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The Paradox of the Happily Unemployed

By Dan King and Mark Guterman

Photo of businessman meditating on beachLast month’s story “The Plight of the Unhappily Employed” triggered quite a reaction, particularly the notion that job security doesn’t guarantee job satisfaction. Being unhappily employed can be more damaging to your self-esteem than having no job at all. So we decided to explore this oxymoron to see for ourselves just how “happily unemployed” a person can be.

The answer lies in the balance between “money” and “time.” Which is more valuable? There are a surprising number of workers who would welcome a pink slip if it afforded them the time to devote to finding a more satisfying career. Likewise, many of us would gladly forego a pay raise in return for extra vacation time. But it’s easier to get extra time off for doing your job poorly than it is for doing your job well.

In most organizations today, a “suspension” is more readily attainable than a “sabbatical.”

We have become a nation of workaholics, working on average, nine weeks more per year than any other modern industrial nation in the world. According to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, the average American worker has added 199 hours to his/her annual schedule since 1973. That’s the equivalent of five additional weeks of work per year, assuming a 40-hour workweek.

But who really works just 40 hours anymore?

We frequently hear from clients that they work upwards of 60 hours per week — and that’s not counting the work they take home to do on the weekends. They yearn for new and exciting work to wake up to every day, but they have little time to satisfy such urges. Author Joe Robinson in his book, Work To Live, writes, “the line between work and home has become so blurred that the only way you can tell them apart is that one has a bed.”

So is it any surprise that, for many people, unemployment brings a sigh of relief? Being freed from the demands of “60 hour-a-week” job, instantly delivers a rare endowment of free time — time to clear your head and to develop meaningful action steps that can lead to greater work life balance for the long haul.

A period of unemployment, used wisely, can provide the space to figure things out.

It takes a little “reframing,” but if you consider this window of time to be a “sabbatical,” and seize the opportunity inherent in it, you can invest your time in the necessary self-assessment, market research, and focused decision making you need to find meaningful work.

The “happily unemployed” don’t squander time on such unproductive behaviors as worry, blame, guilt and anger. This is not to say that “job loss” isn’t emotionally crippling at times, but they know that focusing on such behaviors does little to create a more satisfying new worklife. After all the worrying, the problem still remains. The way out is through productive focused action. Here are some recommendations:

Seek opportunities for learning and development — Add new skills, brush up on those that are rusty, simply experience things that you’ve always meant to do, but never had the time. Commit to an “active” learning plan with a combination of formal or informal study, community and volunteer work, and opportunities for personal growth.

Reconnect with old friends and make new ones — Building meaningful relationships will allow you to practice your “story” whenever people ask the inevitable, “So, what are you looking to do … ?” Speak positively about your future goals, not your lack of work. Ask for referrals to others. Attend conferences, classes, community events, and the like, to expand your network.

Take time for renewal and regeneration — Relish the opportunity to rest and recuperate, and seize the chance to refresh yourself physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Start a daily practice of “self-care.” Put activities in your calendar that support you — and honor them as you would any of your other commitments. Go to the gym, take a walk, meditate, practice yoga, do what nurtures you. If you take care of yourself, you’ll bring more positive energy to your search for meaningful work.

Define your dream job — What do you want above and beyond a paycheck — independence, creativity, learning? Solicit information about career areas of interest. Engage a career counselor or coach, read career books and articles or gather suggestions from friends and colleagues. If you don’t know what you want to do, you may just become “unhappily employed” all over again.

A period of transition can be draining — or it can be energizing. Accept that your ups and downs are cyclical, and manage them accordingly. When you’re feeling down, take an afternoon off just for yourself — work out, read, visit a museum — so you can reenergize and reposition yourself for a more productive day tomorrow.

Try reframing the discussion by asking yourself, “when again will I have such an abundance of time to plan my future?” “What regrets will I have if I don’t use this time to explore possibilities for achieving a more satisfying career?”

The happily unemployed know that earning money, in and of itself, is not fun. It’s how you earn it that brings the greater reward.

They are well aware their unemployment can’t continue indefinitely — and they know they WILL work again. And so will you. The real question is, “will you return to a job that drains the life out of you? Or will you begin the story that you were meant to tell all along, a new chapter with a work life you’ve only dreamed about, and the ending you always wanted to achieve?

If you want a work life that’s more than a Monday through Friday sort of dying, you have to create it — now while you have the “time.”

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