When you are feeling unhappy with your job, this dissatisfaction can spill over to the rest of your life, causing sleepless nights, high levels of stress and ruined relationships. Too many of us get trapped in work situations where we feel like we cannot escape.
But getting professional mental health help is one way to get unstuck and to address these concerns. Worried about how to tell your boss “no”? Anxious about in-person work? Feeling lost and stuck in your “dream” career? You’re not the only one pondering these issues.
Below are some of the most common job problems therapists say their clients bring up, and how they work to address them.
Answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
1. Realizing that your ‘dream job’ is not actually what you want
“Some of my clients come to me upset about their work but have a difficult time understanding why. ... They may be realizing the job isn’t what they thought it would be, or that their interests or priorities have changed since they were an 18-year-old picking a major. Or that they got into that career for the wrong motivation ― for status, or to please their parents, or because they always got A’s in a certain subject and were encouraged to pursue that career, despite their lack of interest.
I think this is common because we usually choose a career path at a relatively young age, before we fully know ourselves and what is meaningful to us, and because we often choose careers based on status, money or necessity.
As a therapist, my job is not to make my clients’ decisions for them, but to help them look at who they are today, what interests them and gives them a sense of purpose, and to see how their current job measures up. Could the job change to satisfy these needs in some way? Should they start looking for an exit plan so they can pursue another career, recognizing all the consequences of that? Or will they choose to resign themselves to an inadequate career and try to find purpose and meaning in relationships, volunteering or hobbies outside of their workplace?” — Ryan Howes, clinical psychologist and author of “Mental Health Journal for Men” based in Pasadena, California
2. Navigating conflicts with co-workers and bosses
“Interpersonal challenges with managers, colleagues and team members are common issues that come up in therapy. This, of course, makes sense given the amount of time we spend interacting with colleagues. We bring our relational patterns, and they bring theirs, which can be at odds. In such situations, we are often looking at communicating effectively, navigating conflict, and setting appropriate boundaries. This also leads to discussions about whether the strain of the environment is worth it.” — Cicely Horsham-Brathwaite, psychologist and author of “Better Daily Self-Care Habits” based in New York City
“The problems I most often hear about are with the boss. Or bosses. The challenge is one of power: The employee is afraid to lose their job or upset their boss, so they are reluctant to voice their concerns or complaints — especially when they’re about the boss — for fear of looking disrespectful.
When working on this in therapy, we try to make a realistic appraisal of their options. Can they speak about this to their boss, or not? Can they seek out some other internal help from HR, from another manager, or a collection of peers? If their intimidation seems to go deeper than this person or situation, we may want to explore their experience with other authority figures in their past, like past bosses, teachers, coaches, or their parents, because they may be attributing these older feelings to this new situation. If it truly feels like they are stuck in a no-win situation with their boss and company, we would start looking into other options like doing a job search.” — Howes
3. Returning to in-person work and pre-pandemic levels of productivity
“After more than a year of working remotely, people are now physically and emotionally struggling with returning to in-person workplaces. There has been an increase in anxiety symptoms such as excessive worry, difficulty managing worry, experiencing gastrointestinal issues due to increased stress, fear and questioning their ability to keep up with the level of productivity that they were meeting pre-pandemic.
We are currently seeing this due to people’s ability to have better control of their schedules while working from home, and many have realized how this has created the opportunity for them to better care for themselves and their families. We address this in sessions by exploring coping skills to practice when feeling overwhelmed in the workplace, assisting clients with identifying their needs in the workplace, and empowering them to advocate for those needs. One of the most useful interventions that clients truly enjoy is role-playing.
Through role-playing, we practice a specific conversation they would like to have with their employers that often feels intimidating to have with your boss. This provides clients with the tools, words and confidence necessary to advocate for their needs.” — Katheryn Perez, marriage and family therapist in Burbank, California
4. Dealing with microaggressions and stereotyping
“A lot work issues are often related to micro- and macroagressions, or basically oppression. People have a sense it’s not just about them not being enough, but that their workplace is somehow implicated too, but they don’t have the language or rhetoric to name it. Often it’s igniting and intersecting with other early traumas too, whether it’s their own parents/caregivers overlooking them due to their own unreckoned-with trauma, or growing up in a white, straight and cisgender-centric reality that excludes them and expects them to comply with the exclusion.
In the workplace, this can manifest in not feeling safe to negotiate unrealistic expectations, deadlines or practices with co-workers and managers; feeling like they have to take on more responsibility and not slack off in comparison to their white, hetero or simply male coworkers because they can’t afford to risk being seen as underperforming due to race/gender/sexual identity biases.
This can also arise when deciding to use ‘unlimited’ PTO — it’s not a walk in the park for them to submit the request without first worrying about jeopardizing their worthiness to the company that could negatively impact future performance reviews ... ‘Do I deserve this?’ is a narrative that they grapple with on an emotional level.” — Deborah Kim, licensed marriage and family therapist in Berkeley, California
“I work with a significant number of BIPOC clients in psychotherapy and one of the frequent concerns that comes up is a fear of confirming racial stereotypes. In particular, my Black women/femme clients are often concerned about the ‘angry Black women’ stereotype. They report instances of tone-policing in which they are perceived or dismissed by colleagues as too emotional or passionate while speaking.
My clients also talk frequently about racial microaggressions in which they struggle to process and understand how to respond to common, everyday instances of racism, such as frequent comments about their hairstyles and appearance, an underestimation of their abilities, or being overlooked for advancement opportunities. These experiences are reflective of the way in which unconscious biases manifest in the workplace and of white supremacy culture.” — Adjoa Osei, clinical psychologist in New York City
5. Feeling out of sync with work/life balance
“Particularly during the course of the pandemic, many clients working remotely have felt a blurring between professional and personal boundaries. They report a sense of feeling overwhelmed with workplace expectations and pressure to prove that they are working by always being on. In working from home, clients might ignore clues that would be more visible in an in-person setting, such as taking breaks, going for lunch and leaving work on time. There also may be pressure to prove that they are working to their managers and supervisors.” — Osei
6. Feeling under-appreciated at work
“Work is a large part of our daily lives and we want to feel fulfilled and satisfied with our roles at work. If people are not appreciated, given opportunities to grow, they develop feelings of dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction can lead to depression, stress and anxiety.
One thing to remember is that we all hold power in our personal lives. Remember that you don’t need to let go of goals and growth. Creating and developing your passion outside of work is important and that’s the key to decreasing dissatisfaction, If you are not given the opportunity to grow at work, it might be time to develop a plan of action and create that space in your personal life — a side hustle, art, travel — where you can fulfill the need and empower yourself with the idea that growth is infinite in your personal life or new job role.” — Nancy Paloma Collins, therapist in California
7. Feeling burnt out
“They’ve lost their love for their field, their love for what they do, they just don’t feel motivated anymore, they feel really exhausted, like kind of down. They are typically coming because they are not sure what the heck is going on, but then when I take a closer look at it, it looks like some experience of burnout.
In sessions, we are looking at the specific circumstance to try to understand what created the burnout. Is it the environment that they are participating in that requires nothing less than burnout? There’s a lot of burnout cultures that are really normative. Or are you bringing on the burnout on yourself by the way you are behaving in the workforce? For example, you are never off, you return calls on weekends, you work on the weekends, there are never breaks, there’s no self-care. And so you are really looking at what is the root cause of this, and trying to address that. — Lisa Orbé-Austin, New York City-based psychologist and co-author of “Own Your Greatness: Overcome Impostor Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt, and Succeed in Life”