Are You Unhappy at Work? Here’s How to Pinpoint Why

Clinically Reviewed by Steven Melendy, PsyD. on June 18, 2019

You aren’t totally happy with your current career. Maybe it’s just a mild dissatisfaction or a yearning for a change of pace that keeps nagging at you. Or, perhaps it’s full-fledged misery that makes it difficult to pull yourself out of bed in the morning.

Either way, you feel itchy, restless, and like something needs to change in your professional life.

But what? Each time you try to step back and identify the root of your unhappiness, you’re stumped. You can’t seem to pinpoint any sort of common thread that’s contributing to your perceived distaste for your day job.

I get it (and honestly, I’ve been there before). When you’re so wrapped up in a situation, it can be difficult to get the perspective you need.

Well, that’s exactly the problem this article aims to solve. Below, we’re digging into five common reasons that people feel unhappy in their careers and the common signs associated with each of them—as well as exactly what you can do if you recognize them in yourself.

Reason #1: You’re Bored

Unfortunately, boredom is a pretty common plight at work. One survey found that the average worker is bored 10.5 hours per week.

But here’s the problem: Boredom goes beyond days spent twiddling your thumbs. It can actually be a major contributor to unhappiness. When you feel underutilized and unchallenged, it’s easy to lose motivation and resent your career altogether.

Common Signs That You’re Struggling With Boredom:

  • Your workdays feel like they drag on and on
  • You can’t remember the last time you felt challenged
  • You have a difficult time pointing to one thing you accomplished each day
How to Deal

Chances are, there’s more than enough for you to do—your supervisor just isn’t aware that you’re hungry for more responsibility.

It’s time to sit down with your manager and loop them in on your career ambitions. Are you hoping to develop or exercise a specific skill set? Do you want to own a more challenging project? Do you just need more work and responsibility on your plate?

Set a meeting with your boss when you can make those desires clear and map out a plan for making them happen. When things start to shift and your boredom begins to (hopefully!) fade, you might be surprised by how differently you feel about your career.

Reason #2: You’re Stuck in a Toxic Environment

Not all workplaces are created equal, and a culture that’s catty and conniving is enough to drag anyone down. When it comes to your career, oftentimes it’s not what you’re doing that’s the problem—it’s where you’re doing it.

But toxic workplaces are surprisingly common. One study indicated that 55% of U.S. workers face “unpleasant or potentially hazardous” conditions at work. Even scarier? One in five state that their environment is hostile or threatening.

From gossipy coworkers to a boss who’s surely out to get you, it’s increasingly challenging to find career happiness in an environment that’s truly toxic.

Common Signs That You’re Struggling With a Toxic Environment:

  • You don’t trust your manager with even the smallest of issues
  • You can’t go a day without overhearing some sort of workplace gossip
  • You need to proactively take credit for your own work—before someone else does
How to Deal

If the issue is as serious as harassment or something equally problematic, you need to bring the problem to HR and do whatever is necessary to remove yourself from any potentially undesirable situations.

However, if you’re dealing with something on a somewhat smaller scale—like obnoxious gossip or lazy colleagues—start by having the hard conversations either with the perpetrators or your manager. Explain your complaint, while also offering a potential solution.

If things don’t improve even after addressing them head on, know that you’re perfectly justified in finding a work environment that’s a better fit for you.

Reason #3: You’re Burnt Out

Another common reason for unhappiness? You’re simply burnt out. You’ve worked too much, and the seemingly endless grind has zapped you of any sense of fulfillment and happiness.

Rest assured that you aren’t alone in that. When the “hustle” has become so glorified and people wear “busy” as a badge of honor, burnout is on the rise.

One Gallup study found that 23% of employees report feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% report feeling burned out sometimes.

Common Signs That You’re Struggling With Burnout:

  • You feel flat out exhausted each and every workday
  • You can’t remember the last time you felt excited to go to work
  • You’re struggling to put in the effort and your performance has been suffering
How to Deal

Oft-repeated advice would have you believe that taking a vacation or even a short break is enough to repair burnout. But, burnout is complex and those simplified fixes are really just bandaids on bullet wounds.

What you really need to change is your circumstances. Burnout typically happens when you have way too much to do, so it’s time for you to take control of your workload.

Approach your boss to have a candid conversation about your responsibilities and what assignments or deadlines you believe to be unreasonable. Explain that you’re eager to continue being a high-performing employee, but that you’re finding it impossible with your existing task list. It’s also helpful if you come with some sort of plan for how you’d like to lighten your own load.

Reason #4: Your Work Feels Meaningless

Day in and day out, you’re cranking through your to-do list. But for what? You can’t point to any tangible results you’re producing, and you’re beginning to feel like your work lacks any purpose at all.

While it might not be your first thought, a sense of purpose is important for your overall career happiness. One survey found that the average respondent would be willing to give up 23% of their future earnings for a more meaningful job.

Nobody wants to feel like another cog in a wheel, and it’s hard to be enthusiastic about heading to a job each day when it all feels pointless.

Common Signs That You’re Struggling With a Lack of Meaning:

  • You can’t point to any tangible results of your work
  • You can’t easily explain how your work fits into your larger organization
  • You can’t remember the last time you felt proud of what you accomplished
How to Deal

This isn’t a situation that has a blanket solution, as it can vary based on your unique situation and organization.

However, a great starting point is to take a step back and get a bird’s-eye view of how your own position or department fits into the bigger picture—especially since it’s way too easy to miss the forest for the trees when you get wrapped up in the day-to-day minutiae.

For example, maybe you’ve convinced yourself that you’re “only” in customer service. But a quick reality check makes you realize that there’d likely be zero customers left if you weren’t there to assist them and maintain that relationship.  

This could also be a symptom that your company needs to do a better job with transparency between teams and departments. Have a conversation with your manager to express your desire to understand how everything connects—and where you fit in. Chances are, it’s something that everyone in your company could benefit from.

Reason #5: Your Passions Have Changed

We all evolve—it’s natural. You aren’t the same person you were today as you were 10 years ago. And similarly, the workforce evolves. There are entire career paths today that didn’t exist a decade ago.

So, it’s understandable that your own interests may have shifted. What might have seemed like a dream job previously might no longer be in line with your passions and values.

Common Signs You’re Dealing With a Lack of Passion:

  • You feel envy over all sorts of different career paths
  • You feel a constant longing to try something different
  • You struggle to think of one thing you love about your career—besides the paycheck
How to Deal

While the desire to make the leap into a totally different career path is understandable, keep in mind that it’s way better to feel like you’re moving toward something—rather than running away from something.

With that in mind, it’s time to start trying your hand at all sorts of different things to figure out what ignites your passion. Whether it’s picking up new hobbies, asking to job shadow various professionals, or starting up outside projects and side hustles, get out there and figure out what excites you.

Especially when it’s so easy to fall into the “grass is always greener” mentality in your career, taking the time to explore and gain exposure to a variety of options will help you identify what you might want to move onto—before diving in headfirst.

You Deserve Career Happiness (But You Need to Know How to Get It)

When you feel dissatisfied with your career, it’s tempting to jump to conclusions—you assume you need a drastic shift in order to feel happy again.

Rest assured that large career changes are definitely doable (and sometimes they really are the only solution to feel contented with your job once again). However, they also require an investment in time, effort, and oftentimes, money.

So before you make a huge shift in your career, it’s often better to pinpoint the root cause of your dissatisfaction and start with some small changes to see if they can give your happiness level a much-needed boost. Who knows—you might just be surprised by the results.

Kat Boogaard

Kat is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer who focuses on careers, productivity, and self-development. She has written content for The Muse, Trello, Atlassian, QuickBooks, Toggl, Wrike, and more. When she's not at her desk, you'll find her spending time with her family—which includes two adorable sons and two rebellious rescue mutts.

More from this author...
About the Clinical Reviewer

Steven Melendy, PsyD., is a Clinical Psychologist who received his doctorate from The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. He specializes in using evidence-based approaches in his work with individuals and groups. Steve has worked with diverse populations and in variety of a settings, from community clinics to SF General Hospital. He believes strongly in the importance of self-care, good friendships, and humor whenever possible.


Pam23 (not verified) says...


Thanks so much for this article. Since last year I’ve struggling tryin to make sense what’s wrong with my career path. My first Appoach Was to have a conversation with my boss since I knew challenge and sense of purpose was important for me. Not much changed since then. Now, This confirms what Ive been thinking for a while... It’s time to move on to a more meaningful experience. Once againg thanks so much for share! 

Deena (not verified) says...

I wouldn't recommend going to HR about a bad supervisor! They are not there to support you and will likely either do nothing or do something that will make your life worse, like telling your supervisor. I have never seen a company do anything about a bad supervisor. They would rather let all the good people quit and have to hire new people and train them over and over.

Adrianna Costello (not verified) says...

I'll admit it.  I'm EXTREMELY bored with my current job.  Basically, I schedule meetings most of my days.  There is no challenge, and I need challenge in my work to be happy with what I'm doing.  I thrive on learning new things and having something different to do every day.  I've been promised a position with more responsibility, however, the start date keeps changing.  This is a new position in my organization, and it has more complex tasks and greater responsibility, which excites me; however, the organization, who say that my skillset is perfect for this job, does not want to pay me appropriately.  In the last 4 years I've received overall "exceeds expectations" on my employee reviews, I've gone back to school to get my degree, which I've completed, and over the 6 years I've been employed with this organization, I've saved them $192,000.00 by suggesting that they automate a process.  I really want to make a career change, especially after receiving my degree.  I don't feel valued here.  Does anyone have any advice?  If I'm honest, I am strongly leaning toward moving on.  Thank you.  

Yohanes Evan (not verified) says...

Honestly, I'm TERRIBLY unhappy with my current job, and I think it is because I am disgusted with my boss' antiques of expecting everyone else as fast and accurate as he is, yet he is not all-ears. I even considering taking a long break if I quit from my job, least to recover myself from his poor treatments in office. 

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