Over the course of a year, people spend a lot of time on the job but, that doesn’t necessarily mean they like their work. The French spend an average of 1,480 hours at work annually, Americans, 1,700 hours, and Singaporeans a whopping 2,400 hours, according to the Federal Reserve Economic Data website.
But many of us aren’t happy in our jobs. Only 53% of US workers surveyed by online job-search website Monster.com, said they liked or loved their jobs, while in France that dropped to 43% and in Germany, to 34%.
With discontent that high, at what point does it make sense to leave a boring job and find one that not only pays you well and gives you perks, but also makes you happy?
Happiness: A competitive advantage
“The tipping point where boring work becomes detrimental occurs when the mental drain prevents you from experiencing the positives a majority of the time,” said Shawn Achor, happiness researcher and author of The Happiness Advantage, in an email. “The brain craves novelty, so boring work has a double cost: the effort involved, and the mental drain due to dissonance between what you're doing and what you want to be doing.”
In researching his book, Achor, who is based in San Antonio, Texas in the US, found the greatest competitive advantage in today’s economy is a “positive and engaged” brain. “It is impossible to maintain happiness when we stagnate, because happiness is the joy we feel striving for our potential,” he said. “Even flexible hours and high pay are not worth the cost if you find less joy and energy during your free time and with your disposable income.”
Not black and white
There are many factors why people stay in jobs that aren’t mentally stimulating, said Silicon Valley-based Liz Wiseman, executive advisor and author of Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work. “We may feel past our ‘sell-by date’ but we have legitimate reasons to stay, such as flexible hours, much-needed pay levels or great colleagues,” she said. Work quality can also deteriorate. “When our work is no longer challenging, we begin to work in ‘auto-pilot’ mode, relying on our experience,” she said, which can cause a number of problems. “Once we think we know the answers, we can stop seeing new patterns, seeking input and exploring new paths. We can stop trying to score big and start playing it safe.”
Without challenges, job satisfaction inevitably goes down, Wiseman said. In writing Rookie Smarts, she asked roughly 1,000 people worldwide from across a variety of industries to indicate both the level of challenge and satisfaction in their jobs. She found “a near linear” correlation. “In other words, as challenge level goes up, so does satisfaction. But, when challenge is absent, our satisfaction goes down.”
Leaving a boring job isn’t always realistic — or possible. So, try reframing your perspective, suggested Scott Eblin, author of Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative.
“First, ask yourself, ‘What am I in it for?’” said Eblin in an email, and frame it in the broadest possible perspective. “Is there some aspect of your work that would speak more directly to your purpose that you're perhaps ignoring? How could you put more time and attention in that direction?”
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Don’t just look at your job for the answers, said Eblin. “Perhaps there is a passion or a cause outside of your career that you care deeply about. Consider the possibility that you're making all of that money so you can do something that's bigger than you and whatever it is you're supposed to be focusing on at work.”
Finding the right balance
But doing something exciting outside of work “to rebalance the boredom of 9-to-5” will only get you so far, said Maite Baron, chief executive officer at The Corporate Escape, a London-based career-transition consultancy that helps disillusioned employees become business owners, in an email.
“If having meaning and happiness in your life matter to you, in the long term, you will need to rethink your priorities. And that means searching inside yourself to find the real answers. What do you value most in your life today? Money, creativity, fun, relationships, freedom, or security, for example. And how do you prioritise them by importance when you make decisions?”
If money trumps all, you could always go to work elsewhere, Baron suggested. “But that will only be a short-term fix, until you become bored again.”
Instead, it is probably time to readjust your thinking. “Start pursuing what actually does matter to you while being prepared to make radical choices by reinventing yourself.”
Read the signs
“The fact that you’re even asking the question shows that it’s almost certainly time to reconsider where you’re heading with your life,” Baron said. While it may be pragmatic to stay in the job you’re in and stick with the status quo, “you’ll end up living a life of mediocrity, unfulfilled and bored.”
Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at email@example.com.