No matter how much you like your work, at some point, you may become stuck in your career and not know how to move forward. Read on to explore the different causes for becoming stuck and how certain factors–including your current work/life situations as well as external forces–may be impacting you. Finally, you’ll discover six strategies to help you become unstuck and again progress in your life and career.
Is it normal to feel stuck in your career?
How do you know if you’re stuck?
Life and career stages guide
Mental health support in the workplace
Six strategies for becoming unstuck in your career
Is it normal to feel stuck in your career?
Many find themselves stuck in their career at some time or another. Research shows many have even felt trapped in their careers, so know that you are not alone. First, don't give up by checking out. It’s okay if you’ve sat in idle for a while trying to understand what’s wrong, but it’s not a place where you want to live. And you do have the ability to implement changes that will make a difference in your situation.
Give yourself credit where credit is due. You are, after all, presumably reading this article as a step towards doing something to help yourself move forward. While you're going through something like this, remember to self-nurture and treat yourself kindly.
Five signs you may be stuck in your career
There are a broad range of reasons for why you might become stuck in your career. Employees have cited everything from overwhelm and absence of growth opportunities to feeling lack of control over their personal and professional lives.
Here are five telltale signs you’ve stopped moving forward:
You’ve not been promoted or celebrated. – If you haven’t advanced, don’t receive praise, or aren’t being acknowledged, you might not be doing your best work.
You don’t know what to do next. – If you experience a feeling of being lost or are confused about your next step, you may be blocked about your future.
You’ve lost interest or aren’t growing. – If you’re uninspired or no longer feel challenged, your progress may be stalled.
Your mood or attitude is a problem. – You may feel bored, irritated, or hopeless and not know why.
You’re out of the loop. – If co-workers and clients seem more engaged than you are, or you’re being excluded from key work, you might be stuck.
How life and career stages can impact your work
Each stage of life comes with different focus areas and challenges. The same is true of your career lifecycle. As if that wasn’t enough, learning to collaborate with multi-generational workplace colleagues is another (somewhat new) major influence that can impact how you’re feeling about work.
Let’s take a closer look at these elements and the ways each may impact your career.
Life and career stages guide
One customer loyalty marketing firm shares how life stage signals an individual’s motives. Though their purpose for identifying them is to drive engagement, we can also leverage these motives to better understand typical life stage drivers. When considered alongside developmental challenges at each life stage, we can gain insight into the types of issues employees might face at different times throughout their careers.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker Robert Taibbi explains this in his Psychology Today blog, Fixing Families. “Research shows that adults move through six to seven years of stability and then two to three years of instability where […] issues come to the surface. For some, it is about the state of the marriage, for others, about having children or quitting your job and dedicating yourself to being an artist in New Mexico, and still others about accomplishing what's on top of that bucket list before time runs out.”
The following guide is broken out into five broadly defined categories. Each section includes an age group (demographic) and its corresponding career stage, along with descriptions and examples. These are generalizations and will, of course, have some overlap between them.
To determine which of the six strategies may help you most, use this guide to narrow down what stage you are currently at in your career.
Young adult – seek interesting experiences to expand their world
Exploration – just before entering the workforce
During this timeframe, you may be concerned about higher education, getting a self-supporting job, becoming independent, dating, and maybe finding a mate. You will be coming to terms with what it takes to self-manage day-to-day life, including paying bills, dealing with car repairs and home maintenance, scheduling and attending appointments, and figuring out your career.
Couple – delay having children longer to enjoy adventures together
Establishment – introduction to the workforce, building foundation by learning skills, gaining experience, and increasing industry knowledge via education and training
At this stage, you may be dating, newly married, in an internship or apprenticeship, or laying the foundation in your career. Exploring expectations of others and self may be part of your inter-relational learning curve.
Parent – children take priority (especially for single parents) / self-reflection
Mid-Career – may experience regression, stagnation, or continue climbing the career ladder
By now, you’ve settled into your career, found a partner, and have maybe even started a family. The big decisions behind you, you have a few years of breathing space and level ground. The primary themes at the latter part of this stage of life are empowerment, mid-life crises, and having the courage to step back, take stock of your life, and correct real problems in order to move forward in a proactive, planful way that respects your values.
Single – focus on self-improvement and knowledge transfer
Late Career – may see yourself as an elder statesman, having seen and done it all and now ready to pass along knowledge to others
Adult singles may have stayed in a failing marriage for the children who are now grown. Empowerment would be about realizing how much of their lives have been compromised and now need to be reclaimed. Alternately, the never-married may be well-established in their careers, seasoned business owners, or dedicated to specific causes. Either parents or singles may find themselves caring for aging family members during this and prior stages of life.
Empty nester – seek opportunities to enrich lives
Decline – retirement is imminent, and time to pass the torch to the next generation
These are the transition years. Typically centered around some form of retirement, you may begin pulling away from a lifelong career, or shift from raising children to caring for and enjoying grandchildren. This is the time for bucket lists—deciding what you will do with the time you have left and are still physically and mentally capable of doing it. Here, you worry about the what-ifs—potential medical problems, running out of money, struggling to remain independent, or how to cope after your partner passes away.
Generational differences and conflict in the workplace
It’s worth noting there is a unique change to the composition of today’s workforce that also impacts overall workplace climate. Insight180, a branding agency for small to midsize service-based and advisory firms, points out that for the first time in history we have four to five generations co-mingling in the workforce, and there’s some natural culture clash happening. “Yes, there is conflict in the workplace. There are also many benefits to multiple generations working together. And…there is strong consistency in the way the generations see themselves.”—Insight180
Rising importance of mental health support in the workplace
Trying to make sense of your career circumstances without including external elements impacting your life would be like trying to make coffee without coffee beans. It’s logical to expect that when you’re experiencing difficulties in one area of your life other areas will be affected.
The tumult from consecutive global events over the past few years has foisted unprecedented pressure and hardship on human beings. For the first time, employers don’t really have a choice but to consider their employees’ well-being—including their mental health—in relation to productivity.
The World Health Organization’s new guidelines on workforce mental health suggest that depression and anxiety are costing the global economy $1 trillion every year. According to Lyra’s 2023 Workforce Mental Health Trends Forecast, offering mental health services to employees doesn’t just impact their health and well-being, it also impacts companies’ bottom lines.
Mental health clinician and author of The Science of Stuck: Breaking Through Inertia to Find Your Path Forward Britt Frank says, “If your brain feels unsafe for any reason, including stress, overwhelm, burnout, or trauma, your autonomic nervous system will deploy a fight/flight/freeze response. These physiological survival responses (which serve us well when we are in danger) often get mislabeled as procrastination or laziness.”
Instead of self-shaming, Frank advises a fake-it-till-you-make-it type approach. “So, forget motivation—and do this instead: When you want to get moving, don’t berate yourself. Shaming self-talk produces stress hormones which will further aggravate your body’s threat response,” she says.
Six strategies for becoming unstuck in your career
The good news is, there is a lot you can do to become unstuck in your career. The following six strategies are intended to serve as starting points for igniting different ways of thinking about your life and work. One or more of these may work for you.
1. Get Introspective
Do some real soul searching.
If you can be honest with yourself about what you really do and don't want, it makes all the difference in creating and following a plan to achieve it. If you’re unsure, you can clarify your path by taking personality and skills tests. Think of it as self-investigating to determine and articulate your uniqueness.
You can also identify those external elements that are impacting your life to determine whether they may be temporary, longer term, or permanent. Assessing your circumstances, whether intentionally planned or not, may help you put them into perspective next to all the other aspects of your life.
2. Clarify your values and what matters most to you
Activities that don’t align with your core values will naturally create conflict and confusion in your career. Identifying what you're working for will provide the foundation that guides your decision-making.
There’s power in documenting your plans and goals. In addition to helping you figure out where you fit, writing down your intentions underscores your commitment to realizing them. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Maybe just start with four to five values like these:
Quality of life
To arrive at these, start by considering what matters to you most—the underpinnings of your life that drive and motivate you—like spiritual connectedness, satisfaction, integrity, equality, peace, happiness, justice, and so on.
From here, every goal you set should tie up to one or more of the five values you’ve identified. Here’s an example:
GOAL: Achieve job promotion by January 2024
VALUES ALIGNMENT: Quality of life; financial security; growth challenges
SUBTASKS: Discuss with manager and ask for steps; take organization’s leadership training
Formalize your goal planning by using an Excel template or an online application to track your progress.
3. Experiment and try new things
If you’re not ready to plan yet, you may need more information to make decisions. Get busy doing things outside of work, freelance, take a side gig, or take a break. Sometimes, research can be overwhelming and contribute to confusion. If you’re stuck and unsure whether you want to even continue on your current path, take some time to look around you and try new things.
Being proactive about your career puts you in the driver's seat and gives you confidence and a sense of security that there is, at least, a roadmap. Even if your path should change in the future, you know where you're at within your own career plan and can investigate a change or even chart a new path. The absence of a plan is to allow happenstance to direct your life rather than choosing its direction for yourself.
4. Call in reinforcements
You don’t have to navigate without support–especially if you’re feeling alone. When you’re stuck is a good time to ask for help. Here are a few places to begin:
Workplace resources – Familiarize yourself with what your organization offers; it may have career counseling, mental health services, or other helpful resources available.
Professional network – Reach out to your contacts for advice.
Trusted friend or counselor – Connect with a friend or a counselor; sometimes, just having someone to springboard your thoughts off can help bring clarity to a situation.
5. Invest in yourself
Investing in your professional development is an empowering step you can take to gain confidence and establish or solidify commitment. Depending on how stuck or confused you are about what you should do next, one or more of these ideas may help you gain clarity, make a plan, or get to the next level in your career.
Hire a career coach.
Research and plan for the training you will need at different stages of your career.
Take personality, strengths, and skills tests to capitalize on your lesser-known strengths and predispositions.
Free yourself to be inspired; realize there is not a wrong answer when investing in your personal and professional growth.
6. Embrace the moment
Lean in, or just hang in and sit with it. If nothing else, accepting it is natural and may give you peace of mind that it is a temporary situation. There may be lessons to learn that you are presently resistant to, not ready to accept, or even to see or consider yet. Be patient with yourself and embrace the journey, whatever stage you’re in.
Most people find themselves stuck in their careers at some point or another.
Though there are a broad range of reasons why you might become stuck, there are a few telltale signs that can help you identify when it’s happening such as lack of promotions, loss of interest or self-confidence, being excluded from key work or meetings, feeling disconnected, or having a bad attitude towards work.
Life and career stages, as well as generational differences in the workplace, can impact how you’re feeling about your work.
Workplace mental health support is becoming increasingly more important to employers, and your organization may offer related services.
There’s much you can do to become unstuck in your career, including soul-searching, goal planning, taking a break, trying new things, asking for help, and investing in your learning.