What to Do When You Hate Your Job

If fix-it strategies don't do the trick, here's how to find better work.

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Do you dread going to the office on Monday morning? If so, you've got lots of company.

With the unemployment rate quite low, you'd think job satisfaction would be high, since employers, theoretically, would have to coddle their workers to avoid losing them. But the opposite seems to be true. Employees are increasingly unhappy at work, according to the Conference Board, with only 50 percent of people satisfied with their jobs today. That's down from 79 percent in 1985. And if a recession is on the horizon, as many economists think it may be, the job market is sure to get tighter—and workers even edgier.

A few obvious factors, like low pay or excessive hours, drive down job satisfaction, but our global, technology-driven economy is also making it harder to find fulfilling work. Many of the pleasant parts of a job, such as dealing one-on-one with people, are being replaced by machines or more efficient processes. Sales junkets are being replaced by teleconferences, for instance; gut feeling is often overruled by computer modeling. Global competition often whittles down companies' profit margins, forcing them to ask their best professionals to work longer hours. Among people earning $100,000 or more, for instance, one third work more than 50 hours a week, according to polls by Zogby/MSN.

To get ahead, workers increasingly need multiple skills. In addition to a core competency—accounting, say, or software engineering—many companies expect their employees to be entrepreneurial and IT savvy and speak another language. To be able to keep up with all that, of course, you must be a master of stress management, too. And even talented employees are increasingly being hired as temps, dumped when a project is over or the job is shipped overseas. With employers demanding more, job security declining, and the need for efficiency squeezing fun out of the job, it's not surprising that ever more workers are unhappy.

So should you quit a job you hate? Maybe—but many disgruntled workers bail out too fast, mistakenly assuming there's nothing they can do to make their current job better. Simply switching jobs doesn't always make people happier, either. Sometimes it's not the job or the company that's the problem, but the individual. So before quitting, consider some practical steps to help deal with these common scenarios:

You're overwhelmed. Maybe the work is too hard, or there's just too much of it. Possible fixes: Hire a tutor or take a short, pragmatic course to help improve your knowledge. Ask for help—it sounds obvious, but many people don't do it. Trade some of your most onerous duties with a coworker who finds them easier. Avoid needless perfectionism and put aside the things that can wait (possibly forever). You can even hire a "virtual assistant"—usually, a live person in India—for $6 to $15 per hour, at sites like Brickwork India and Your Man in India.

You're not up to the job. Tempting as it is to blame others, sometimes employees just don't have the skills, smarts, or drive required to thrive at their jobs. But that doesn't mean solutions are out of reach. If tasks continually seem too difficult, for example, start or join an online professional group like those on Yahoo!, where people help each other solve thorny problems. Find a smart retiree who might tutor you. Tweak your job to make it more interesting; you'll be more likely to succeed. Ask trusted friends and coworkers to list your weaknesses—and insist that they be honest. Then gulp hard, and carefully consider their advice.

You have a nightmare boss. It often takes gumption—and humility—to work with someone like that, but it might be better than the alternatives. Instead of confronting a cranky boss, ask what you could do better; if nothing else, you'll earn a bit of respect for soliciting feedback. To deal with a hothead, have a tepid response ready so you don't react impulsively: "You make some good points. Can we meet later to discuss them?" If you feel you have to go over your boss's head, develop a face-saving premise for doing so: You'd like to approach a senior executive, say, because he's an expert in a subject you're working on.