Feeling Frustrated at Work? Here’s What to Do

***Updated on 10 May, 2021

As published in the NZ Herald, 31st May 2016

We all have times in our lives where we feel frustrated at work and stuck with our career.

A sense that we desperately want to change something, but don’t know what or how. This is often compounded by the voice of our own inner critic – “why haven’t you done anything about this? You’re feeling miserable. Do something! Now!”

Often when this happens, we may not understand what the real cause of our frustration is, we can’t easily pinpoint exactly what’s making us unhappy, we just know something has to change. This kind of thinking can sometimes lead to a knee jerk reaction as we desperately try and ‘fix’ our feelings of stuckness and despair.

So before making any rash decisions when we feel frustrated at work, consider using the practice of mindfulness to gain clarity and perspective. Mindfulness can help us to:-

Dial down our endlessly busy, thinking brain

As we rush through our frantic lives getting things done, the thinking and planning part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, is usually in charge. This is our executive function - it manages, prioritises and gets things ticked off the to-do list.

According to Rick Hanson, neuropsychologist and New York Times best seller, this part is determined to a fault, running things top-down like a dictator, ignoring subtle bottom-up signals that may help us to better understand our feelings of stuckness and frustration.

Neuroscience and mindfulness research tells us, if we can find some time to regularly give our prefrontal cortex some down time, and to connect with other parts of our brain, we create space to listen to what else is around. This opens us up to the opportunity for more perspective, clarity and insight.

And when it comes to our careers and future plans, perspective, clarity and insight provide essential information to help us see things for what they are, and recognise at a deeper level what might be causing our frustration.

Create space to tap into our intuition

Successful people often talk about the importance of following your gut instinct, or listening to your intuition.

We now know our intuition has to do with a part of our brain known as the basal ganglia. It’s a primitive part of our subconscious that tells us things with feelings, not thoughts and has a strong connection to the emotional centre of our brain.

Usually, when we are frustrated at work, we notice this as a gut feeling of right or wrong. Malcom Gladwell’s book Blink illustrates how this works, describing an experiment in which card players intuitively select certain winning cards over others, long before they are able to verbally explain the reason for their choices.

This experiment demonstrates the brains two decision making strategies - our conscious ‘thinking and deciding’ strategy, and our less understood subconscious strategy. In our complex and busy world it’s easy to lose touch with our intuition, yet it can help us to make important career decisions, like changing jobs, more wisely.

Be kinder to ourselves

Feeling stuck can often come with an “inner critic”, that good old voice in our head telling us we are not doing anything right. The inner critic takes any opportunity to fill our head with unhelpful thoughts and worries. This endless tirade can be exhausting, affecting our mood and self-confidence.

Mindfulness strengthens our awareness of our own inner landscape, and can calm things down enough that we start to recognise unhelpful thoughts as they arise.

This is incredibly useful, as we then have a choice in the moment: do we let ourselves go round and round in circles, endlessly tying ourselves up in knots of unhelpful thinking? Or do we choose consciously to not get caught up in the tirade with our endless inner pessimist, but rather to gently move on.

There are many more ways that a regular mindfulness practice can support your career happiness and fulfilment at work. Due to the relatively recent explosion in the interest in mindfulness programmes, there is now a dizzying array of apps, books, online courses and face to face programmes available. This can make it difficult to know where to start.

At this stage there is just not enough evidence available to know if short programmes or self-help options (such as apps, books and online courses) are of any long term benefit.

The majority of compelling academic research and evidence on the benefits of mindfulness programmes have focussed on the eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme.

The MBSR programme was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist and Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts.

It has been proven to be effective in helping to treat stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, sleep problems and even chronic pain. It’s offered by qualified teachers around the world. To find out more, research trained MBSR teachers in your location.