Ever have one of those days when you’re like, “What am I doing with my career?” Oh wait, that’s every day lately?! Perhaps when you first started out, the hopes were high that your chosen profession would allow you not only to pay the bills but also achieve a sense of fulfillment. But now it’s Disenchantment City, and it’s clearly not sustainable. But is the feeling of discontentment stemming specifically from your current position or your industry in general? Don’t fret. We’re going to help you understand the cause and find a solution.
Let’s start with the fact that you're far from alone. According to a 2020 Gallup survey, just 56% of Americans feel completely satisfied with their jobs. Nearly one in 10 feel somewhat dissatisfied, with another third of respondents falling somewhere in between.
This problem is particularly worrisome in healthcare, where burnout runs rampant. This has only accelerated with the COVID-19 pandemic. In Medscape's Nurse Career Satisfaction Report for 2020, 37% of registered nurses and 30% of nurse practitioners claimed to feel burned out or very burned out — compared to burnout rates of 12% for RNs and 13% for NPs prior to the pandemic.
Even when they don't feel burned out, many employees describe a concerning lack of passion or fulfillment. This issue can feel overwhelming to address, especially when, as board-certified career coach Keith “Nurse Keith” Carlson, RN, BSN, explains, so many professionals feel as if they've been "left to their own devices to struggle," with little regard from employers for their mental health.
The good news? Change is possible. In this guide, we highlight the top sources of concern among today's healthcare professionals, as well as concrete steps you can take to improve circumstances at work and in your personal life.
How to Figure Out What You Need to Be Happier in Your Healthcare Career
Before you can take positive action to revive or reset your career, you need to determine what, exactly, is getting in the way. Carlson refers to this process as the "root cause analysis." He said he believes that a thorough assessment is vital. He compared this to the detail-oriented assessments conducted by nurses and other healthcare workers as they seek accurate diagnoses for their patients.
Take these steps to determine what you lack — and to discover what, exactly, you need in order to achieve a more fulfilling career.
Step #1: Examine your financial situation.
Like it or not, finances play a critical role in every career decision you make, no matter how idealistic or passion-driven those choices may be. If you're constantly stressed about your financial situation, you'll find it difficult to put your best foot forward, even if you find your work compelling.
Unfortunately, economic struggles represent one of the chief barriers to job fulfillment, with results from the aforementioned Gallup poll indicating that only 39% of Americans are satisfied by how much they earn.
The balance between passion and finances looks different for every person. Consider your current and anticipated expenses. What would be sufficient to cover the basic necessities of life? To what extent would you be willing to compromise on pay if it means chasing a vision you find more compelling?
Step #2: Think about your physical & mental health.
Your job might pay the bills, but how does it influence your physical and mental health? If you constantly feel stressed or burned out, the implications for your long-term health and well-being could be devastating. Issues like being overworked can lead to a whole host of problems, ranging from high blood pressure to insomnia and even severe mental health conditions.
While the interplay of health status and work can feel a bit like a chicken or egg situation, a deeper analysis of your symptoms may reveal the true impact your job has on your health. Consider whether the onset of your health concerns accompanied any major changes in your professional life. Would targeted lifestyle changes make you feel better? Or are these not possible until you address root problems, such as burnout or a toxic workplace culture?
Step #3: Consider workplace conditions.
If you've determined that you're still passionate about your specialty, it's possible that a problematic workplace environment is responsible for your current professional malaise. It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish whether the issue lies with your employer or your career track in general, but Carlson explains that, when your workplace is the problem, you'll experience a general sense of unease. This may feel "like you're a cog in the wheel and you have no voice — and you basically feel like disposable cannon fodder."
Concrete examples may also be available. For example, you might observe specific instances of bullying at your workplace and the failure of your employer to make changes, even after you've voiced your concerns. Carlson says he believes that, should you bring instances of harassment or bullying to light and your employer "make[s] excuses or pay[s] lip service," a change in work environment could make all the difference.
Step #4: Rediscover your passion.
What gets you excited to go to work? Which specialties or niches spark your interest? If you feel lackluster about your current roles and responsibilities, it's possible that your job doesn’t fulfill your calling.
Finding your true passion will take some soul-searching. Resources like podcasts or professional journals can help. Above all else, Carlson recommends talking to people who actually work in the specific profession you’re looking into - they can help you determine whether you're a good fit for a particular career track. Try to chat with somebody else who made a career shift that resembles the switch you're considering.
How to Take Action so You Can Be Happier in Your Career
By this point, you've determined why you feel unfulfilled and have decided that you’re ready for a change. Great! Switching careers is an option, but it's not necessarily the only approach worth pursuing. Depending on your situation, you might find greater success in seeking change within your current position. Either way, you'll need to dig deep to define your career objectives and your value proposition, which, together, can guide you toward the meaningful change you crave. These steps will help you get started:
Step #1: Consider the big picture.
It's easy to get weighed down by details as you determine which changes are most vital to your professional success and personal well-being. Unfortunately, this tendency can cause you to feel overwhelmed, thereby leading to inaction.
If you're paralyzed by details, Carlson recommends taking a 10,000-foot view. This examines "where you've been over the arc of your career, where you currently are, and where you may want to go." It doesn't focus on how you feel about your current job, but rather encourages you to consider how satisfied you are with your overarching career and what you'd like to accomplish in the next several years.
Step #2: Determine & weigh your options.
At the outset of your quest for professional fulfillment, your path forward may seem impossible to define. A world of possibilities awaits, but the sheer variety can make it tough to know where to start.
Don't let this convince you to accept the status quo. Instead, begin to draft a list of options. Avoid censoring your initial list, and instead let yourself imagine all possibilities. These could include everything from seeking a promotion to taking on a completely different career path.
Next, begin to narrow your list. Ask yourself which options best abide by the 10,000-foot vision identified above. Once you've highlighted the best possible solutions, take a closer look at available information to determine which are the most realistic.
Carlson recommends "gathering data and doing an assessment." He compares this to the process of buying a home, in which you would typically examine details about neighborhoods, home values, and other parameters. Likewise, switching from, say, critical care to the emergency department means looking first at the availability of jobs in your area, as well as salary information, academic requirements, and scheduling considerations. This process is important, regardless of whether you want to seek a promotion, change employers, or move to a different part of the country.
Once you know your options and understand what, exactly, each solution entails, you can draft a classic list of pros and cons to give you better insight into your preferences. Throughout this process, you should keep your long-term objectives at the forefront.
Step #3: Ask why you might stay.
Now that you have a basic understanding of what you want from your long-term career and which approaches can get you there, it's time to make a crucial decision: stay with your current employer, or seek a new job elsewhere? Consider reframing this question to focus not on why you should leave your job, but rather on what would make staying a worthwhile option.
Organizational psychologist Karen Beck Wade, Ph.D, RN-BC, recommends looking for the following qualities:
- Enjoying a sense of purpose at work
- Maintaining an ability to care for yourself — physically, mentally, and spiritually
- Managing to be your true self at work
- Feeling supported by coworkers
- Experiencing more positivity than stress at work
If most of these ring true, it might be worthwhile to find ways to improve circumstances at your current job. This could take the form of seeking more vacation time, a raise, or increased flexibility.
Step #4: Determine your value proposition.
Whether you choose to remain within your current position or seek greener pastures, you're more likely to succeed if you feel confident in the unique qualities you have to offer as a respected, hardworking professional. These are best conveyed in your value proposition — a helpful concept identified by career development expert Ashlee Klevens Hayes, PharmD/MHA. She defines the value proposition as "how well you can articulate and communicate your value to a potential employer, colleague, or other collaborators."
As you consider your value proposition, avoid the dreaded four-letter word “just.” (As in, "I'm just a nurse" or "I'm just beginning my career in real estate.") Instead, identify the unique services and skills you can provide.
The cliche "know thyself" also comes into play. You hold a wealth of experience that goes beyond your specific qualifications. Determine what your employer values most and how you can show that you fulfill these expectations.
Step #5: Ask your boss for what you need.
If you've decided that your current position offers enough benefits to make sticking around worthwhile, don't settle for the status quo. Take action to change your situation so your job lives up to its potential. If you need help, you can check out our article, "How to Ask for More of What You Need at Work."
The most impactful solution? Asking your supervisor to address the pressing issues that keep you from feeling fulfilled. Many employees refrain from speaking up for fear of rejection, but employers are often happy to provide the resources or responsibilities workers desire — they just need to be asked. In fact, some management professionals claim that employees who speak up about what they need command more respect in the workplace.
Before you make any requests, pinpoint the top areas of concern. Which changes at your current workplace would spark the most immediate and extensive improvements? Perhaps additional responsibilities would help you feel as if you're making better use of your professional skills. Or maybe you need better work-life balance so you can feel less overwhelmed as you juggle workplace demands with family or grad school.
Step #6: Examine the possibility of a new employer.
If you believe that your employer — and not your broader career path or specialty — is the problem, it's possible that no requests (no matter how carefully phrased) will deliver the changes you desire. Issues like a toxic workplace culture can be difficult to overcome, so it might be preferable to find a new job with an employer who’s more capable of providing the kind of environment you need.
Keep in mind that a job switch won't automatically produce the change(s) you’re looking for. After all, a poll conducted by Monster.com reveals that a whopping 76% of job-seekers think of their bosses as toxic. However, definitions of this term vary from one employee to the next, and what you, specifically, regard as unacceptably toxic may influence whether you're willing to pursue work elsewhere.
As with any major career decision, Carlson recommended gathering and assessing data. With a potential job switch, this means researching potential employers to determine whether their company culture or treatment of staff members might be preferable. Go beyond mission statements and marketing lingo; instead, chat with actual employees to learn more.
Step #7: Seek additional training.
Are you genuinely passionate about your profession? When you consider the prospect of remaining within your current career track for several years — or even decades — does it fill you with a sense of opportunity or dread?
If you're experiencing major ambivalence that has little to do with your specific employer or position, you may benefit from shifting into a new area — or perhaps a completely different line of work. First, however, you'll likely need additional training, particularly if your preferred specialty requires an advanced degree or specific certification.
Pinpointing your new niche or career field could take significant soul-searching. Again, fellow professionals may provide the best insight. This could come in the form of chats with mentors or even job-shadowing experiences. From there, you can determine which academic program will help you make a much-needed change in your career. Training requires a major commitment, but you may quickly find that you feel more motivated by the simple prospect of learning something new.
Career fulfillment may seem impossible to achieve, but it's within reach if you're willing to do the tough, personal work of discovering your calling and your inherent value as a professional. You'll never regret standing up for yourself and seeking the respect and recognition you deserve.