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Health @ Work

How to overcome career regrets


The New Year is a time to take stock of your life and your career, but for some this comes with an unhealthy dose of regret.  According to a telephone survey of adults, one in three men and one in three women expressed some regret about work and career.

Another more informal survey of 30 professionals by author Daniel Gulati found that most of those he interviewed had some regrets about their career and that these regrets fell into five categories. 

“I’m a big believer that having a high pain tolerance is a bad thing because you stay in bad work situations (and relationships) too long."

- Brandon Smith, an Atlanta-based therapist and expert in workplace health

The five areas of regret included taking an unsatisfying job for the high salary, not quitting a mediocre job sooner, not starting your own business, not making the most out of college and not taking advantage of a once in a lifetime opportunity.

“Regret can be one of the worst things for any of us in our career and in our life,” said Brandon Smith, an Atlanta-based therapist and expert in workplace health. “It can linger for decades. You can get stuck in the past playing something over and over."

However, regret can also be a good thing, if you learn from it and make better decisions about your work.  

It helps to understand that regrets are often the byproduct of fear,  Smith said. You may fear if you change jobs, ask for new responsibilities, or set out to start a business, things might get worse, not better. 

Fear holds us back from taking on things we want, and that of course, leads to regrets, Smith added.

There are several ways to cope with, and get rid of, regrets.

The first is change.  If you have regrets about past career decisions, such as staying in a crummy job for too long, make sure you’re not currently making the same mistake. 

“I’m a big believer that having a high pain tolerance is a bad thing because you stay in bad work situations (and relationships) too long,” Smith said.  

If you are still in the job or situation that you are regretting, or know you’ll look back with regret, then try to move past the fear and make a change. It doesn’t mean handing in a letter of resignation. Make small changes, like trying to improve the job you have. 

If one of your regrets is regretting the lack of time you’ve been able to spend with your family, make a move to cut back on your work hours or ask for more flexible work hours. 

“Most people never regret getting out of a negative situation,” Smith said.

Know that it’s never too late to make a career change. There are two rather large windows when making career changes are easiest, Smith said. 

The first is between the ages of 26 and 38. The second window is between 55 and 65—by that point you may have the financial stability and life experience to successfully start a new chapter.

The second part of coping is changing your perspective.  Take an inventory of what is working and positive in your job. Look at what changes you have made. Maybe you’re not crazy about your job, but you get to see your family every night. 

Look at what you should be thankful for: “The best antidote for regret is appreciation,” Smith said.

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She blogs about the Affordable Care Act for the WellBeeFile. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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