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Career Advice: Why Am I Not Happy At Work?

Johanna Herbst

May 1, 2022

I invite my community to send me leadership and career questions. Sarah B. did so and we will find out below how to tackle her question of not being happy at her current job.

Dear Coach Hanna,

I’m always stressed about work and am unhappy in my current position. I feel drained at the end of every day. I don’t seem to be able to pinpoint, though, what makes it such an awful experience for me. Can you help?

Thanks, Sarah, for sharing. What a reflective question! I acknowledge you for not jumping to conclusions, e.g. “I need to change jobs asap”, and being open to reflect on what’s working for you and what’s not. Understanding the drivers of your unhappiness will allow you to build a sound game plan to improve your situation sustainably going forward.

Let’s look at three factors that impact your work experience: your direct manager, your team, and the work itself. And yes, there are other factors as well that impact your work experience and we can focus on those in an individual coaching session.

Your relationship with your direct manager

How would you describe your relationship with your direct manager in three words? What’s important here for you?

Think about the interaction you’d like to have with your direct manager and what you’d like to get out of it? When you compare that with the actual one, what’s coming up for you? If there is an overlap, great news! If not, what is missing? Take some time and write down three things on your wish list. Are these must-haves or should-haves?

And yes, there is no one-size-fits-all in terms of preferred leadership style. Some people want to have as much freedom as possible to reach their goals, while others enjoy close guidance. We all yearn for psychological safety. It allows us to feel free in our interaction with our direct manager, feel supported and encouraged to speak up, share ideas, communicate openly, or not be scared to admit mistakes. We want our manager to have our back and help with e.g. promotions and career development.

Signs that psychological safety is not present are, for example, non-inclusive behavior, bad-mouthing in front of others or behind our back, or threats to be fired for mistakes.

Your interaction with your team

I am using a broad definition of team referring to all people you regularly interact with to get your job done.

First, think about a work team in general, what’s coming up for you? What does being part of a team mean to you?

Next, think about your actual team. How would you describe your interaction? Is it enjoyable or rather exhausting? And what makes it one or the other? Would you invite any of your team members to your next birthday party or for a drink after work? If thinking of your team doesn’t result in pleasant feelings, is it linked to individuals or the group overall?

The team dynamics are a snapshot of corporate values. What behavior is acceptable, and what is a no-go in your organization? Values are who we are in that moment, and corporate values show in actual behavior. Ideally, you find yourself in an environment with an overlap between your values and the corporate ones. Otherwise, Houston, we got a problem!

Let’s think this through with an example. Imagine you are part of the sales team, and the team is comparing individual sales figures in real-time to motivate everyone to be his or her best. For some people, this competitiveness works. For others, it might sound awful and be against everything they stand for. They might dread this comparison and feel their stomachs tighten just thinking about it. Being faced with different values will cause anxiety again and again.

Core values are deeply ingrained in the culture and show in the behavior of the employees. If you are stuck with a mismatch, you might act against what is important to you and dishonor your values.

Your actual job

And finally, let’s look at the actual work you are doing! What is your favorite part? What is your least favorite part? Do you consider your work meaningful? Is this job in line with your career aspiration?

If you wonder what you do all day long, I suggest you capture your tasks in a work diary for 1-2 weeks. Then rate your activities and determine whether they are e.g. enjoyable, challenging, or meaningful. It should give you a better overview of your day-to-day routine and insights into your actual tasks disregarding all other factors. What percentage of your workload do you enjoy? How much of your work do you consider a waste of time?

And no, there’s not a job with 100% enjoyable and meaningful tasks, but the overall balance needs to feel right for you. With this analysis, you will find out what you want more of and less of going forward.

Dear Sarah, I hope I could give you some inspiration on how to dig deeper into why you are not happy at work. Your insights will determine how to move forward from here. If you need support, please reach out for individual coaching.

What’s the leadership or career question on your mind? Just shoot me an email at or visit my website and I am happy to answer it next time.

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