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Your job: Signs you've stayed too long
They're not as obvious as they may seem. Ignore them, and you could find yourself in worse shape.
August 2, 2005: 2:23 PM EDT
By Jeanne Sahadi, CNN/Money senior writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) – When your grandmother asks "Would you like some bread, honey?" you're most likely to say: "Yes, please" or "No, thanks."

You're not likely to do what I did once: burst into tears.

That incident was one sign I had stayed too long at a job where I logged countless hours doing work that paid far more in stress than money. The other was the recurring thought that if I were hit by a bus I would regret how I spent my last months on earth.

I finally quit, but that's the last time I'll wait for such a dramatic breaking point to take my leave.

"People think the time to leave is when things become unbearable, or is a function of the time you've been there. It's not," said Dory Hollander, a career coach, workplace psychologist and author of "The Doom-Loop System."

For the sake of comparison, here's how Hollander defines being satisfied with your job: you can see yourself in three or four years still liking your work, you like the company culture and your coworkers, and the job isn't interfering unduly with the rest of your life. (And no, "unduly" doesn't mean having to show up every day.)

With that, here are some telling signs that you should start thinking about making an exit – or at least pursue more rewarding opportunities at the same company.

You have a lot on your mind, just not work. The work doesn't challenge you and time hangs. "Boredom is a big factor," Hollander said. "When it's just a job, it's time to leave."

Things change, not to your advantage. The boss you got along with so well leaves, or worse, takes on a new favorite employee. Eventually that person gets layered in above you on the corporate ladder, intercepting your access to the boss, taking over plum projects and moving you out of the decision-making loop.

Hollander describes this as "death by a thousand cuts." The change is subtle at first, but your loss of status compounds over time.

Your boss takes you for granted. You do something well and you get pigeonholed as the company expert in that area. Or you're no longer seen as having potential for new projects. Or, just as bad, you're known as the good corporate citizen who'll do whatever you're asked – including relocating multiple times.

You pigeonhole yourself. Hollander knows top performers who stay at their jobs because they don't believe they could succeed elsewhere. "The longer you're at a place, the more you think your success depends on your environment," she said. Or you lose confidence that you can do anything else.

Your mood ranges from angry to angrier. No matter how well-regarded your work is or once was, if you develop a reputation as a depressing crank, colleagues will distance themselves. And that isolation can make you more vulnerable in a layoff.

You feel like hell. Unhappiness can undermine your health, said Paul Spector, professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of South Florida. Early signs of excess stress: stomachaches, headaches and insomnia.

'Okay, but get real'

I'm fully expecting angry emails from readers who'll complain that it's a luxury to think that you can "just change jobs" if you feel you've been there too long.

Hiring may be sparse in your field. You may be supporting a family and need the money -- to say nothing of the insurance. You only have a few years before fully vesting in your stock options. Or you're retiring in fewer than 15 years and want to maximize the pension you get.

If that's the case and you plan to stay, do more than just suck it up.

Don't see yourself as a wage slave. "See your job as a funding source for what you want to do next," Hollander said. "Do what's required and do it as quickly as you can, then network with those who can give you the growth you need for the next job."

And try to develop new skills that will serve you well when you do leave.

Because the trouble with waiting – to vest, to retire, to get promoted – is that it doesn't always pay off. There's nothing stopping employers from letting you go five minutes before you reach your goal. And the terms of your exit will be theirs, not yours.

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Jeanne Sahadi writes about personal finance for CNN/Money. For comments on this column or suggestions for future ones, please e-mail her at everydaymoney@cnnmoney.com.  Top of page

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