What to do when your dream job becomes a nightmare

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When your dream job becomes a nightmare….

Many discover financial blogs by googling “How to retire early” after a particularly bad day, week or month at work.

Only 15% of the population are happy in their jobs. But readers of this blog are doctors and other professionals that have worked hard to be where they are today. So what do you do when that dream job becomes a nightmare?

Do you Really Hate Working at Your Job – Or Did you Just have a Bad Day, Week or Month?

We have had all had awful patches at work. Perhaps you feel out of depth, or weighed down by the huge responsibility on your shoulders. My heart breaks a little for this new doctor working in the NHS.

(S)He doesn’t really hate his job. They don’t even know how to do the job yet. This employee in distress is overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility, unsupported and unfamiliar with how to perform the job well. It would be very interesting to see how he/ she went (it’s been 6 years).

Things should not be this extreme for doctors in Australia in 2021. But in a system seemingly hell-bent on preventing us from doing our jobs well, alcohol abuse, depression and suicide are devastating.

I have little experience outside medicine, but have been listening to a podcast recently aimed at US lawyers managing stress and burn-out. It all sounds very familiar, and I find the strategies described very relevant to managing my own stress.

Knowing the difference between a bad patch and hating your career choice is important, and will require some careful reflection. Don’t rush into any big decisions until you have worked out exactly what the problem is.

When a Bad Day turns into a Bad Year

Sometimes the bad patch becomes a long term dread of work. Work out what the real issues and what to do about it. You do not need to stay trapped and unhappy.

For the young doctor who has qualified with mountains of debt, then hating the job and thinking they are not suited to being a physician, don’t panic. There are so many different specialties, some without patient contact. It is very possible you just haven’t been exposed to your ideal career yet.

If you are in this situation, consider talking to a career advisor. Actively seek out unusual rotations and try different things. There are other options including working for pharmaceutical companies, or using your transferable skills in completely new careers. I had a young doctor under my supervision a few years ago who was a bit lost and couldn’t find her specialty. I was so thrilled to hear from her a couple of years later confirming she’d found it – in Pathology, a specialty few ever get any exposure to.

The newly qualified professional disappointed with the reality of their career, or experienced mid career professional getting disillussioned, there are plenty of options to improve the situation.

When Your Dream Job Becomes a Nightmare: What are the Causes?

Is It Just the Discomfort of Starting a New Job?

Are you just starting a new job and feeling uncomfortable? Feeling incompetent because you don’t know how to perform the job well is unpleasant. I used to hate this part as a junior rotating every few weeks. As far as I can work out, there isn’t really any way to avoid it. Being aware that your discomfort will likely resolve once you know how to do the job will help you stick it out. When you dream job becomes a nightmare in this situation, it can often eventually become the perfect fit – once you have adjusted.

Is it the People You are Working With?

The people you work with often make or break a job. Don’t be fooled into thinking you love or hate a particular profession or specialty because of the crowd working with you at the time.

Unfortunately, medicine, like most professions still hasn’t eliminated harassment and bullying. Human resources can be an ally in assisting with these issues, or not. If you are suffering from these serious issues, speak to a trusted senior colleague for help, your boss or HR department. Keep written documentation of all harassment and bullying incidents.

Most of you, hopefully, will not be suffering from any serious workplace issues. But “not fitting in”, or being excluded at work can significantly impact your enjoyment of work. Not feeling respected or accepted by your collegues can make work life unsatisfying.

If you don’t get on with your employer, it is unlikely you are going to have a great time at work. Maximum efforts should be made to have a positive relationship, but occasionally you just can’t do anything right. If you have a difficult boss, work out a way to improve the relationship or move on to a new job.

Is it the Work-Life Balance?

Sometimes work is crazy, and takes over a bit. As long as that is balanced out by time you can slow down at work and prioritise your family, this may be ok. Some love to immerse themselves in work. It’s all very individual, based on your own priorities and life stage. But if you feel you are constantly being asked to sacrifice your off time for work, resentment can start to kick in.

Do You Feel Appreciated and Respected?

Feeling appreciated at work is such a boost to job satisfaction. It’s often the quiet hard worker who does more than the rest, and struggles to get noticed. The loud, flashy co-worker brags about their work and gets all the appreciation too often. Thanking people for their work, highlighting and feeding back strong performance is so important to sustain motivation. If your seniors don’t do this, remember how it makes you feel, and change the system when you rise the ranks.

Being treated as an interchangable number doesn’t feel good. All you quiet no-fuss achievers, I see you! Thanks.

EveryDay Frustrations

Employers have a habit of trying to skimp to save a dollar, resulting in hours of (wo)manpower wasted (at far greater expense). Health care providers have to be up there with the top offenders and it drives us nuts.

Computer systems that don’t integrate and take ten minutes to switch on. Inadequate pieces of equipment so that you spend time searching for a bit of kit several times a day.

It’s super frustrating and negatively impacts on your productivity. Request those bits of equipment. Sometimes it’s an exercise in maintaining your sanity to purchase your own (label and keep under lock and key!) Use the minutes your computer takes to turn on to say the Serenity prayer.

The Serenity Prayer

A Lack of Power

When your dream job becomes a nightmare, a lack of power over your work is often a major contributor.

You may not have any bargaining power to improve your work place. Depending on the size of the organisation, you may not ever feel you have much control. This lack of power to implement seemingly simple solutions can be a source of frustration.


Political astuteness is required as you rise the ranks in most organisations. This doesn’t come naturally to many of us. It is often difficult to understand why we cant just get on with the job in hand.

But where there are people there are egos, and potential obstacles. Manage the people and their egos, and you have a little more power to change your workplace for the better.

Discomfort with managing political situations can decrease job satisfaction, but gets easier with improvement in political astuteness and advanced communication and negotiation skills.

Culture of Blame and Attack

If you are constantly watching your back, it is very hard to relax and enjoy a job. Everyone makes errors sometimes. If the wolves are poised to pounce and attack as soon as a coworker makes an error, the culture of your workplace has got serious issues that take time and effort to improve.

Don’t contribute to the problem. If a coworker makes an error, support them and help them to fix it. Hopefully they will pay it forward!

Work Unsuitable for your Capabilities, Character or Morals

If your work is too hard for you to complete, or too mindless to engage you, it is unlikely you will achieve any degree of job satisfaction. If it is too hard, ask for help and get the extra training required to make your life easier!

Underchallenging work needs to be examined to work out whether it is actually necessary. If it is, it can sometimes be outsourced to a more junior colleague or administrative officer. If only you can do the work and it is important, find ways to make it more tolerable. Take breaks and time this work for when your brain needs a break.

If it conflicts with your values, moral injury results, a major contributor to burnout. This is not a healthy situation to exist in. Change what you can and protect yourself with a large dose of self care regularly.

When Your Dream Job Becomes a Nightmare: Unrealistic Expectations

Perhaps you thought you would be saving lives as a day 1 doctor, but instead you find yourself following an older physician around, acting as a secretary.

Maybe you expected your time at work to be all about fulfilling your aspirations, and the inevitable drudgery has taken you by surprise.

All jobs will involve parts of less enjoyable work. In most careers, you will start at the bottom of the pecking order. Learn as much as you can to prepare you for when you get that desired responsibility.

Tasks that need to be done, but are boring and/or monotonous are made more bearable with a positive attitude. Find out what makes the situation more pleasant for you. A cup of tea whilst I work and background music makes most monotonous tasks more manageable (sometimes even meditative).

What Brings You Job Satisfaction and Joy at Work?

Before you write your resignation, or worse throw a fit and walk out, you need to decide what kind of work would be better.

This can take, time and reflection. Stanford’s life design team suggest keeping a diary for a few weeks. Make sure to document any time you notice you have been in a “flow state”. A flow state is when you are absorbed in your activity and time passes fast. This kind of work is obviously pitched at the right level, and interesting enough to fully occupy your mind without checking the clock, or daydreaming.

Reflect on which part of your job (and previous jobs) you enjoyed. What was it about them that you enjoyed? Was it the interactions with others, the mental stimulation, problem-solving challenge or getting to complete a task without being interrupted.

How could you get more exposure to this kind of work by life design?

What are You Good at?

What are your strengths? Are you good at your current jobs, or part of it? You are more likely to enjoy a job, and have pride completing it if you perform well.

Sometimes other people can give you surprising insights into your strengths. A nurse commented on a patient needing an “Aussie Doc special” (using my real name of course). On enquiring, I found out this was de-escalating angry patients.

The secret to de-escalating angry patients is not surprising. Taking the time, listening intently and finding out the patient’s point of view, and agreeing on a solution or explaining with empathy why expectations are not able to be met. I don’t particularly enjoy this task, and find it emotionally draining. I usually take a few minutes to gather and prepare myself before going in, wearing the appropriate attitude of helpful enquiry.

It’s a lot easier not to make the patient angry in the first place! But I think I will dread the task less after the confidence boost from my colleague. Also, note the clever use of political astuteness of the nurse in this situation!

In What Ways Can You Pivot?

Are there ways in your current job that you can pivot towards the parts you like, and away the parts you don’t like. Make an active effort to spend more time on tasks that align with your strengths and preferences. Find ways to make the less enjoyable tasks more bearable.

No one likes a complainer, but if there is a specific issue you feel is unreasonable, speak to your boss, ideally with a solution ready.

If the boss or your colleagues are phoning you frequently on your days off, perhaps it’s time to form some boundaries. Be polite, explain your situation and that you want to maintain longevity and enthusiasm for the job by having adequate and quality recovery time.

Know what you do and don’t have power over. Banging your head against the wall trying to change something you don’t have the power to influence will burn you out with no benefit.

Sometimes performing some freelance (locum) part time work for a different employer can provide insight into whether it is your career you hate or the specific environment in your workplace.

If you are considering changing job, look for roles that can move you more towards your strengths and preferences. Don’t rush, choose carefully and try not to burn bridges by making it obvious you are looking for work elsewhere.

For those looking a major career change, consider talking to a career coach, and maintaining professional CPD accreditation for a period after the switch, in case of a change in heart.

Don’t Ever Trap Yourself Financially

Jobs can change rapidly. If and when your dream job becomes a nightmare, the worst situation is to be completely trapped financially. The larger the gap between income and expenditure, or the size of your savings and investments, the more freedom and options you have in pivoting to a more enjoyable situation.

Always maintain a healthy gap between income and expenditure, and save and invest the difference. Even if you “Never want to retire”. It will provide you options and choices as life throws you unexpected twists and turns.

Maintain Professionalism and Relationships

Maintaining your professionalism throughout these difficult times is important. Most careers involve a small network. People talk. Particularly as you rise in the ranks, when applying for a new job your potential new colleagues are likely to know your old ones. Don’t give yourself a reputation as a complainer, difficult to work with or lazy.

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it

Warren Buffett

Take the Leap

It can be scary to make a change, particularly after a long time in one job, or to switch careers when you have invested so much to the initial plan.

You and only you are responsible for your life and future happiness. Take your time, consider your options and plan your move carefully.

But set yourself a deadline to take action. Don’t stay in a nightmare job just because it was once your dream.

“What If I fall?”

“Oh but darling, What if you fly?”

Peter Pan.

Call to action – Aussie Doc Freedom is not a financial adviser and does need offer any advice.  Information on this website is purely a description of my experiences and learning.  Please check with your independent financial adviser or accountant

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