My personal essay in the latest issue of Wharton Magazine recounts my own experience leaving a job a year after graduating from Wharton in order to explore alternate careers that would more fully engage me in fulfilling and productive ways. In short, I was unhappy at work and needed a reset.
In writing the piece, I learned that the extent to which executives today are discontented and unmotivated at the office is more widespread than many HR experts realize. According to Gallup data, more than 70 percent of high-level employees such as executives and managers admit they are disengaged at work.
The circumstances behind burnout and malaise are unique. But experts agree, more often than not, that they stem from a negative, sometimes hostile, corporate culture that is often reinforced or tolerated by C-suite leadership. With some exceptions, there is scant HR help for well-paid staff—including Wharton grads like myself—who are restless and distracted. Unfortunately, seeking such help at work can put careers at risk, and requesting extended PTO or a learning sabbatical is virtually unheard of except for long-tenured executives at only the largest corporations.
What can be helpful, in addition to consulting a career coach outside the office, is for execs who confront a career crossroads to hear directly from other leaders who took six months to two years off to travel, start new businesses, or change fields.
Below are five recommended action points based on my conversations with leave-takers and employment experts on ways to navigate such a crossroads in order to preserve one’s current position. Subsequent blogs will highlight actions aimed at work-life balance, when to walk away from a job, changing fields, and financial planning for an extended break.
1. Take charge of your purpose and productivity.
If you ask any creative person where and how they arrive at their most original ideas, sitting at a desk doing routine work is never the answer. Varying entrenched routines and rethinking your tendencies create larger positive changes in how you view your surroundings, projects, expectations, and results.
2. Take the pressure off yourself.
Personal advancement isn’t all on your shoulders alone. Use company resources to shape innovative, cooperative ways forward on your career path. Susan Perry, former president of hospitality consulting and management company Perry Group International, has taken time off during her career to reset. She says the first rule of thumb in business success is to get out from under your own thumb. “Come to terms with the pressure you put on yourself to perform,” she says. “Remember, success is never personal and you’re not completely in control of anything. Even great baseball players fail to get a hit two-thirds of the time.”
3. Speak up for yourself at work.
Push back at what bugs you in the office. Be brave. If it means confronting your boss, ask HR to be present to alleviate negative consequences. Uncomfortable situations at work aren’t typically isolated instances. If you step up and voice a legitimate concern, others are likely to join you. Career coaches agree: You may not change the overall workplace culture, but you can improve it.
4. Expect realistic answers to your concerns.
A positive response by leadership to employee concerns is critical to engagement at work. Yet, just 71 percent of men and 33 percent of women see their organizations as empathetic in this regard. Even where concerns continue to exist, 90 percent of staffers say they would stay with an empathetic employer. If voicing your concern doesn’t change the situation, avoid it. If you can’t avoid it, accept it. But to accept it, you must change your viewpoint. In other words, expect change in some form as inevitable and prepare for it.
5. Avoid the downward cycle early on.
Therapists, career coaches, and leave-takers agree that dissatisfaction, stagnation, boredom, and frustration, among other uncomfortable states in the workplace, lead to poor performance and ultimately to being fired. It can start when B-school grads choose careers in areas where others suggested they’d excel. Later, as financially secure middle-aged executives, they become disenchanted with the confines of how others define success. Some wind up walking away. Others rationalize that they aren’t supposed to like their jobs or persevere, fearing how others would view them if they quit. “The fact is, humans are resilient,” says Janet Crawford, career coach and founder/CEO of Cascadance leadership development firm. “We tolerate a lot. It’s usually not until we feel exhausted, stressed out, and depressed that we pause long enough to realize something’s wrong.” By then, your position and career can deteriorate beyond your ability to fix it.