mailbag: Should I stay or should I go?

Things are getting increasingly craptacular here at [xyzco]. Every month, someone else quits, there’s been another big reorg, executives keep leaving the company, focus keeps changing, and we’re working crazy hours to complete projects that make no sense. I’m so stressed I can’t sleep.
Buuhhhtttt, I don’t want to go look for a new job. Honestly, I make a lot of money, and it’s not like this job involves backbreaking labor or inhaling toxic fumes on a regular basis. Plus, I’d feel pretty bad about leaving behind [Sally and John] — they’ve really helped me out and if I leave, things will get even worse for them. Also, there’s lots going on in my personal life and getting a new job would cause even more stress at home.
What should I do?
A Confused Engineer

Okay ACE, let me summarize your letter: I hate my job, but I don’t want to quit, what should I do? It sounds like you want me to talk you into quitting — I can’t make this choice for you. You’re going to have to make it on your own, but here are some things to keep in mind.

Sound about right? Okay, lets break it down.

Let’s start by leaving aside some rationalizations. Leave behind your guilt about earning good money for what you do. (Or, if you’re so inclined, find a positive way to help out people who inhale toxic fumes or subject themselves to backbreaking labor to support themselves and their families.) Income gap may be a growing problem in this country, but that’s a poor reason to stay at a job. Sally and John? Glad to hear you have friends at work. That’s important. But as you say, people are quitting monthly. How long will Sally and John stick around? Friends are important, but you need to leave them out of this decision. I’m pretty sure they’ll still be happy to meet you for lunch once in a while even if you choose to leave.

Now let’s talk about stress. Really, that’s mostly what leads most people to look for a new job, and what holds people back from doing so. It’s undeniable that looking for a new job is stressful. You’re going to be judged. You’re going to get yourself excited about new possibilities, and you’re going to have to make yourself vulnerable to rejection. Indeed that’s stressful, and maybe more acutely stressful than continuing in your current job.

But I have a theory about stress — there are two different kinds of stresses in our lives. I’ve stolen some terms from Robert Pirsig‘s Metaphysics of Quality and characterize them as static stress and dynamic stress. Static stresses are the stresses of our everyday lives. You’re accustomed these — you’ve worked out coping mechanisms and you’re good at burying them to get through your day. But they stick around like a background noise in your life. Static stresses are the things that cause ulcers and heart disease. These are the stresses of your current job. Dynamic stresses are the temporary stresses that come with unexpected or unusual life events and changes. The stress of moving into a new house, or getting married (or divorced). The stress of looking for a new job definitely fits into this category.

Humans are very good an underrating the impact of static stress on our lives. After all, that’s how we cope with them. We shove them into the background, where we can forget about them to the greatest extent possible. But they linger. They impact our sleep, our moods, our health, and our relationships with our loved ones. Ever gotten in a meaningless argument after a stressful day at work? Is there anyone who hasn’t? Static stresses are negative forces in our lives, but we’ve gotten so good at putting them into a corner of our mind that we all tend to minimize the overall impact of static stress on our lives.

Dynamic stresses, on the other hand, are terrifying to think about. They come from the major (and sometimes unexpected) changes in our lives and they loom large in our imagination. And many dynamic stresses come from entirely negative situations: the end of a relationship, a layoff, an accident, or a natural disaster. But some of the changes that generate dynamic stress are from the most meaningful events in our lives: marriage, moving into a new house, graduation. And, yes, looking for a new job. It’s true, you’ll loose nights of sleep wondering if you’ll get a callback. You’ll do research into a new position and get yourself hugely excited about it only to never hear from the hiring manager. Or go in for multiple interviews, only to be told they’ve chosen another candidate. And if you do get lucky enough to find a great opportunity and land an offer, then you’re going to have to go in and meet new people, and prove yourself all over again. I won’t deny that those are enormous stresses, but they’re positive stresses in our lives. They energize us. When large groups of people go through dynamic stress together — say after a natural disaster — it often brings out the very best in us. Communities come together. Why? Because humans are resilient. When changes happen to us, we by our very nature do our very best to come out on top. And yet, it’s natural to fear change, and our imaginations tend to amplify the possible negative outcomes of any change — especially changes created by our own choices..

So keep this in mind when you’re weighing these choices against each other. Maybe the static stresses in your life are not that big — if you’re a positive and happy person, and you’re able to walk away from a stressful day at work and leave it all behind you, then it may not matter. But if that were the case, you probably wouldn’t have written this letter. Maybe you’ve got other reasons to avoid a sudden and large change in your life. Maybe you’re already going through enough dynamic stress — if a loved one is sick, or you’ve just had a child, switching jobs may just be too much. This is why I say I can’t make this choice for you.

But weight your decision criteria fairly. Are you underestimating the sum of the stresses you’re facing daily? It’s useful to try distancing yourself a bit from the emotional pull of this decision. Try pretending it’s not you in this situation. If this was your best friend talking about this, what would you say? What if it was your child? What advice would you give to someone in your situation?

If you do choose to stay, then it’s time for you to start working to change things in your current job and try to make things better. Are people quitting because of their boss? Maybe you should have a direct conversation with your manager about what you see happening. Executives keep changing focus? What do you think the focus should be? Do you have buy in from the team? It’s time to gather your thoughts into a killer argument and talk with the executives — if they’re not seeking out your input, schedule a meeting with them. Also, team morale is down — what have you done to change that? Get everyone out for lunch. Don’t take no for an answer. If meetings are intruding on everyone’s lunches, get sneaky — schedule a 2 hour “brown-bag” meeting for an important topic and then cancel it at the last minute and head out with the team. If you’re going to stick around, you owe it to yourself to make things better. Fake it till you make it really works. Pretend you have the power to change things. Pretend you aren’t afraid of getting fired. Be polite but insistent. I think you’ll be shocked to discover how much positive change a single person — even at the bottom of the corporate ladder — can make.

Whatever you decide to do, you’ve got work ahead of you, and stress. Do your best to make that positive stress.