In Defense of the Devil You Know

Here's how to make the most of a job you hate.

Jan. 7, 2010 — -- Joshua, a New York communications executive who asked that his real name not be used, had always prided himself on being a risk-taker. If he felt stymied in a position, he knew he could simply look for a new job.

Not so this year.

"This is the first time in my career where I've had to play it conservative and wait it out," the husband and father of two said of the job he has had for five years. "When I had fewer financial obligations and it was a better market, I was much more fluid about moving between positions."

Joshua knows he has nothing to complain about. At least he's earning a paycheck and keeping up with his mortgage payments. But that doesn't change the fact that the 80 to 90 hours a week he spends at a toxic office have worn on him.

"A lot of people I work with have become very nervous, very angry, very political," Joshua said. "It's become a very difficult working environment. I've felt like I have to curb my dedication to excellence in favor of mediocre yet politically expedient solutions. Sometimes it's hard to look at myself in the mirror in the morning."

Sound familiar? Fear not. There are some steps you can take to make treading water at your job more bearable.

Trapped or Practical?

First order of business: an attitude adjustment. Accept that you might be dancing with this employment devil another 6 to 12 months, maybe longer. Then resolve to make the best of it.

"If you have a family to support, savings lost in the recession and you live in a city where there are five unemployed people for every job opening, what else are you going to do?" said workplace expert Alexandra Levit, whose latest book is "New Job, New You: A Guide to Reinventing Yourself in a Bright New Career."

The Conference Board reported this week that 55 percent of Americans are unhappy at their jobs, the highest number since the organization began conducting its annual job satisfaction survey two decades ago.

Lucky to Have a Job

You may count yourself among the job-haters but a hundred bucks says you're pleased as punch you don't have to look for work in this horrific market.

Just ask Joshua. "I'm at a point now where spending time with family is important," he said.

Mounting a search for a new executive-level position would likely require several intensive months, at best; time he doesn't want to take away from his family.

There's also the fact that the devil you know might be less of a demon than a new position on which you take a chance in this shaky economy. "You could be joining a well-disguised, dysfunctional organization," Joshua said.

Or worse, he added, you could be laid off within months of starting your new position.

Assuming you've determined that staying put is your best bet, how do you take some of the drudgery out of the workweek?

Challenge Yourself

Joining an internal committee that has been tasked with creating a new process or product is a fantastic way to kick your office slump to the curb, author Levit said. So is sniffing out opportunities for professional training and development programs, she added.

Same goes for investigating whether it's possible to make a lateral move to a new position or department, or whether your employer offers a job rotation program (where you sample different positions at the company for several months).

If you don't see any immediate opportunities, make a case to your manager for creating your own, Levit suggested. But, she cautioned, "Do not approach your boss from the perspective of being miserable, and do not sound like you are complaining because this will prompt the response, 'You're lucky to have a job.'"

"Instead," Levit said, "say that you're looking for more ways to contribute to the organization during what you know are tough times."

Then propose two or three ideas for broadening your responsibilities. And be sure to make the case for how each will benefit the company.

Other ways to reduce your office angst: take up a new hobby, hit the gym (might I suggest a rigorous kickboxing class?) or spend extra time with friends and family.

Take a Little 'Me' Time

"The more fulfilling your life is outside of work, the less the way you feel about your day job will matter," Levit said.

Robin, an information technology worker in New Jersey who asked that her real name not be used, concurs. To improve her quality of life, she negotiated a flexible work schedule that allows her to avoid the rush-hour commute.

"I get in very early and leave early," said Robin, who's biding her time until the market improves and she's able to find something else. "I usually work through lunch. I was also able to wrangle one day of telecommuting a week, which does help immensely."

In other words, less time at the office, fewer headaches.

Researching your next career move can also help ease your workplace pain. Break the necessary sleuth work into bite-sized pieces -- 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there -- so you're able to keep the momentum going throughout the workweek.

"Before you go to bed at night," Levit said, "do a self-assessment of your values, how you like to work and what you'd be compelled to do even if you never got paid. On your lunch hour, research careers and industries that map to your skills and interests."

Start with the Internet and work your way up to picking people's brains, taking relevant classes and scheduling informational interviews. By the time the job market improves, you'll be that much more prepared to nab a new position or start fresh in a new field.

Give Back

Focusing on someone else's needs or problems can be a wonderful way to stop dwelling on your own. To that end, Levit recommends mentoring a younger colleague at your company or in your industry. See if your employer or favorite professional association has a mentorship program in place. If not, invite that wet-behind-the-ears assistant who has been peppering you with questions to join you on your coffee break and let him or her pick your brain a few minutes a week.

If you'd rather not spend one more second talking shop, see if your organization has a corporate volunteer program that can place you with a charitable or social service organization in need. If not, find a volunteer gig of your own. Web sites such as Idealist and VolunteerMatch are a great place to start.

Volunteering Improves Outlook

"Volunteering can improve your feeling about yourself and your purpose in the world," said licensed psychotherapist Toni Galardi, author of "The LifeQuake Phenomenon: How to Thrive (Not Just Survive) in Times of Personal and Global Upheaval."

"Your purpose does not have to come from your job."

Even one volunteer shift can help boost your attitude at the office the next day, Galardi said. As the psychotherapist put it, "I can't tell you how many times I've seen people who, after volunteering, wanted to slap themselves for complaining about their job."

Michelle Goodman is a freelance writer and former cubicle dweller. She is author of "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube." Click here for more information.