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How to tell if your dream job has turned into a nightmare

Man in his 40s texting on smartphone, sitting on edge of desk and looking away, contemplation, entrepreneur, small business owner, casual businessman
Whether our expectations differ from the reality of a job, or we end up working too hard, things can fall apart. Photo: Getty (10'000 Hours via Getty Images)

You’ve worked hard to work your way up the career ladder, taking on internships, extra assignments and various roles to help boost your skills and experience. Finally, you get offered a position at a company you’ve had your eye on for years. It’s your dream job and you can’t wait to get started.

However, things aren’t so rosy six months’ down the line. The long hours are taking their toll and you barely have a life outside of work. Your boss has a tendency to micromanage and the work itself isn’t as exciting as you thought it would be. You wonder whether you’ve made a mistake taking the job - and whether you should look elsewhere.

Carving out a successful career you enjoy is very different to having a dream job. Still, many of us pin our future happiness on doing one specific role — and find ourselves in a difficult position when it doesn’t work out. Whether our expectations differ from the reality of a job, or we end up working too hard, things can fall apart.


“Six key factors can turn a dream job into a nightmare,” says author, career and coach Juliet Adams. “Your experience and skills may not meet the requirements of the job, or you may not receive the support guidance or training that you need.”

Watch: How To Negotiate A Pay Rise

Sometimes, inaccurate or misleading job descriptions can lead us to believe a job is perfect for us, affecting our trust in an employer. A job might be great on paper, but pursuing a passion can lead us to push ourselves too hard, causing chronic stress and burnout.

And in some cases, the job may not live up to our unrealistic personal expectations. “As humans we make judgements and assumptions about how things will be. If there is a gap between our expectation and reality we suffer from self-induced mental pain,” says Adams.

“There may be a cultural misalignment between our natural or preferred working style and that of our new organisation. Organisational cultures can be notoriously hard to change, so it may be wise to either accept them or move on,” she adds.

Read more: Does virtual hiring work as well as face-to-face recruitment?

And finally, we may take on a "dream job" without thinking about what we actually want to do. For example, someone’s dream of becoming a doctor or a creative freelancer may actually belong to someone else, such as a parent or family member. And when we’re in that role, we may find ourselves unhappy.

When your dream job isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, it can feel like your whole world is falling apart. It’s not easy to accept that your passion isn’t making you happy - and that you’ve spent years training for something you don’t want to do. So if your job is making you miserable, what should you do?

“When you are stressed or experiencing toxic emotions, it’s very hard to be objective and make wise decisions,” Adams says. “Take some time out – even if it’s just a few hours by yourself – to relax and chill out so that you can gain some perspective.

“Get some exercise, meditate, have a long bath or whatever it takes. Then by yourself, or with a trusted friend try to work out exactly what it is about the job that is making you so miserable.”

Whether it’s the company culture, work environment or the job itself, you need to identify what the problem is. If the issue is temporary, such as a difficult interim boss, things may improve in the future.

“Decide if it is fixable, and if so, the actions that need to be taken,” Adams advises. “If it isn’t, decide on some positive things that you can gain from the job while you take as much time as you need to identify and secure a job that will be a better fit for you.”

Watch: What To Ask In A Job Interview

Positive things might include the salary paying your bills, or adding experience or different clients that you worked with to your CV. You may be able to ask your manager for new opportunities to expand your responsibilities.

Although adjusting your expectations of a job can be an effective short-term strategy, it’s not a long-term solution. “You can certainly learn to mind the gap between how you think things should, must or ought to be, versus present moment reality,” Adams says. However, it’s unhealthy to ignore the negative emotions that arise when you’re unhappy at work.

It’s also important to remember that our goals change as we grow older. What we envisioned ourselves doing as a teenager is likely to change over time. Instead of a job in the city, for example, we may begin to value flexible working that gives us a better work-life balance.

“The important thing is to make a considered choice about your next step and remind yourself that your current job is not forever. In a way your job has done you a favour – it has taught you what you don’t want and what you do want.”

Careers Clinic
Careers Clinic