Updated on 06.02.11

Your Job Is Not Your Life

Trent Hamm

A few days ago, I had a chat with a friend of mine who is struggling mightily with his job right now.

He took a high-paying job with a rather prestigious title at a well-known company. The biggest drawback of this job is that he carries around a company phone and receives calls on it at all hours of the night.

At first, this wasn’t a big deal for him. He actually only needs to be at the office a couple days a week. The rest of the time, he telecommutes or, on some days, he just deals with crises.

As time passed, though, he got married, then they had a child. This child is currently three months old.

The child wakes up multiple times during the night. Coupled with that are the calls that my friend gets from his job, often three or more per week in the middle of the night.

Simply put, he’s sleep deprived. He’s fallen pretty ill twice in the last month. He not only looks miserable, he is miserable. He’s drinking more than he ever has, mostly to take the edge off of the constant jumpiness in his life.

He’s growing to loathe the job he once loved. His life has changed while his job hasn’t, and the relationship isn’t harmonious any more.

What should he do?

I know this is a story that’s familiar to a lot of people. You have a great job on paper, but deep down inside, you hate that job. How do you get through it?

The solutions to the problem are different in the short term and in the long term. I’m going to suggest both short term and long term tactics for dealing with this type of situation.

(Yes, this is advice for a friend of mine, but it’s good general advice for anyone who might find themselves in a similar situation.)

Effective Short-Term Results
How can you make the pain of your job subside in the short term?

Figure out exactly what’s wrong. Why are you unhappy? Why are those things happening? Dig into the problem until you can figure out where the roots of your unhappiness really are.

Talk to your supervisor. If there are elements of your job that you are finding untenable, be completely up front about them with your supervisor. Explain what the core problem is and ask if you can find a solution.

For example, in the above picture, my friend might want to simply tell his supervisor that the constant nighttime calls are creating a disastrous home life.

Have a solid short-term fix in mind. Is there something simple that can be done to help with this situation? If you’ve evaluated what the problem really is, see if you can imagine some situation where the worst of that problem is resolved while causing minimal additional problems.

For example, my friend might suggest having someone who can take the “emergency” calls during some periods during the week. This person wouldn’t be the ultimate “go-to” guy most of the time. Instead, this person would serve to keep the edge off of my friend so he can get the basic rest he needs to function.

Lasting Long-Term Results
The solutions above can certainly take the edge off of a challenging situation, but they often don’t completely resolve the greater issue that led to the job discomfort to begin with. The real solution revolves around making sure you have a healthy exit plan.

Live on less than you earn. If you’re bringing home $50,000 a year, don’t spend $50,000 a year. Spend $30,000 or so and put the rest away for whatever might happen to you down the road – like a job turning sour. It’s never, ever too late to start doing this.

The easiest method for doing this is to automate it. Have your bank automatically take part of your paycheck and transfer it to a savings account so that it’s out of sight and out of mind. Let it build quietly in there and don’t think about it until the time comes. Eventually, that money will help you leave and transition on to the next step in your life when the job becomes untenable.

Have connections in your industry. Get as involved as you can with the business you’re in. Connect with people in your industry on Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn. Go to conventions for the real purpose that conventions exist – building relationships.

These relationships will be there for you when you’re ready to move on to the next stage in your career. They’ll point out job opportunities to you. They might even feed job opportunities to you. This often happens whether you are actively looking or not – I know that I had several job offers that trickled in at my previous job.

Jump at every chance to do something that stands out. When there’s a chance to present – particularly to people outside your organization – do it. When there’s a chance to write something that people outside the organization will see, do it. Start a blog. Write a book. Do anything and everything you can to do exceptional things that will cause your name to stand out or, at the very least, provide some interesting resume fodder.

Not only are many of these things exceptional and intriguing, they also sharpen many of your transferable skills and demonstrate them directly to employers.

It is those “stand out” things that get your foot in the door with future jobs. When a job opens in a hot field, they’re often inundated with applications. The thing that stands out from the field are the exceptional steps that you’ve taken along the way. Everyone’s done a ho-hum job, and almost all of those resumes are thrown straight in the trash.

Your job is not your life. Your job is an exchange of your energy and time for your employer’s financial resources and other benefits, nothing more, nothing less. If that equation changes to the point where you feel like you’re giving far more than you’re receiving, you need to resolve the situation in both the short term and the long term.

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  1. NMPatricia says:

    Much of the advice, especially the “your job is not your life” sounds much like “Your money or your life” or something like that. All good advice. I ache for your friend. As I do my son who is going through something like this.

    One word of caution – be very sure it is politically advantageous before talking with one’s supervisor. He did and is feeling the effects at work. It made things worse rather than better.

  2. Justin says:

    I feel sorry for you friend as well. I’ve been very lucky that I haven’t had a job like this before, but I know millions of Americans fall into this just because they think they need the higher paying job.

    Personally, I’m learning that I’d rather do something I love and make $100 a day than something I hate for twice as much.

  3. Laundry Lady says:


    I wish we all had the choice between doing something we hate for a lot of money or doing something we love for less. Sometimes it’s doing something we hate for less out of sheer necessity. I do feel for this guy. But I also know what it’s like to put up with high level stress and not have the pay scale to match it either. But the bills must be paid, and family provided for. Your job may not BE your life, but when it takes up most of your waking hours (and in this guy’s case, his sleeping hours too) and starts to feel like it’s the largest part of your life. But I agree that a situation like the above is unsustainable.

  4. Leave, leave, leave!!!

    It is not worth sacrificing your health, your sanity, or your marriage for a job, no matter how well it pays.

    My husband walked away from a good paying job that sounds very similar to your friend’s…it required him being on call 24/7, in addition to working the regular 9-5. The stress mounted until he was having chest pains and daily panic attacks. He would sit by the computer at home, watching “just in case something would happen at work”, too afraid to take a vacation for fear of what would wait for him when he came back to work. The sound of the Verizon text message ringtone would make him jump in fear. He tried talking to his supervisor, but the response was, “this is your job, you need to find a way to make it work”. At the end he was having suicidal thoughts. After a full nervous breakdown, he took short term disability for 8 weeks, and then quit.

    The job was a widowmaker. The company replaced my husband with FIVE employees after he left, and two of those quit within weeks.

    Leaving was the best thing we could have done. Even though it was 2009 and jobs were non-existent, it gave us the push we needed to start our own successful IT business, now in our third year. We still have stress, but it is the good kind, not the debilatating kind. We visited our family doctor and got help for my husband’s anxiety, which is now well-managed. Our marriage is stronger.

    It’s scary to walk away, but it is scarier to hit rock bottom. Don’t wait…leave now.

    Best wishes to your friend.

  5. Tracy says:

    I would also add:

    Recognize when it’s a short-term dissatisfaction and when it’s a long-term shift.

    Because in your friend’s case, the baby is only three months old. When his child gets a few months older (whether that’s 3 months or 9 months or whenever) and starts sleeping through the night, your friend should have it a little easier again. Maybe taking some FMLA time would be appropriate, or making a plan to use some vacation time for sleep time in the short term would help.

    The same recognize if it’s long term or short term can apply in any situation where you’re job shifts – whether it’s because you’re suddenly burdened with extra work because of a staff shortage or expected to come into the office on weekends to work on a major project. There’s a huge difference in the first case if you know they’re looking to hire a replacement or it’s somebody else who is out temporarily and expected to return, or if they position has been eliminated permanently and you’re just expected to make due. And in the second case, if the project has an end date and you can reasonably expect it won’t immediately be replaced with another one that will cause the same sort of pain, sometimes your best answer is waiting it out and telling yourself that this, too, you will get through.

  6. Tracy says:

    Gah, ‘your job’ not ‘you’re’ – I am ashamed of myself

  7. Maureen says:

    I think you are solving the wrong problem. Anyone living with a newborn is bound to experience some sleep deprivation. It is a huge adjustment. It is very stressful for both parents. It WILL get better with time. More than 10% of fathers also experience post partem depression. He should discuss this with his doctor.

    Since he previously loved his job and the working arrangement is pretty good, with telecomuting etc. I wouldn’t rock the boat there at all. He might ask for some backup for the short term, but changing jobs is also a very stressful life event. He should NOT jump to any hasty decisions.

    I would anticipate that in a few months he will have adjusted to his new role as a father and things will be on an even keel again.

  8. Johanna says:

    Agree with Tracy and Maureen. And also: The baby is waking up several times per night, and the work calls are coming three or so times per week – is changing jobs really going to help that much?

  9. Rockledge says:

    The lack of sleep will interfere with his ability to do his job well and that is a legitimate concern to bring up with his boss.

  10. spaces says:

    Where’s the mother? If he’s not a single dad, she needs to step up and take the baby at night so that he can get some sleep. This may mean sleeping in separate bedrooms until the baby is waking less often.

    Also he should stop drinking at all. Alcohol will make you think you’re relaxing, but will rob you of good sleep. He should put down the drinks until he’s caught up on sleep and the baby is older.

  11. Katie says:

    Spaces, it seems like a weird assumption to think that (a) the mother isn’t already taking on some of the night burden, and (b) she doesn’t have a job to work around too. . . .

    Generally, I agree that it makes sense to try and adjust the job short-term and then see how things are once everything is more settled with the baby. He might still hate it then, and then it makes sense to start looking for a new job. But job hunting and starting a new job are so stressful in and of themselves that dealing with those as a new born would probably be worse than keeping the current one.

  12. Tracy says:

    @10 spaces – really? You’re assuming that the mother *isn’t* also taking the baby at night? And that it’s 100% her responsibility to take care of nighttime feedings/changes/etc? I would say making sure that the distribution is fair is a fair question, but holy cow. What year is this, again?

  13. Telephus44 says:

    My husband currently has a “rather prestigious title at a well-known company.” Similar to your friend, he also works 8-5pm, and is on call the number of calls that come in the middle of the night are 4-5 per week. He is married (duh) and has a 4 year old son.

    Rather than just falling into the “if the job pays a lot of money then it’s too much personal sacrifice and your life must be living hell, so I need to quit and find something lower paying but more meaningful” type of thinking, here’s what he does.

    -takes naps during the day and early evening if he’s tired. We also have light blocking shades to make this easier.
    -works constructively and proactively. He works for a utility, and sometimes having well documented plans and procedures can save you a call at 3am because someone doesn’t understand how to fix the problem.
    -schedules his “downtime” for hobbies he enjoys. For example, every Thursday night he plays online games with friends.
    -try and delegate work when possible. Obviously it depends on the position and job responsibilities, but he’ll ask other people on his team to take on some tasks sometimes.
    -get what he needs to make his work environment easiest on him. If he’d rather have a trackball mouse than a regular mouse, or an extra desk lamp, or whatever – even if it’s not company provided, if it helps make his environment more positive, it helps with your attitude. His phone ringtone is from one of our son’s favorite TV shows – hard to imagine anyone breaking into a cold sweat from listening to Wow Wow Wubbzy.

    I do agree with Trent about finding the core problem first. DH’s biggest issue at first was that he shared an office with his boss, and his boss would constantly be talking to him all day. He moved to working from home and now is much more productive and is a lot happier. I also agree with other commenters that the baby waking up 2-3 times a night is a temporary problem.

  14. Steven says:

    Create an Exit Strategy…after you know you have a plan to get out of a bad situation, and put that plan into action, figure out exactly how long it’s going to take to leave…set a date, and commit to it.

    With an end in sight, hope is restored, and it’s a lot easier to deal with the BS of the job when you know it’s days are numbered.

  15. Steven says:

    After reading the comments (some smart folks, ’round here!), I agree that he should wait it out and see if things change once the baby gets older. If he really did love this job, and as you say, it’s not the job that’s changed, maybe it’s a temporary lull with the a new baby in the house. If he still hates the job after things have calmed down, then he should start planning his exit.

    And I’d second the comment that says he should quit drinking. Not only because of the sleep issue, but because drinking and stress/anger/frustration/depression is not a good combination. He might be taking himself down an even more destructive path.

  16. Stephan F- says:

    A baby that is not sleeping thru the night is a pain, but when you are expecting calls you’re going to wake up anyway.

    But the most important thing he can do is drop the alcohol, cigs, and coffee. Those are stress multipliers, not reducers.

    Take some vacation time at the very least and catch up on sleep.

    The problem looks like it may be temporary, maybe not, people change, jobs change, circumstances change. Life is change. I hope he saved up that extra income.

  17. Elaine says:

    To me this is a classic case of sleep deprivation coupled with too much drinking and smoking, which in the end exacerbates the problem. He liked the job before the baby and odds are that when the baby is sleeping better he will again. In this economy think twice before giving up a good job. Too little sleep can lead to depression and a negative feeling about any aggravating situation. Maybe his wife could handle the baby on the nights he’s on call and he can handle it other times. Or, if they are both working and need to be alert maybe they can spring for a “night nanny” for a few months. He might find he’s coping a lot better. People underestimate how stressful having a baby is, no matter how happy you are. My middle child didn’t sleep more than 90 minutes at a time. I had to sit on the floor in the middle of the night so I didn’t drop her. I can tell you from experience everything looks bleak when you are sleep deprived. Stop drinking and smoking,take a walk, eat well and get some help with the baby. It will make all the difference in your outlook.

  18. mary m says:

    I would have no problem taking naps during the day while I was “telecommuting” if my job required me to be on call in the middle of the night. Crying baby? Whole other issue.

  19. jim says:

    What about getting a nanny? He has a high paying job. Or maybe at least some form of short term help. Any relatives who can help out?

    I also do agree that talking to the boss could backfire. The job doesn’t seem to have really changed either. Many bosses won’t feel the need to help. Plus I think being on call and the ‘go to guy’ is possibly a large part of why he is paid well.

  20. A.J. says:

    Katie (#11): spaces might not be American. In other countries, it would be quite odd indeed if at least one parent wasn’t still on maternity leave three months after the birth of their child.

  21. I have to agree with those who wrote that at least part of the problem is having a new baby. That does cause a lot of additional stress, however that could also create a long term

    It sounds like he’s in one of those jobs that either he’s willingly married to or he has to leave. But now that he has a child pulling in the opposite direction, he may be sensing the long term struggle.

    Most jobs can be better managed, but in some jobs the employee is there precisely to be a shock absorber. He probably is dealing with repetative crises, but each is sufficiently different from one another that his job can’t be mechanized, streamlined or delegated–hence the high pay and pestigious title.

    This really does sound like the classic your-job-or-your-life situation. I completely agree with Steven (#14) that there needs to be an Exit Strategy, maybe not for right now, but one to create a direction out. Either he’ll burn out or they’ll fire him, and he’s better off leaving in his own time and on his own terms.

    The purpose of a job is to support your life, not to dominate it. Now that he has a child that’s more important than ever. His child will need an involved dad and if he doesn’t provide this he’ll regret it all his life.

    If there’s any doubt, check out “Regrets of the Dying” on inspirationandchai.com. The author worked with dying patients, and wrote that Regret #2 was “I wish I didn’t work so hard”. She reported that every male patient she worked with expressed this regret. Trent’s friend can fix this now.

  22. Carmen says:

    This sounds like it is much more about adjustment to life with a baby than his job, so accepting that would help ease the stress. Sleep deprivation is totally normal and I suspect could be a lot worse if he was out of the house every day from say 6-7 as many employees are. Also diet and exercise can take a hit when babies arrive, which often leads to illness when added to sleep deprivation and a stressful job.

    However, it wouldn’t hurt for him to consider whether this is a short term issue caused by a baby (who most probably won’t wake several times a night for much longer) or a longer term career dilemna.

    If he really can’t turn his cell phone off at night (could he delegate/outsource it?) then perhaps he should consider buying some paid help in the form of childcare so he and his wife can have some sleep/time together (at weekends?) Emotionally, he needs to be there for his wife since I doubt she is having an easy ride with the night time wakings.

    Personally, it sounds like he has an awesome job (compared to my husband’s) and I would urge him to look at its merits along with its drawbacks, as well as looking beyond the immediate term. We all know young babies develop quickly and life changes drastically within a couple of years. Ok, so he gets a few calls a week at night, but is well paid and gets to spend a lot of time at home with his family. He needs to figure out how he can make it work for him and his growing family. It’s totally doable.

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