Updated on 01.07.08

When a Few Small Pieces Make Your Job Miserable

Trent Hamm

I had a pair of long conversations with a friend of mine over the last week. He’s employed with an engineering firm and he’s largely happy with what he does. However, there are four specific things about his job that make him deeply unhappy. These items each seem somewhat nitpicky, but they have him upset enough that he is considering leaving his job because of the stress that they bring him.

For one, he is deeply aerophobic, to the point that he takes a big handful of sedatives before flights and relies on a traveling buddy to help him make any flight switches that he needs to make. He’s usually stressed for a week before flying and, even with sedatives, he has thrown up as a flight is taking off. Since he flies about four times a year for his job, aerophobia adds significant stress to his job on a regular basis.

For another, he’s often doing tasks way outside his job that fill him with a lot of stress. He serves as a system administrator on a handful of servers, and if there are ever problems with the servers, the bosses come to him in a panic and start demanding that he get them back up. He was hired to fill a job very, very far away from the idea of system administration, but when the old system administrator basically packed up and walked out, he filled in for a brief period in his spare time because he had some limited experience with that type of work in college. The firm never bothered to find a new sysadmin. He deeply dislikes doing that kind of work and it adds stress to his work.

This left him with a question: what do you do if you mostly like your work, but a few small pieces really aggravate and stress you out? This is a situation that I think a lot of us find ourselves in – and it’s one that can be avoided. Here’s what I did to avoid some similar stressors in my career:

First of all, establish a pattern of doing good work. People are much more likely to listen to the requests of a good worker than a bad one. You should always document your work, but it’s especially useful when building up to issues like these.

Second, figure out whether the stressors are bad enough to make you quit before you talk to your boss about it. If they’re bad enough, spend some time figuring out what you will do if nothing changes. This may include polishing your resume and so on.

Third, carefully list what the specific problems are. In other words, prepare for the meeting – don’t go in there and start getting hysterical. Be prepared to clearly identify the things that are bothering you and be ready for solutions to those problems. Also, be prepared to make clear how these issues are impeding your work in other ways – undue stress, task interference, and so on.

Once you’ve done these, schedule a meeting with your supervisor. Lay out the issues you’re having, explain how they affect your performance and keep you from excelling, and suggest solutions for each one. Make it clear that you’ve thought about this.

If you are a solid employee, your supervisor will work with you on this to some degree. Give things some time to change, but keep in mind what you’ve decided to do if nothing changes.

I’ve previously been through a situation much like this one. Several of us were stressed out by an extremely belligerent and uncooperative person in the workplace, and even though a number of us complained about it, nothing changed for several months. Finally, about ten of us had a “resume lunch,” where we all took a very long lunch, polished our resumes together, and did some job hunting. The word got back to the supervisor and within a week, the troublesome employee was moved elsewhere within the organization.

Most of the time, things don’t have to go that far. If you’re a good employee, the supervisor will listen to you and wants to keep you within reason. Remember that, take action, and things might improve more than you even think.

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  1. tanya says:

    I’m leaving my job because I was hired to do one thing and my boss is turning me in to his personal assistant, And he calls me “baby” “babe” “honey” …
    He is just an ass. I hate him!

  2. Trying to work things out through your superiors is always the best way but some situations do not allow for you to stay at your current employer. Be ready for that possibility.

  3. Jon Morrow says:

    Something like this happened to me in 2006 on a consulting project. I was being compensated exclusively through stock for handling all communications with investors in the company, which was supposed to involve a weekly e-mail, quarterly conference call, and fielding any questions.

    As time went on though, investors started disagreeing with management about the direction of the company, and I ended up becoming a mediator, spending 3-5 hours a day resolving issues. I did it for a couple months, but I wasn’t particularly enjoying it. The problem was, if I stopped, the disagreements would become public, drastically devaluing my stock.

    So, I tallied up the legal fees I’d saved the company and asked to be paid a third of that, plus a substantial monthly fee to continue. They agreed, almost immediately, and I made a considerable amount of money.

    It’s another way of handling things when you end up doing something you weren’t hired to do. The company is obviously benefiting from you doing it, so it’s only reasonable to make sure you’re being compensated accordingly. And if it doesn’t make you absolutely miserable, then it might be worth it to you to continue, at least financially.

  4. rocketc says:

    I HATE having to wear a suit and tie to work. Can’t wait to blog full-time someday. . . Better go purchase some more suits. . .

  5. TheFrugalPlace says:

    There are just too many jobs out there to stay in one that makes your life hell. I left both of my last positions because of bosses and other people that made my life miserable seemingly as sport…

    It’s funny though, my experience has been that when you leave the job from hell, there is usually a great alternative around the corner and you wonder why you didn’t leave earlier!

  6. Sarah says:

    Tanya, based on your brief description that sounds like sexual harrassment. If it truly is, I’d take it to his superior.

  7. I managed to use a semi-promotion to shift one of the tasks I really hated onto someone else (and she wanted to take on the task, too, so I wasn’t screwing someone else over)–I just worked out the solution in my head first and emailed it, fully-formed, to my bosses, explaining that I would take it as a perk of the title change. They liked that I’d come up with a solution to a problem. That, then, would be my suggestion: think of a solution to the problem and suggest it to your employers.

  8. I think this is good advice, especially since a lot of people take a “me vs. them” attitude towards their bosses. But if you are someone who does good work, you’ll be pleasantly surprised how willing they are to work with you on these types of issues.

  9. Gayle says:

    The fact that your friend is aerophobic is his problem not the company’s. The fact that they need a sysadmin is the company’s problem. The only thing he has complete control of is himself. He needs to either fix his problem with the appropriate therapy or find another job. Life is too short to be that miserable, even periodically.

  10. tanya says:

    To Sarah …
    I’m not sure I want to go there and call it sexual harassment, I did tell him to stop (few times) and he never did which is so annoying, I do not think he is doing it on purpose, I think he is just clueless as to how to behave in the corporate world.

  11. Jared says:


    I would recommend to your friend that he try some psychological counseling for his aerophobia (if he hasn’t already). There are really great new treatments for phobias using virtual reality technology, and they could help. Granted, it doesn’t solve any of the other problems, but it would remove one of those obviously huge stresses he has.

  12. tarits says:

    in my case, it’s the little things that make me stay (friends at work, compensation, culture) and the big thing that makes me want to flee (job description).

    one small piece that makes me sick (literally)is the schedule. working in the graveyard shift non-stop for a year has definitely been bad for my health.

    thank goodness the end is very near… =)

  13. Matt says:

    Sometimes its the small things that really stress us out. There’s also the problem that even if 2 of the 4 things that your friend doesn’t like the remaining two might be enough for him to remain stressed out. The situation may simply have gone to long and he’ll need to change jobs before he finds peace.

  14. cheri says:

    After being an educator for 39 years, I decided I had enough. Many of my friends and family members are jealous, but my parents and three doctors are thrilled. So, now I am working at a college for 9 hours a week to supplement my retirement check.
    I would never work in the business world for what they do to people.

  15. cheri says:

    After being an educator for 39 years, I decided I had enough. Many of my friends and family members are jealous, but my parents and three doctors are thrilled. So, now I am working at a college for 9 hours a week to supplement my retirement check.
    I would never work in the business world for what they do to people.

  16. Brainy Smurf says:

    It’s one of those things… sometimes it’s such a great release to walk away from a job. I did just that about a month ago — but at the same time, I was in a position where I was able (financially) walk away.

    Had that not been the case, I likely would have gone the “hysterical” me vs. them route with some demands that wouldn’t have made things any better…

  17. sir jorge says:

    I hate my job on a few levels, but take those things away and this job is the greatest

  18. Frugal Dad says:

    There is a fine line between being a team player and allowing the company to take advantage of you. I was in a similar situation in my last job where I was asked to fill the role of a director who had just been laid off. The director made significantly more than I did, and obviously the role (and accompanying stress) was much larger than my current job assignment. I did it for a while, and did it well, but after a while I realized that I would never be the official director, and as long as I would accept it unofficially, the company would continue to expect me to do it. The whole situation finally became untenable and I moved on. Too bad I didn’t know about the “resume lunch” tactic!

  19. Jillian says:

    Sometimes you just have to walk away. I was in a similar situation to Tanya – my boss irritated me no end, and every time I brought it up he promised things would change, but they never did. I tried handing in my notice twice but each time he offered me a pay rise and refused to accept my resignation. In the end I just walked out and never went back.

  20. turbogeek says:

    To TANYA,

    While I appreciate you being generous and open toward your bosses’ shortcomings. I must agree with Sarah. What you described IS sexual harrassment, whether you want to call it that or not. It falls under the category of Hostile Work Environment in a Sexual nature, as opposed to any quid pro quo harassment.

    If you have told him to stop, and he hasn’t, it should go up the ladder. I would suggest, however, that you not go to his boss. Skip all the way to the top ranking legal counsel in the company, and put the complaint in writing. Stand up for yourself. If you’re not worried about yourself, stand up for the next female who might work for this bozo.

  21. Lily says:

    It’s way too easy to be pigeonholed into a specific role when you “fill in” for someone and that person never gets replaced. I’m in the same situation now myself. It is a minor stressor, since I wouldn’t have volunteered for the role had I not had the capacity to fill it. But having to do a task outside of my job description (and not one with greater responsibility or one that would help me “grow”) every single week adds up after a while.

    The rational thing is to talk to my manager about it, but that’s easier said than done. It’s not so much a “me versus them” mentality, but I am afraid that I’d be tagged as a non-team player. Ah, corporate politics. One day I won’t have to play this game.

  22. brent says:

    what were the other two things??

  23. Wylie says:

    You say “Most of the time, things don’t have to go that far. If you’re a good employee, the supervisor will listen to you and wants to keep you within reason.”

    This assumes the supervisor is reasonable and/or capable. Not hiring a System administrator and expecting a non systems administrator to fill the roll is not reasonable and does not show good management skills.

    You also describe them as coming to him in a panic about things- again a sign that reasonable or capable may not be the reaction.

    I’m not saying that there are a lot of supervisors who will want to work with good employees to improve things. But claiming “most of the time” this is the case is simply not true in my experience.

    People have to pay attention to their specific situation and figure out the best thing to do based on their analysis of their situation and should be mindful if their supervisor is not capable of helping, there may be other angles to take. I have seen great supervisors and terrible. If you have a decent supervisor, it may be a waste of time to not try and work things out as you suggest. If you have a bad supervisor, it may be a waste of time to take your approach.


  24. vh says:

    Wow! Trent, you couldn’t have timed this post better if you were reading my mind!

    Okay, TSDbloggers: What do you do when your gut feeling is “either that clown goes or I go”?

    You know you’re a more valuable employee than “that clown” (who, amazingly enough, is your subordinate), but you work for a government bureaucracy, where getting quit of a clown requires you and everyone around you to go through the tortures of the d*mned and will most certainly harm your unit’s productivity and your staff’s morale. Not only that, but you are the incumbent in a job that a) is unique in North America and b) pays about three times more than you could earn in any job you are likely to land. Everything about the job, other than said “clown,” exceeds copacetic.

    It took 12 of the 14 days of my Christmas-New Year’s vacation for me to come down off the ceiling and unwind. Today, my first day back on the job, I could feel the gut clench up as I was walking in from the parking to the office. The Gut Clencher’s antics consumed a mere hour or so of my time, only because I told her to take a flying F at the moon (well, not in quite those terms) while I caught up with two weeks’ worth of backlog. Tomorrow I will have to deal with her again; tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, to the last syllable of recorded time.

    There’s no chance that I will find another job comparable to the one I have now. If I make a “her or me” threat and the dean calls me on it, I’ll be living on $12,000 or $14,000 a year, now and forever world without end, amen.

    The dean is on my side, but our HR rep resists. My dean is not Zeus Thundering in the Clouds; she’s Deer in the Headlights. Her mouth may support me, but her clout may not.


    And…years ago when I was young & pretty, I also found myself in Tanya’s predicament. My boss owned the company, and so there was no recourse to his boss or to corporate legal counsel.
    Really, the only recourse was to walk. Don’t put up with that–you don’t have to!

  25. Joe says:

    Great stuff!

    If / when you do schedule a meeting with your supervisor, make sure you have some well thought-out options and a possible recommendation on one or two of the issues before you meet. Otherwise, it will look like a bitching session instead of what you are really trying to do (seeking advice and solutions).

  26. Kami says:

    I dont like my job, period. I have suggested ways that the company can be more efficient, etc. And that was 3 years ago, to no avail. So my thought was I will stay here long enough to be vested (5 years which I am now), start grad school (which I am in Jan) and then leave when I am almost done with that. And now that I have a plan it makes me feel better about coming to work everyday cause I know I am one more day closer to the end. :)

  27. tanya says:

    To turbogeek …
    I will protect the next person but I’ve had enough.
    I will write a letter with all of the issues I have and will give a copy to his boss, HR and legal dept., on my last day which is this Friday.
    I will warn them that I might be more tolerant that some other person but if the situation continues they can have a lawsuit on their hands and I will be the first to testify. I was smart enough to keep the record of everything.

  28. HebsFarm says:

    Fate, Fortune, God Himself smiled upon me: the person I couldn’t tolerate left the company so I didn’t have to! To everyone who’s suffering: this , too, could happen to you :-)

  29. turbogeek says:

    TANYA —

    Excellent! I’m very glad to hear that you will be putting this person on formal and legal notice. You should be proud that you have the personal fortitude and integrity to do this. Courage on this level is rare, and you are to be commended.

  30. Latarsha says:

    Loved the advice.

    But at the end of the day, it’s comes down to figuring out what you can and can NOT deal with.

    It’s the old weigh-the-pros-and-the-cons game and determine whether enduring the stress of the job outweighs the option of looking for another one.

    For some people, looking for another job is often way more stressful than sticking it out in a job that they hate.

    Life is too short to stay stuck at a job that you hate. If, and when that time comes to leave that job, then make sure you’ve positioned yourself to succesfully step into your new career with confidence and a strong sense of what you bring to the table.

  31. jana says:

    also worth noting is that when one walks from a job and gets another one, there will be probably something else that will be annoying (horrible office, very long commute through a congested part of the city, too long hours, too little money, a lazy colleague or a workaholic boss:) been there, done that. what i believe is 1) talking to bosses and colleagues about the problem, 2) discussing it with friends and family, preferably also with folks that are much older, so they may add some perspective, 3) weight pros and cons, amybe writing them on paper, 4) do lots of research on available jobs. i do believe in leaving one job for another, just wanted to add whjat i think of some circumstances.

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