There are several reasons why people may be unhappy in their work: from poor compensation to stress of the role to bad bosses or domineering colleagues. These reasons have long existed but the COVID pandemic put them under a magnifying glass, and the pressure on frontline workers and the stress of keeping a business afloat during these unprecedented times grew from a rumble in the background to unavoidable.
There have been many headlines in the last six months about The Great Resignation, suggesting that workers are quitting their jobs in droves. A far greater number of workers (according to a Microsoft survey, 41% of the global workforce) are planning on quitting but have yet to do so, and a significant factor in that hesitation is likely to be financial.
For Penny, 33, an NHS paediatrics speech and language therapist in Surrey, her feelings of frustration and exploitation push up against a mortgage and a need to care for elderly in-laws. She tells R29 that she is working constant unpaid overtime to keep up with her high workload but with little financial reward, which is paired with unrealistic expectations from service users.
"I am very unhappy in terms of workload, lack of appreciation, pay and job satisfaction," she tells R29. "The discrepancy between pay and workload, and specifically the expectation of working in my own time, makes me feel exploited."
Penny acknowledges that she is lucky to own her home but says that she and her husband "overstretched ourselves on the mortgage, so any reduction in salary will likely mean we lose our home". As they also might be starting a family soon, "now is not a good time to disrupt the financial status quo". She adds: "Occasionally I dream about selling up and moving to the countryside where the cost of living is cheaper, however my husband’s frail elderly parents live locally so that isn’t an option right now."
While Penny doesn’t know exactly what she’s looking for in the future, 29-year-old Grace, who works in food retail in Kent, knows that she wants to move from operations to HR. Her desire to move has been compounded by the stress of working through the pandemic but she can’t currently make that leap as she recently became the breadwinner of the house.
"I’ve always wanted to go into HR and have self-funded a CIPD qualification to ensure I have the right qualifications. HR is a huge element of my current job and I don’t get job satisfaction from the operations side of my role anymore."
As she is unable to move laterally in her company (she has already asked her manager), Grace has to look elsewhere. But a move from operations to a starter HR role would halve her current income of £60,000 – and while she and her partner live well within their means, her partner has recently moved to the public sector and taken a £15,000 pay cut in the process. Unfortunately, they cannot afford to both change jobs. As Grace puts it: "I don’t want to be starting off a new career and worrying about money each month. Even though I’m unhappy in my job, it just seems silly to give up the safety net of my salary at this moment in time."
She says that the strain of wanting but being unable to move on is taking a toll.
"It’s hard to not feel resentful of the stresses of the role, knowing that dealing with them won’t support me in getting me to where I want to go career-wise. It can also be hard to not be jealous of my partner moving into a career they love, though it was a mutual decision and I’m happy they’re now happy." She adds: "I’m already feeling the stress of being the 'breadwinner' and it’s a bigger burden than I’d anticipated but I feel fortunate that I can discuss this openly with my partner."
If you are unhappy in a job but feel you cannot afford to quit, you have to deal with both aspects independently: your financial situation, and your unhappiness in the role itself.
The financial side
When it comes to finances, there are three pieces to look at: expenses, debts and savings.
Selina Flavius, author of personal finance book Black Girl Finance: Let’s Talk Money, recommends "going through expenses with a fine-tooth comb and being ruthless: what direct debit can you cut immediately to save money? What expenses can you reduce immediately?" Making cuts to outgoing expenses will allow you to save up so you can quit sooner rather than later. Alternatively, it could enable you to "reduce working hours in your current role, which will allow time for you to focus on your side hustle or get skilled up for your next career move."
Ellie Austin-Williams, financial coach and founder of This Girl Talks Money, adds that when going through direct debits and subscriptions, you should also look at bills that you can perhaps reduce. "When it comes to bills and utilities, check for any upcoming contract renewals and make a note to call your providers. Often, there is a huge scope to negotiate payments with internet providers, insurers and phone companies (to name a few) but the old adage really is true: if you don't ask, you don't get."
Debt is a particularly tricky one to handle, especially when paired with unhappiness at work. However, you can take steps to improve your situation.
Ellie advises building a plan of action. "Find out how much you owe and how much interest you are paying so you can decide where to focus your attention first. For anyone with high interest debt, spend some time exploring any options to cut the cost of the debt. If this isn't possible, work out how much you can budget towards reducing the debt each month and remember that it's always worth paying more than the minimum monthly payment where you can to speed up the repayment." Selina offers that you could consider making overpayments on high interest debts you own and trying to clear them ahead of quitting your job. "If that’s not possible and you have quit and your income has stopped, it's important to speak to your creditors and explain your current financial circumstances – they may be able to provide a more affordable repayment plan." As missing debt repayments will have a negative impact on your credit score, paying debts off as soon as you have a new job should be a priority.
Cutting expenses and reducing debts are a path to helping you save but deliberately saving, where possible, is key. As Ellie puts it, there is no 'right amount' to save before leaving a job as it depends on individual circumstances and expenses. What you should aim for is an amount that will enable you to cover your monthly expenses at a minimum and will cover the worst-case scenario when it comes to finding new work, be it a new role or self-employed. "Ideally, you want to ensure you have at least enough in the bank to cover your expenses for the worst-case situation, whether that is three or six months." Her best advice for saving is to pay yourself first. "This means that on payday you move money straight into savings, rather than waiting until the end of the month to see if there's any cash left in your account (there usually isn't)." The key to paying yourself first is figuring out how much you can save so that you don't have to dip into the savings later in the month, so she recommends underestimating this amount to begin with and increasing it with time.
If you must quit without a support system or emergency fund, Selina emphasises: "Be aware of any benefits or financial support you are entitled to. In the UK there is universal credit, jobseeker's allowance and other benefits for those who have dependents."
Ultimately, your goal is to be in the best financial situation possible. "That doesn't mean that you have to be completely debt-free or have tens of thousands in the bank but it is important to fully understand your financial situation and know what your minimum financial obligations are," says Ellie.
The happiness side
While working on these financial considerations, it is important to deal with your current unhappiness at work.
That means working out whether you should actually quit or not, says Janice Johnson FRSA, a career coach who has worked with the Hult International Business School and John Lewis. She emphasises that you shouldn’t leave without a clear, realistic plan. She recommends using Sarah Weiler’s Quitting Quadrant model to figure out if it’s the right time and right thing for you to do. "It’s a self-led tool that will help you understand where your desire to quit is coming from and how to move from feelings of resentment or burnout towards growth, flow and work that’s more aligned to you. I like it because it gives you information you need to know whether to adapt and stick at your job or quit and move on." It could be that the source of your unhappiness can actually be resolved by making changes to the way you work by talking to your manager and HR, or by negotiating for a pay increase.
This is part of the process of working out why you're unhappy, which is key, says Alexandra Kirienko, a career coach for young professionals.
"The very first thing to do is to dig deeper – what is it that you actually hate?" Instead of instinctually saying 'everything', reflect on whether it is the work itself, the workload, your relationship with your peers and superiors or some combination of the above. In particular, she suggests thinking back to why you started that role and what you liked about it. "Then try to pinpoint the point in time when things started going wrong. Identifying this will not only give you more clarity on why you feel unhappy right now but also help you avoid similar mistakes in the future."
With an understanding of your financial situation, together with what you need to be happy in your role, you should establish the lay of the land by researching your area of the job market and prepare to take your steps into it with an updated CV, polished interview skills and in particular a view to network, says Alexandra. "Hopefully you have been in touch with your network throughout your career but even if not, now is the time to truly engage. Evaluate who you have in your network who could help – friends, coursemates, old colleagues… The idea is to explore what opportunities are available, communicate that you are looking for your next role and get advice. Often as you speak with people they will recommend you speak with someone else, and again. This is how your network grows and your chances of finding that dream job increase."
Feeling unable to quit a job can be stifling but the thing to remember, Janice emphasises, is that you’re not alone in this. "Most of us have been unhappy in our jobs at some point. But all is not lost. Even if you aren’t in a position to quit right now, with the right mindset, support and resources, it’s completely possible to improve your situation – relatively quickly – and feel fulfilled in your career again."