When you don’t love your work, a change of employment can sound alluring. It’s easy to pin your hopes on attaining a dream job, believing that over the horizon lies more fulfillment and better quality of life. But if you’re looking to jump ship from your current position, there may be surprising mental health factors at stake. Before making a career switch, it’s important to take stock of the potential effects on your psyche — both positive and negative — this major change can have.
There is, of course, some truth to the idea that, if your current job is bringing you down, a different one could make you happier. We all want to feel fulfilled doing something we love, and when we can do so in an uplifting environment, the good vibes go a long way. Some research even backs up this concept: One Australian study, for example, looked at the effect of factors like job security, control, and workload on nearly 2,000 employees’ mental health. The researchers found that improvements or deteriorations in these conditions led to corresponding levels of depression and anxiety — not too surprising, considering how many hours of our lives we generally spend on the job.
For many of us, however, it’s not necessarily issues like job security and workload that make us poke up our heads to look around for another position. Often, it’s an underlying belief that if our job aligned with a personal passion, we’d be happier. Perhaps we gravitate toward aspirational fields that fit a childhood dream or a story we’d like to tell about ourselves. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with desiring work that suits our interests and inclinations, it may not actually go as far as we think toward improving our mental health.
Georgetown professor and author Cal Newport points out the flaws of this so-called “passion hypothesis” (i.e., switching jobs just to pursue interests) in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Newport believes that the message of “pursue your passion and happiness will follow” that began with baby boomers has actually done more harm than good for subsequent generations. “It not only fails to describe how most people end up with compelling careers,” he says in his book, “but for many people it can actually make things worse: leading to chronic job shifting and unrelenting angst when… one’s reality inevitably falls short of the dream.” He notes that in the last 30-odd years, as this concept has taken root, American job satisfaction has steadily decreased. In 1987, three-fifths of people stated they liked their job; fewer than half said the same in 2010. While there are many factors in play, including an economy that increasingly divorces productivity from compensation, Newport attributes this decrease to an unhealthy pattern of job-hopping and grass-is-greener outlook millennials often fall prey to.
If you’re on the fence about your current position, it’s also important to note that personal change can be tough on our emotions. (Hence “changed jobs in the last year” often listed as a potential stressor checkbox on medical or therapy intake forms.) In fact, when Canadian HR company Morneau Shepell set out to discover which workplace circumstances led to the most employee sick leave, they got some interesting results. It wasn’t higher-level issues like company mergers or restructuring that affected individuals’ well-being. Rather, individual job redesign had the most powerful effects on workers needing time off. It seems that change, even within an existing job, can seriously stress us out.
Finally, if you’re thinking of switching careers for something a bit flashier, you may want to do your homework on associated mental health issues. Some of the most frequently romanticized fields are actually those in which employees experience the most emotional distress. A 2018 survey conducted by insurance provider NetQuote revealed that people in the arts and entertainment industry — which many of us view with stars in our eyes — staggeringly revealed a 37 percent incidence of anxiety and panic disorder and a 34 percent incidence of depression. More than two-fifths of these folks divulged that they had even experienced a panic attack on the job — a statistic far outpacing any other industry. Those in medicine and education (other often idealized fields) weren’t far behind, with rates of anxiety, panic disorder, or depression in the 30 to 40 percent range.
With all of these facts and figures, what’s the take-home message? Is job change guaranteed to bring us down? Should we squelch our passions and stay in dead-end jobs we hate? Certainly not. But there may be more to the story of our happiness than which industry we choose — or even which position. Newport’s research identifies three elements most closely associated with feeling good at work: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. When we’re allowed to be self-directed, we experience a sense of autonomy that keeps us feeling purposeful. Competence comes from building an arsenal of skills so we know we have a lot to offer. And relatedness means developing meaningful relationships with those we interact with at work — a well-known boost for emotional well-being in general. If dissatisfaction has you considering a new job, for your mental health, it might be wise to first assess how you might cultivate these factors in your current position — and only if that’s not possible, look for a place where you can.
How has your mental health been affected by a job change? Tweet us at @BritandCo.