by Teri Fritsma

There are plenty of things about your job that are out of your control.  A supportive boss, great co-workers, interesting projects, a pleasant work environment—all things you can hope for, but not necessarily engineer. Today’s blog is about something you can control: whether you sabotage your own professional happiness.


I know a college professor who can’t stand to grade papers. Every time she has to grade, she becomes anxious, irritable, and full of self-doubt. She agonizes about whether or not she is being fair in her evaluations. Her anxiety seeps into her professional and personal life. During grading time, she becomes impatient with her colleagues, husband and kids. And since it’s so stressful, she procrastinates.  As a result, she never devotes any thought to how she might improve this aspect of her job. She allows her self-doubt to run her life temporarily. In short, she sabotages herself.


It’s understandable–we all avoid situations that are difficult or stressful. But what’s unfortunate is that by failing to address our professional problems, weaknesses, or fears, we miss out on opportunities to make things better for ourselves.


When faced with a situation that damages our professional happiness, we fundamentally have two options: change the situation or change the way we deal with it.


Changing the Situation


Changing the situation may require some creative thought and negotiation, especially if your challenges are a big part of your job.  Consider the following options. (Although there may be pushback from your boss or co-workers, this can be offset by the increase in your job satisfaction and improved attitude and performance.)


  • Opt out. Is there a way to arrange your job duties so that you can simply stop doing the tasks that make you miserable?  In my friend’s case, she actually has the option of assigning all her grading to a teaching assistant. (This, of course, would create a whole new set of job duties, including training the assistant.) Not everyone can simply opt out of a job duty—but the point is to think creatively about what you can do.


  • Change or rearrange. Can you redesign the way a task is done so that it doesn’t bother you anymore? For example, my friend could decide to assign only multiple choice or true/false assignments that are easier to grade. Or, she could create an objective scoring sheet that describes her grading process to help her students understand where they’ll lose points on assignments.


Changing How You Deal with It


If there’s no changing the situation, perhaps there’s a way to change how you handle it.


  • Compartmentalize the problem. Don’t let your negative feelings about one part of your job poison how you feel about the rest of it. In my friend’s case, she could simply accept the discomfort she feels about grading, but work harder at containing her stress to the two weeks   in the semester when she has to grade. By doing a better job of recognizing what’s bothering her, she could also prevent her frustration from infecting her family.


  • Change your mind. The last—and perhaps most difficult—option is to work through your feelings about the problem. Is there a way to actually change how you feel about something? For example, my friend could take some time to evaluate why she has such a hard time grading. What’s making her feel this way? Is she really an unfair grader? If so, what can she do about it? If not, why the reaction—and what can she do to lessen it? 


Whether you change the situation or the way you deal with it, the first step is to understand and be honest about what’s getting in your way of professional happiness. That requires self-assessment. A good one for this purpose is O*NET’s work importance profiler, which lets you explore and rank the things that are most important to you in your job.