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Hate your workplace? Here's how to cope

With the economy sputtering and unemployment on the rise, more and more workers are trying to make the best of a bad situation rather than not have a job at all.
Business of Life
Inspired by his own success in surviving a difficult first job out of college, Sam Glenn went on to become a workplace consultant and motivational speaker focusing on attitudes in the workplace.M. Spencer Green / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sam Glenn followed some wise counsel when he found himself in a bad job situation — his mother told him, first, don't quit. And second, to have a frank chat with his boss at the small computer communications firm where he worked.

Feeling trapped in an unhappy work environment is sending many people in search of solace and advice. With the economy sputtering and unemployment on the rise, these workers are trying to make the best of a bad situation rather than not have a job at all.

Experts say it's critical at such a time to not burn bridges with an employer.

"No matter how unhappy you are, it's important to come in to work with your game face on so that you can be sure of retaining your current job while you're thinking about finding another one," said Mary Crane, a Denver-based consultant to Fortune 500 companies and law firms.

In fact, she says, it's advisable to even think about arriving early or staying late, acting eager and excited even if you feel the opposite. "Make yourself the one person that every manager would hate to lose," Crane said.

Glenn, 37, of Naperville, Ill., relied on his mother's wisdom to survive a difficult first job out of college. Stuck with an overbearing, short-fused boss, he set up a meeting with him and asked if he could have someone else supervise him.

"I said, 'Look, if you want me to do better here and get you the sales you want, I need a different supervisor. I don't do well when I'm being micromanaged,'" Glenn said. "And No. 2, sometimes you yell a lot, and I don't do well with people who yell at me.'"

That might sound risky, but it proved a sound strategy. His mom sold him on the idea by comparing it to a tactic he'd used successfully in junior high: Challenging the school bully to a fight in front of the principal.

Just as the bully backed down and stopped bothering him, so did the boss. Inspired by that success, Glenn went on to become a workplace consultant and motivational speaker focusing on attitudes in the workplace.

Bad managers may be even more abundant in today's conditions.

"There's so much stress, anxiety and fear because of the economy," Glenn said. "The sad thing is, all these managers feel all this pressure to keep their business in the green."

Distressed workers e-mail Glenn about their workplace plights.

A woman named Susan who worked in insurance claims at a Fortune 100 company said her doctor told her that her breast cancer was likely caused by all the stress put on her by a boss who mistreated employees. After taking a medical leave to undergo chemotherapy, she had to decide whether to return to a bad work situation just for the health benefits.

Another woman, who works for a Miami company that sells refurbished copy machines, said her employer used fear as a motivational tactic and wrote people up if they didn't produce at a certain level every week, or even if they were 10 minutes late. She broke out in hives and could only focus on not losing her job, not on performing well.

The advice for both: Consult the company's human resources department for professional recommendations.

Susan ended up retiring early after getting assistance from HR. The Miami woman chose to become more realistic and to work harder, Glenn said, realizing she wasn't in complete control of whether she lost her job and had an opportunity to shine if she didn't.

"Instead of going to a job you hate every day and living with all the stress and anxiety, you need to sit down and address it with the powers that be," he said. "Nobody's going to get done what you've got to get done while there's an elephant in the room. You've got to kill it while it's small."

Crane's dos and don'ts for those dissatisfied with their current positions includes one that may be tough to follow: Don't let co-workers know how unhappy you are — word might get back to the bosses. That means not mentioning it in conversations, text messages or e-mails.

Another tip is to build a professional network so you can obtain mentoring and support outside your office and learn of job opportunities.

Some old-fashioned advice also can be helpful: Focus on a job's upside.

For example, Crane says she constantly is asked how she deals with a job that requires her to be on the road 90 percent of the time. Downplaying the inconvenience, she tells people she is "the luckiest person in the world" because she gets to go in, solve a problem and move on.

A recessionary economy isn't new and won't last forever, she notes, so people shouldn't worry excessively. But they shouldn't be surprised if they are unhappy in a job, and may have to simply hunker down and take it.

"The reality is that work is work, and it's not always fun," Crane said.