The 5 Stages of (Career) Grief


Buzz…Buzz…Buzz…SMACK! Please, just five more minutes.

Dissatisfaction in the workplace is one of the most stressful situations you can find yourself in. You don’t want to get up in the morning. You hit the snooze button like you’re playing “whack-a-mole”. There’s suddenly not enough coffee in the world to take off the edge. By 9:30am you’re thinking that if you hear Brad’s raspy cackle one more time you are going to throw your mug at his big balding head. It’s only 9:30. You need more coffee… So, is it you? The job? Brad? A lot of people find themselves in an employment situation that is not satisfying, challenging or even toxic. Why do you stay? This blog post is an excerpt from my upcoming book “The Frankenstein Career”, the second book in The Frankenstein Condition series.

Below, are the 5 stages of career grief that have been adapted from The 5 Stages of Grief by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. She outlined the 5 stages of grief as: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. You may recognize some of these when you think about your job. You may, for example, feel trapped or unfulfilled making you angry or depressed. You may have given up, accepting where you are thinking that you can’t make a change. Each one of these can be associated with your career or job.

So, here are the 5 stages of career grief and how to identify them:


Stage 1: Denial

Denial can take two forms. The first is denying that there is a problem. You have landed the job that everyone said was perfect for you. Your parents couldn’t be happier. Even though you are unhappy you convince yourself otherwise. You have to be happy, right? Everyone says so. Well, if you are in a job that you hate or a career that isn’t fulfilling then you need to stop denying your own feelings. Stop listening to everyone else and stop denying yourself happiness. You spend way too much time at work to settle. The result will be resentment. If this sounds familiar, move to Stage 2.

The second form of denial is denying that the problem is you. Blaming everyone else but yourself. Your boss is an ass, there’s never enough coffee, someone stole your stapler, Sheryl is a complete jerk and then there’s Brad. STOP! You are trapped in an excuse loop. Get your head out of your ass. You may be the problem. Lack of job satisfaction, limited promotion opportunity, salary… all of these things will add up and fester making you cranky and unhappy. If this is you, move on to stage 2 and do not collect $200.


Stage 2: Anger

Your dissatisfaction has hit the boiling point. Dave just took the last bit of coffee and didn’t make another pot. That’s it! I’ve had it! Welcome to Stage 2, anger. From someone who sat quietly mumbling at your desk by yourself, you have become toxic. People avoid you. Your work suffers, your colleagues suffer, your family suffers and your poor alarm clock sits in the corner of your bedroom in a disjointed pile of plastic. More importantly, you suffer. The stress and anxiety has boiled over and it has become anger. So now what? Well, if you are acknowledging the fact that you are angry that’s the first step. Now, identify the problem. Is it salary, a promotion, recognition or you want a desk closer to the coffee machine? If this is how you’re feeling, go immediately to Stage 3! Make things happen.

If you haven’t reached this phase and it’s still everyone else’s fault, go back to the beginning of Stage 2 and re-read it. AND STOP DRINKING COFFEE! Maybe test out a herbal tea?

If you jump straight from anger to bargaining, you will fail. This is reacting and not contemplation. This Stage is about contemplation and reflection. Action takes place in Stage 3. There is rarely a plan when you react so go back to the beginning of Stage 2 and stop being an ass.


Stage 3: Bargaining (Negotiating)

Welcome to Stage 3! This is where we flip the 5 stages of grief. Instead of slowly moving from stage to stage in dealing with grief, in career grief Stage 3 is the goal. Stage 4 and 5 are the results of inaction.

Stage 3 is about empowerment. You now know what you want and you must take action. This is also where the wheels fall off if you jump to stage 3 prematurely. Like I said at the end of Stage 2, reacting with anger will almost always have negative results.

Some people will jump to the conclusion that the only option is to quit. Quitting is only if you have tried everything else. Your first action should be to fix where you are. If you have a clear idea of what you want, present it to your employer. You have nothing to lose. You are already unhappy. Don’t forget that there is a great deal of stress associated with looking for or starting a new job. Your best action here is to try fixing where you are.

Resolution is at hand. Now that you know what you want, you are ready to address it. Take action. Book a meeting with your boss, HR or the person who can make the change for you.


Stage 4: Depression

So, you’re at Stage 4. Either you dealt with the situation and it didn’t go your way or you have buried your head in the sand. It is the result of inaction or worse, Stage 5. These last two stages are interchangeable.

Now, don’t confuse this Stage with clinical depression. Clinical depression is a completely different situation requiring the aid of a professional. This form of depression is situational. Either way Stage 4 is not where anyone should be.


Stage 5: Acceptance

Are you not paying attention? How have you made it to Stage 5? You need more than a hug, you need a kick in the ass. You are basically back at Stage 1 without the deniability. See how this is a loop. Your penance here is to go back to Stage 1 and keep reading these over and over until Stage 3 sticks!

For some this process will work right away, for others it will take more work. Don’t worry if you get to depression and or acceptance. A lot of people do. Just promise me you will start at the beginning and get back on track. It will likely involve buying another alarm clock, though.

Robert SmithComment