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What to do when your job impacts your mental health

A woman sitting at a desk looks downward thoughtfully

On average, we spend about a third of our lives at work. That’s a significant amount of time! And investing that much time in any pursuit—be it positive and fulfilling or negative and draining—will affect our overall mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

So when you come to the realization that your unhappiness with your current job is negatively affecting other aspects of your life, it’s time to step back, evaluate the situation, and develop a plan of action.

How did I get here in the first place?

There’s no specific age or stage of life when someone realizes the psychological impact their job can have on them. I’ve seen many clients, from right out of college to middle-aged to nearing retirement, question how they ended up in their career.

Perhaps well-intentioned parents encouraged a recent high school graduate to take a certain career path to ensure financial security. Maybe following in the footsteps of a family member’s business or legacy meant putting aside other interests and desires. It could have been a career assessment recommendation that really didn’t align with their personal and professional needs. Many times, a layoff or termination motivates someone to take a position they don’t necessarily want, but accept and endure for financial security.

Whatever the reason, however it happened, the job is unfulfilling and is having a negative impact on that person’s mental health. And this needs to be addressed.

What are the signs I’m in an unfulfilling career?

Your job or position can affect your day-to-day life in many ways. Often the symptoms are apparent, but sometimes issues that arise outside work are attributable to your job or work environment. 

Feeling like you’re just wasting time or not living up to your potential

“What’s the point of this?”

“Is this really my contribution?”

“It all feels so unimportant.”

Boredom, angst, feeling unchallenged—these feelings may indicate you’re in a position that does not provide an opportunity for personal or professional growth, allow you to exercise your strengths and use your unique talents, or encourage you to engage in your passions. These feelings of frustration and unfulfillment may bleed into your everyday life, presenting as impatience, irritability, and restlessness. 

Low self-esteem and feelings of unworthiness

Doubting the abilities and talents that were once a source of confidence and pride, constantly second-guessing your decisions, feeling reluctant to share thoughts or ideas, feeling a sense of not “getting it” or fitting in, insecurity, loss of confidence, low-level feelings of fear—all of these may be signs that you’re in an unsupportive or even toxic work environment. Such environments can be virtual or in-person. When we experience workplace harassment or bullying, report to a supervisor who lacks supportive leadership qualities, or are surrounded by a negative culture, we can start to question our self-worth

Increased anxiety about financial security

With as much time and energy we invest in our jobs, it’s important to be compensated fairly. If our compensation does not meet reasonable expectations, we may start feeling unappreciated and undervalued. In addition, stress and anxiety regarding financial security may surface. These feelings often affect all aspects of life: They may interfere with our relationships with family, friends, and coworkers, negatively affect our sleep quality, and interfere with our nutritional needs.

Developing a negative outlook

Believe it or not, negativity is contagious. Being around consistently negative coworkers can impact your outlook as well. If you find yourself often expecting the worst to happen, looking at things from a pessimistic point of view, or judging situations and others harshly, you may be falling into the negativity trap. These behaviors can hurt established relationships and hinder new ones.

Poor relationships with family and friends

Working long hours, feeling dissatisfied or unfulfilled, lacking passion or enjoyment in your job, and feeling unappreciated can lead to a negative outlook and negative conversations. If your daily venting about work becomes consuming, this may drive a wedge between you and your loved ones.  

Identify how your career is making your life worse

It’s important to take the time to consider how your career is impacting your mental health. It may be uncomfortable and possibly difficult to determine and accept, but it’s the first step toward making improvements.

One way to uncover this impact is to keep a journal of your feelings. Each day, ask yourself: What tasks or interactions are causing feelings of loneliness, anxiety, depression, or negative emotions? After doing this exercise for several days, look for patterns. Are the negative moments only in certain situations or with certain people? Or are they spread throughout the workday, no matter the time or interaction? Do you feel supported when you seek direction or assistance?

If you don’t like to journal, creating time for self-reflection can help. Do you feel anxious as your workday start time approaches? When interacting with your boss, do you feel insecure, anxious, under- or unappreciated, or angry? Does your workday feel meaningless? Do you appreciate or even understand the value of what you do? Think of the words you would use to describe your job to a friend—are they positive words? Do you have a sense of pride in your work?

Create a healthier relationship with work

If you find that your work is negatively impacting your mental health, it’s time to brainstorm ways to make change. I like to break it down into four different approaches that can be used individually or in combination:

Changing your perspective

Sometimes we get stuck in a rut and start seeing things through a negative lens, including a job we once appreciated. Sometimes changing your view of your job can make all the difference, but it takes effort—and there will be setbacks. It helps to have a supportive friend or mentor to talk to as you work toward self-improvement.

Begin by taking the time to notice the positive aspects of your job, whether it’s your coworkers, the job itself, or the culture of your organization. Take a step back and consider your employer’s values or mission statement. Do they align with yours? 

Implementing a self-care routine can also help create a positive mindset. Allow yourself time to unwind after your workday. Make time to do things you take pleasure in, and spend time with those whose company you enjoy.

These changes may help you rediscover your interest in and passion for your current position, and no other changes may be needed. 

Making changes at your current position

If you refocus on the positive aspects of your job and cultivate a more positive mindset, but still notice things at work that have a negative impact on you, it’s time to explore what you may be able to change. 

Can you try a different work environment or location? Is a hybrid approach an option? Is transferring to another team or reporting to another manager possible? Perhaps you can work on a special project? Are you able to shadow another team or department? Initiating changes to your current position can help renew interest in your role or company. That said…

Shifting to a new work environment

It’s important to separate your current job from your work environment. You may find that you love your role but dislike doing it where you are. Sometimes the work environment is just too toxic. If you’ve made reasonable requests for change and those requests have been denied, it may be time to move on.

Changing careers completely

Sometimes a job is just not a good fit. If you’re unable to find any sense of fulfillment or satisfaction in your current role, it may be time to reevaluate your career. Some people assume it’s normal to dislike their job because it’s “work” and there’s no other way to experience it, but that’s not true. Many people enjoy their careers and feel fulfilled, valued, and content with their jobs—and you can too.

If you feel your current career is negatively impacting your mental health, and you want to make changes, talking with a mentor, close friend, or family member can help. 

If you’re experiencing anxiety, anger, feelings of depression, or other negative emotions, and they are impacting your life, working with a therapist can help. Browse our directory to find someone near you.

About the author

Suzi Sena, EdS, LPC, is a licensed professional counselor with over 20 years of experience in human resources, education, integrative mental health, career counseling, and private practice settings. She earned her master’s degree in industrial organizational psychology from Fairleigh Dickinson University, her master’s in counselor education from Kean University, and her EdS degree in family and marriage therapy from The College of New Jersey. She holds numerous certifications and credentials in integrative mental health, career counseling, and human resources. She is currently in private practice, where she provides integrative mental health services to individuals and couples and consulting services to employers.

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