Work going well? Here's why you're still unhappy — and how to reduce stress from success.

Work going well? Here's why you're still unhappy — and how to reduce stress from success.
Source: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

Here's a dirty little secret about professional success: It isn't just those who struggle to get promotions or otherwise get ahead at work that feel unhappy. In fact, the very things that make you proud of your career — like frequent salary or title bumps, or a reputation for knocking projects out of the park — might actually be the source of your stress at work.

Confused? Blame the "Peter Principle," the theory that at every organization, workers will get promoted up until their relative level of incompetence. Translation: Those who rise too fast may end up getting trapped in a position for which they're unqualified, and feel miserable as a result.

Now, of course, you might be great at your job, and perfectly qualified for it on paper. But many go-getters are pushed through promotions out of their "bliss zones" into roles they don't truly enjoy — and end up facing management challenges with minimal support.

After all, being a good worker takes different skills than being a good boss, and even pay raises can increase stress and decrease happiness if they mean less free time. In fact, new data suggests that people are happiest at work if they are able to maintain an active life outside of the office, as a researcher explains in the Harvard Business Review.

So what can you do to prevent your work successes from backfiring — and making you less and less thrilled with your job? Try these three strategies, which will help boost your feelings of fulfillment and tamp down your stress.

1. Seek out additional training

Being a boss is hard work — especially if you've never been one before. Giving someone a promotion without any additional training is like throwing them into the deep end of a pool and expecting them to swim on their own. And for those leading a team of employees, you might not know how effective you're being, as it isn't always easy to get honest feedback.

More than half of the managers who participated in a CareerBuilder survey said they did not receive any training before taking the helm and at least 26% said they simply weren't ready to lead, according to Business Insider

If you feel as though you are simply treading water as a manager, upping your game will not just improve your happiness but also your employees'. "Good management skills can positively impact productivity, performance and overall employee morale," Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder, said to Business Insider. "We see more companies investing in management training programs to develop today's and tomorrow's leaders."

Not sure if your company will spring for management training? One way to "self train" is to find a management mentor at your company who you can bounce ideas off of and use to model approach and style.  

You could also request your company cover the cost of online training — or model the way Bonobos prepares leaders through performance and management workshops. Training areas that help many new managers include crisis management, listening skills and idea exchange between manager and employee, Inc. reported. 

Growing your skill set further could make you happier, as the Muse points out — and, while you may feel stress while learning a new skill, your wellbeing is likely to improve in the long run with each new experience, research from San Francisco State University suggests.

"No pain, no gain is the rule when it comes to gaining happiness from increasing our competence at something," SFSU psychology professor and study author Ryan Howell said in a release. "People often give up their goals because they are stressful, but we found that there is benefit at the end of the day from learning to do something well."

2. Slow your roll

From the barrage of phone calls, emails, texts and meetings, getting bogged down in the minutia of daily work demands can drive anyone a little nuts, as Business Insider noted. Take a beat during your day to breathe and find your center before you continue to dive into another phone call or email. Take a walk or get outside for some fresh air, Time suggested  even 20 minutes will make a difference. 

The point is: Do something you enjoy when you take a break. "Finding something on your break that you prefer to do — something that's not given to you or assigned to you — are the kinds of activities that are going to make your breaks much more restful, provide better recovery and help you come back to work stronger," Emily Hunter, who co-authored a study on work breaks, said to USA Today.

Even just exercising patience on a macro level could really help you: Research suggests employee happiness and satisfaction are directly tied to whether workers feel like they made progress during their day, Time reported. Since not every day is a day of "wins" at work, it can help to make a daily checklist and cross off the tasks you've accomplished.

At the end of the day, look back at everything you've done and see the progress you've made. For large projects, Time suggests breaking them into smaller tasks so you can feel success each time you tackle and finish one step.

3. Consider the big picture — or a big change

While there are great reasons to pursue large raises early in your career, make sure you don't get so fixated on your salary number that you sacrifice even more important needs — like job satisfaction and fulfillment.

That's especially true if you already make more than the average worker. As it turns out, an annual salary of $75,000 is something of a sweet spot, according to researchers at Princeton University: Day-to-day happiness increases with higher and higher salaries until you hit that $75,000 mark — at which point daily joy tends to plateau, even with more money, the research suggests.

If you're making a ton of money but would give anything for better work-life balance, consider a lateral move or a drop in salary in exchange for more free time and/or fulfilling work. If your management ivory tower has taken you away from the very thing that gave you passion for your career — such as working directly with people — you may find more satisfaction and happiness by going back to your first love, as the New York Times reported.

Not willing to take a pay cut? At certain companies, something called an "inverse promotion" might actually be an option, wherein a worker does not get a pay cut and is returned to his or her original position, but won't receive additional raises. If you know your boss values you — and you can make a strong case about your being more productive than the average worker — you might be able to make this work for you.

If that seems like a stretch at your company, consider other options like asking for reduced management responsibilities while taking on a new meaningful project or additional tasks at the same time. Or try to create a new position at the company that includes a new title and responsibilities. In short, don't fear the word "demotion" — stepping back from work doesn't have to come with such negative connotations.

And think hard about the reasons for your unhappiness: If you actually love managing people but hate that being a boss has put you on call 24/7, see if your company would be willing to let you job share with another manager or work remotely one or two days a week. Studies show employees who work remotely are happier and feel more valued, Forbes reported. 

Finally, if all else fails? Try a totally new job — or field. A passion for your career is crucial for happiness and success, as Mario Batali points out. Truly happy workers don't watch the clock, and instead lose themselves in their work.

Those at a loss for ideas might consider slowly transforming a hobby into a job. For instance, Helen Hung told the HuffPost Australia how she went from being a software product manager to opening a flower business — her true calling: "It grew organically and it steadily grew in terms of the things I had to do, such as weddings and client management. My day job was still going well but it got to the point where I didn't have time to do everything. My 'side business' was growing and it just became more important to me. I realized I didn't want to go through life not having done this passion of mine."

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