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GOTTA GO

5 signs it’s time to quit your job

An emergency exit sign rises above the umbrellas of people crowding an outdoor market.
REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
This way to sustained career growth.
  • Cate Huston
By Cate Huston

Engineering director, DuckDuckGo

Published

Over the past 18 months or so, many people have had more time to think about what they want from their jobs, and the kind of conditions they are willing to accept.

The concept of the Great Resignation tends to gloss over “essential workers,” who are still somehow not essential enough to merit a living wage, or healthcare workers, many of whom are too burnt out to keep going. For knowledge workers, meanwhile, the conversation has often been about perceived entitlement, such as those who don’t want to return to the office.

Regardless, your current job is just a moment in your overall career, and it’s worth thinking critically about whether it’s serving your longer term career goals. So, here are five reasons why you might want to think about quitting.

1. You’re not learning (and you want to be)

It’s normal to move between periods of higher growth and periods of consolidation, and perhaps in the last year it’s been a relief to be operating well within your comfort zone. But if you’re poking your head up, and looking around, and your next growth opportunity is nowhere to be seen, it’s worth considering that your next growth opportunity could be elsewhere.

The trap: Sometimes five years of experience is just… the same year of experience, five times over. This can really set back your career trajectory, making it harder to interview or get hired for roles you think you should be qualified for by now. Employers who interview in depth will suss out if you’ve been stagnating, and you’ll need to explain it.

Before you quit: Talk to your manager about what growth opportunities they see for you. Especially if you’ve struggled personally for whatever reason (including, for example, living through a global pandemic) it’s worth laying that to rest between you and making it clear you’re ready to take on more. Many nice, understanding managers have let people drift a bit, not wanting to add pressure when the world is on fire (and some have done the opposite, which is a whole other story).

2. You’re learning coping mechanisms rather than skills

Every organization has quirks that people find their way to work around. Perhaps the reporting is overly arduous, or your manager’s manager is quite political, or the culture is a little too argumentative for your liking. Over time, we learn to cope with these things—we set aside extra time for the reports, make sure we take the time to sell the political person on our ideas, or learn how to debate more aggressively.

The trap: Sometimes organizations are (or become) sufficiently toxic that we’re investing more time in developing and refining the coping mechanisms than the actual skills. If your list of things to develop is really a list of things that you won’t have to do in a more functional environment, it’s time to walk away. The coping mechanisms trap is particularly vicious because in a healthy environment, coping mechanisms will often be harmful. The more time you invest in refining them, the more time you’re going to have to spend untangling them in a healthy environment—if you ever make it to one.

Before you quit: Talk to someone you trust, who will not just support you but also challenge you. It’s important that they have an external or at least dispassionate perspective (someone who is also deep in the same coping mechanisms will be more likely to justify them). An external coach, a previous manager, a close industry friend all can be good people to turn to. Ideally they can check you on what’s bothering you and ask vital questions, like are you overreacting, and would the grass really be greener elsewhere?

3. You feel morally conflicted about hiring

I’m not suggesting we should all be corporate shills, but if you’re hesitating mentioning that the company you work for is hiring, and would offer a lukewarm view or even “I don’t recommend it” to friends who ask you… it’s worth asking yourself: If they deserve better, maybe you do too?

The trap: People tend to consider their next job much more deliberately than we consider staying in the one we have. It’s easy to tick along because things are “mostly fine,” but sometimes the questions that people ask when interviewing can remind us that we don’t have a great answer to those questions ourselves if we really think about it.

Before you quit: Is it the company or is it you? Burnout can make us feel ambivalent toward things we would normally enjoy. Try taking a real break from work and see how you feel.

4. Your job is affecting your confidence

The best advice I got early in my career was “if it’s affecting your confidence, then it’s a problem.” It’s something I still think about, and assess situations against. Some things are just annoying and easy to shrug off, but things that erode your confidence should be paid attention to. As a rule, over time you should feel more capable, not less. This is particularly the case when you can look at your achievements, and the way you’re being treated, and see a real mismatch.

The trap: Once you stop feeling valued, and start doubting yourself, it becomes harder and harder to find something else. You’re not valued, you don’t feel successful where you are, so why would somewhere else value you, and why would you be more successful elsewhere? The truth is that success is a product of personal and environmental factors. Maybe all you need is a different environment to help you thrive.

Before you quit: Make the time to thoroughly and (to the extent possible) dispassionately review the things that have been eroding your confidence. If it’s the feedback you’re getting, I highly recommend reading Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s Thanks for the Feedback. If it’s other things, such as the way your co-workers communicate, consider if these are things you could build some resilience to, or the result of trauma from previous bad experiences. If you have a good relationship with your manager, try asking for what you need—for instance, if you struggle to get the most of their coaching because you’re so worried you’re not meeting their expectations that you can’t engage with it, try telling them that and see if they can offer some reassurance first.

5. Your job is affecting you physically

Stress is physical. At the point where it’s noticeable in your heart rate and physical well-being, you have internalized it.

The trap: The physical effects of stress can sneak up on us, and when you’re not feeling well the stress of looking for another job or risking your health insurance may be the last thing you want to deal with.

Before you quit: You know your work environment, and you know yourself—so you know whether it’s worth trying to set boundaries and/or build healthy habits. If you draw a line at 7pm, will it be respected? If you carve out time for daily exercise will it be enough to make a difference? If it is, I find Gretchen Rubin’s book Better than Before and her Four Tendencies framework helpful for thinking about building (and maintaining) habits.

6. Bonus: You’re reading this

Sometimes it’s hard to admit the major change that we need—because then we would have to do something about it. But, if you’re reading this, maybe it’s a sign that you should do some reflection on what you want out of your life and career, and how well your current role is serving that.

Forty hours a week (or let’s be real, more) is a lot of time to be unhappy. Being unhappy at work bleeds into other areas of our lives, impacting our physical and emotional well-being and personal relationships. I’m not advocating job-hopping—there are always things that you can try to improve your situation—but as a hiring manager, I’ve frequently seen people who have stayed in one place too long at the expense of their own growth and overall career. Regularly thinking critically about what you’re getting from your environment—and what you’re not—is key to sustained, and sustainable, growth. Even if you have a great manager, you’re still the person directly responsible for your career. Abdicating that responsibility does not set you up for long term success.

And if you’re a manager thinking about how to retain people on your team, consider that your best retention play, ironically, might be making it easier for them to find a job somewhere else. Ensure that people are learning and growing in ways that provide value to them personally. It makes it more likely they will feel valued and choose to stay. After all, it’s much harder to trap people in the current labor market—but that was never a good way to manage, anyway.

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