The Question of When to Leave Your Job

When to Leave Your Job

I received a request recently to write a post on how to make an informed decision about when to leave your job. At first, I thought this question was outside the scope of a psychology blog. While it’s a question that commonly comes up in therapy, the answer depends on individual factors. On the surface, it would appear to be a question better directed to a recruiting agency or HR professional than a psychologist. But, the more I considered the question, the more I realised the field of psychology has something to offer in this area.

The Pressure to Perform

Most of us, today, find ourselves in a culture that values continuous career progression and success. And why not? We spend a significant proportion of our lives at work. For many of us, it is our only outlet to develop a sense of achievement. This is a primal need in human beings. If we don’t think that we’re achieving or contributing to society in some way, we can develop a low sense of self-worth, which can sometimes lead to problems with depression and anxiety.

A sense of achievement can provide our lives with meaning. Because so many of us see our career as our only avenue for achievement, for many people it’s a mark of their overall worth as a person. As such, it can lead us to make decisions that might otherwise seem irrational. For example, working such long hours that we rarely get any time to enjoy the fruits of our labour. For some people, this is necessary just to make ends meet. But, some of us can become consumed by it. The word “rat race” comes to mind here.

So, the message of this post is simply to ask yourself what you want. I know it seems simple, but it is often something we forget to do. What do you want out of your job, and what do you want more broadly in your life? What function does work serve for you? What function would you like it to serve?

What Do You Want from Your Job?

As simple as it may seem, answering these questions honestly requires a huge amount of personal insight. At first, the answers may seem simple. I can imagine people saying, “I want what everyone wants: A big pay check and a small workload”. But, when you actually compare the satisfaction of employees from various organisations, the factors that contribute most to employee satisfaction are rarely either of those two things. More often, increased satisfaction is associated with organisations that allow their employees to work in a supportive but independent environment, improve on their skill-set, and focus on non-monetary incentives, such as career progression.

 Working in an area in which we feel highly competent or capable of achieving success is also important. Unfortunately, not all of us are able to obtain jobs like this. The world’s best photographer is probably working in some office and failing to meet KPIs. Which brings me to the other important consideration:

What Do You Want, More Generally, from Life?

If it’s not possible for you to gain a sense of achievement and meaning from your employment, what else can you do to gain that sense of achievement? To use the above example, perhaps entering photography competitions, documenting travel experiences, or attending workshops would serve a similar purpose.

If you find that you are unsatisfied with your job, the answer may well be to find employment better suited to your needs. But, the answer may also be to find something to compliment your current job. Find something to fill the unfulfilled need.

Are you unsatisfied because you had always dreamt of being wealthy? Despite what we have all heard in countless “motivational” speeches, the answer is not always to try harder. The answer might be to try something else all together. What purpose would being wealthy serve for you? Which of your values is it consistent with? For some, it is a status symbol, a message to others of their worth. In this case, it may be worth exploring other means of developing your perceived worth to others. Or perhaps being wealthier would allow you to go on more extravagant holidays or own a faster car. Again, what value is this meeting? A need for excitement? A need to feel pampered? Are there any other ways in which you could meet these needs?

In short, when asking yourself whether to leave your job, ask yourself what is missing in your current role. Then, ask yourself whether what’s missing can be found in a new role, or whether you need to look for it in other areas of your life. Try to gain insight into all of your values, and try not to get overly focused on one at the exclusion of others.

P.S. Understanding your values, and living consistently with them, is useful for all areas of your life, not just employment. It may seem obvious, but it is often difficult for people to list any more than a small number of their values. Additionally, people often confuse values with goals. Knowing your values is instrumental to knowing yourself. Every decision you make in your life is ill informed if you are not fully aware of your values. 

The below link can help you gain a more comprehensive understanding of your values:


Image by Tom Ellefsen