work to tide you over, or if moving home with your family is an option for you, you could take advantage of that while figuring out what to do next. If you’re looking to move into freelancing or another job, put the feelers out early – meet people for coffees, refresh your CV ahead of time, sign-up for job alerts, and newsletters, and join some related Facebook groups.
Thinking about moving on? Here’s a massive list of all of the job websites we use to find the best opportunities. You should also take a gander at this explainer from an IRL editor about what she’s looking for from your freelance pitch, as well as this long read from someone who has hired people, detailing what they’re looking for.
Once you’ve had a think, talk to your friends and family, and actually listen to what they say. Obviously, only you can decide if moving on is right for you, but if everyone is telling you it’s a bad idea to leave – or that you should leave – it might be worth thinking about why. I come from a very “you’re-lucky-to-be-employed-at-all” sort of family. It was expected that we would all get weekend jobs as soon as we hit 16 – but it was my mum who first said “You don’t have to stay there, you know,” planting the seed of possibility in my head.
It wasn’t a decision that came easily. I’m a risk-averse person, and I’ve always been terrified of ever being out of work. I’d been dreaming of going freelance for ages, but had always worried about money. I still do. I have just enough money to maybe survive for a month without working, then after that, I would have to get some kind of permanent job again. It’s a risk, and a scary one. But it feels right, and I’m allowing myself the confidence to think: this could work out. I’ll give it a go.
So, on my last day, after a few stilted goodbyes and a swift exit from the office, I patted myself on the back for finally respecting myself enough to get out of a bad situation. I’ve learned a lot from the experience – mostly, that no job or career is everything.
I’ve always tended to forget about the bigger picture when I’m stressed about work, but now the clouds are beginning to part and I can see the blue sky. If you’re in a job you don’t enjoy, the world really doesn’t begin and end there. There are options, and they go beyond looking at a job board for something exactly the same as what you do now. Go forth and be happy.