SOS: Tackling Mid-Career Malaise

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People sometimes joke about having a midlife crisis yet the truth is, research shows midlife (i.e., approximately in your 40s) is when people really do experience the lowest satisfaction in their personal and professional lives. This is a stage of life during which many have the highest financial burdens and the most at-home demands.

Canadian TESL professionals also experience malaise mid-career. In a study on the reflections of three mid-career ESL teachers in Canada, one participant noted she had “gone a little stale.” Another felt she had “plateaued professionally.” Experts say the signs that you are experiencing malaise can include feeling lethargic, disinterested, and unmotivated. You may be asking yourself questions like Is this truly what I’m meant to be doing with my life?

Likewise, unaddressed malaise can lead to bitterness, sorrow, and disengagement. To tackle mid-career malaise, consider these five important steps:

1. Discover the root cause of your discontent

This sounds obvious, but it is a crucial step. Consider if you are unhappy with your actual job (e.g., you are bored and uninspired by the actions you do on a day-to-day basis) or unhappy with the boss/company you presently work for (e.g., you feel as if you have reached a plateau in your current situation).

2. Consider the mindset you adopt at work

A negative state of mind could be generating career sabotage. It is important to reflect and ask yourself if you are truly present when you show up to your job. If your attention is diverted, you will not be able to capitalize upon opportunities that might be available to you.

3. Consider the ways you can have your microenvironment altered

Boredom is a common cause of malaise, be it in TESL or other professions. So, think about ways that you may be able to vary your responsibilities and schedule. For example, you might teach a different course or sign up for a teacher discussion group. Yet , while a change of pace might be just what you need, carefully select the tasks you take on and the people you do them with. Remember that self-advocacy is critical for cultivating what you want in your job, as your ideal role won’t simply fall into your lap. 

4. Consider how your motivations have changed

If you have been in the same position for a while, chances are that the person you are now is not the same as when you started, and what once brought contentment may now not be sufficient. Thus, it is important to re-assess your interests, priorities, and skillset. Figure out what factors bring you contentment and joy now (e.g., curriculum development, mentorship) and prioritize them.

5. Consider what non-work-related activities give you self-worth

People in occupations such as teaching, where there isn’t a clearly defined schedule, can suffer from enmeshment. Enmeshment is a psychological condition in which there is a blurring between one’s personal and work life. Enmeshment is dangerous because it can make you link your entire self-worth to your job, and experience great distress when professional setbacks occur. Therefore, it is important to find activities outside of work (e.g., hobbies, sports) that bring you satisfaction.

To conclude, if you are a TESL professional currently experiencing malaise, recognize that you are not alone. I encourage you to work through the steps above, and hopefully that can help you regain a sense of happiness in your professional life.

References

Farrell, T. S. C. (2014). ‘I feel like I’ve plateaued professionally … gone a little stale’: Mid-career reflections in a teacher discussion group. Reflective Practice, 15(4), 504-517. https://doi.org/10.1080/14623943.2014.900029

Knight, R. (2018, August 2). How to beat mid-career malaise. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2018/08/how-to-beat-mid-career-malaise

Morgan, K. (2021, April 13). Why we define ourselves by our jobs. BBC Worklife.https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210409-why-we-define-ourselves-by-our-jobs

Rezvani, S. (2019, October 6). Being your own fierce self-advocate [online course]. LinkedIn Learning. https://www.linkedin.com/learning/being-your-own-fierce-self-advocate/standing-up-for-yourself-every-day?u=2219954       

Setiya, K. (2019, March-April). Facing your mid-career crisis. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2019/03/facing-your-mid-career-crisis

Walsh, V. (2019, March 12). 3 questions to ask mid-career when you feel at slump at work. Thrive Global. https://thriveglobal.com/stories/3-questions-to-ask-mid-career-when-you-feel-a-slump-at-work/ 

Wilkins, M. (Host). (2021, October 20). How do I get through my mid-career crisis? [Audio podcast episode]. In Coaching Real Leaders with Muriel Wilkins. HBR Presents.https://hbr.org/podcast/2021/10/how-do-i-get-through-my-mid-career-crisis

Heather Donnelly has been a faculty member at Fanshawe College since 2015. She has also taught EAP/ESL courses for a number of colleges and universities in Ontario and Manitoba. She is very interested in the professional identity development of novice ESL instructors, and this topic was the focus of her 2015 MEd thesis "Becoming an ESL Teacher: An Autoethnography." She enjoys writing about ways to navigate the TESL job market.

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