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July 17, 2007 > Counseling Corner

Counseling Corner

Changing Careers: Should You Stay or Go?

By Anne Chan, M.S., MFT

A friend of mine once made a dramatic career change from Emergency Room doctor to creative writer. When I asked her what sparked the change, she said she dreaded going to work so much that she would regularly throw up before heading off to the ER. When I met her after she had made the leap into a graduate English program, she reported being happier than she had ever been. And no, she did not throw up before going to school.

My friend's experience of hating her job is one that many can identify with. Lots of people dread going to work and dream about starting fresh at a new career. At work, they are unmotivated and uninspired. They feel depressed, lethargic, helpless, and frustrated.

Clearly, staying in a job you hate is not healthy. Yet, switching careers is not something to be done lightly. There are big risks and rewards involved, not only for yourself, but for your loved ones.

There are instances when it makes sense to make the leap into a brand new career. However, there are also times when it makes more sense to change jobs or tweak your current job rather than to change careers wholesale. So how do you know when you should stay or go?

Here are some of the signs that may indicate it's time to change careers:
* The work you do absolutely bores you and there is nothing in the field that holds your interest any more. This may indicate that you are thoroughly bored with the content of your current field. If there is nothing in the content area that can spark an interest, you may want to think about changing careers.
* You did not go into this career willingly; you were forced into this career and have never liked it. Sadly, lots of people go into professions because their well-meaning parents pushed them into certain occupations. I have worked with many such people and they truly have no interest in their work. In such a case, you would probably be doing yourself (and possibly the general public) a favor if you chose a career that you cared for. Imagine if you were the patient of a heart surgeon who does not like her job but stays in it because her parents said so!
* Your work makes you physically sick. Going to work makes you nauseous. You dread Monday even when you are leaving work on Friday. It is important to listen to your gut and body if they are giving you messages in such dramatic ways. If you feel strongly that your current situation is not for you (and your dislike is not due to the work environment, boss, or colleagues), then you might want to look into a different career.
* Your goals and priorities in life have changed and these are not a fit with your career. Some of my clients change careers because they no longer want to work heavily demanding careers that take them away from their families. For instance, many consultants enjoy constant travel at the beginning of their careers but then find this burdensome when they want to settle down with their families. If your personal priorities are deeply in conflict with the essential nature of your work, you may have to look at alternative avenues to find a better alignment between your personal and professional needs.
* The disadvantages of your current career completely overshadow the benefits. Make a list of the pros and cons in your current career. If the list of cons heavily outweigh the pros and if you cannot think of any way to improve the cons in your list, then you might consider changing careers.
* Your career or company has changed radically since you started and you do not fit with the changes. Some people are initially in love with their careers, but fall out of love years later. Change inevitably happens, both within the company and the field. Sometimes, change is revitalizing. At other times, change can adversely affect how we feel about our jobs. For instance, a good question to ask yourself is, "Can I adapt to this new culture?" If the answer is a firm "NO," then you might want to consider a career that is a better fit for you.
* Your work is hurting you. I have worked with several clients who have had to change careers because they can no longer physically function in their work. For instance, some clients who suffer from carpal tunnel find that they have to change careers so that they can minimize damage from repetitive hand motions.

The average worker will change careers (not just jobs) more than six times in his or her lifetime. It is definitely not abnormal to make one (or more) major career change(s) in your work life. If you are ready to make a leap, a career counselor or a visit to your nearest career center can be invaluable in helping you to identify viable options and to create an action plan for the transition into your new career.

If you dislike your work situation but you did not fully resonate with the above criteria for changing careers, you may simply need a job tune-up rather than a complete career overhaul. Here are some signs that may indicate it's time to change jobs, but not necessarily your career:
* You still enjoy the work itself, but the environment or the people you work with are the reason you do not look forward to going to work. Sometimes, a simple tweak like a move to a different department or company can make a world of difference. I myself have found that certain work environments bring out the best in me, but I am a different animal altogether in other types of company cultures. Analyze yourself and your environment to see what you can tweak to make a difference in your work satisfaction.
* Your boss is a jerk and does not appreciate you, but you like the work. One sign that you don't need to change careers is if your boss or colleagues are the sole reason why you dislike your work. You can learn how to manage your boss. Or you can switch jobs to get a better work environment. You do not necessarily have to change careers.
* You like your field and career, but there is no chance for a career move upward in your present job. In this scenario, consider changing jobs rather than careers. You might have to move to another company, but this move may be all it takes to ensure your continued satisfaction with your career.
* Your present job has become boring but you feel supported and appreciated by your company. It is not surprising to feel that you've hit a rut when you become competent in your job. If you are ready to take on new challenges, talk to your boss about taking on new tasks and responsibilities. Smart companies want to keep good people and appreciate those who take initiative. You may not have to quit your job in order to maintain your happiness on the job.

Whether you decide to stay or go in your present job or career, do take the time to reflect on what your needs are and how they can be met. Get support, guidance, and feedback from trusted colleagues, friends, and/or career professionals. Most of us will spend a good portion of our life working so it makes sense for us to be happy at our work. A job does not have to be the source of one's happiness, but it should not contribute to one's unhappiness. Good luck on finding happiness on the job. Do write to me to share your stories of changing careers or jobs!

Anne Chan is a licensed psychotherapist and career counselor in Union City. She can be reached at annechan@midlabs.com or 510-744-1781.

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