The 4 Warning Signs That You've Hit Your 'Job Plateau'

Your career may be stalling and you don't even know it. Pay attention to these red flags.
Don't ignore the warnings that you've hit your job plateau.
Illustration: Jianan Liu/HuffPost; Photo: Getty Images
Don't ignore the warnings that you've hit your job plateau.

Jobs that are OK-but-not-great have their own unique challenges. The longer you stay at these jobs, the more comfortable you may get ― even if it does feel increasingly like your career is stalling.

And that’s where you might hit the dreaded “job plateau.” It’s a period of time in a long-term job where you feel stuck, frustrated or bored by what you do.

Lisa Orbé-Austin, a licensed psychologist who focuses on helping professionals manage their careers, said she sees a lot of people who will ignore for a long time that they are in a job plateau because it’s often a job they know how to do well.

“The beginning of a plateau doesn’t feel terrible,” Orbé-Austin said. “But it’s when that ... becomes kind of a feeling of ‘I’ve done this 1,000 times; what’s new about this?’ you have to kind of then think about ‘What is next for me?’” If you do not take action, you can hold yourself back from taking more fulfilling opportunities and stay stuck in a job you should have long left.

Sometimes there are warning clues and hints that will alert you to your plateau before you are fully ready to acknowledge or address the problem. Here are some of the most common ones:

1. You have hit the limit of what you can learn from your role.

If you feel you’ve done all you can in terms of skills you can develop and things that you can learn, you’re likely in a job plateau, said Nell Wulfhart, a decision coach who helps professionals get “unstuck” so they can move on.

To decide if you’ve really stopped learning useful skills, Wulfhart suggests writing down what you want your future to look like a year to 10 years from now, as well as your long-term goals.

“Maybe it’s boring at the moment, but is [the job] actually getting you the skills you need for that next big job leap? Or are you learning things that could be useful when you want to start your own business in five years?” Wulfhart gave as examples.

“Sometimes you literally just have to put in the time. And there’s no way to sort of avoid it or skip over it or take a shortcut,” Wulfhart said.

But if what you are doing is not serving these long-term goals, then you know that you have hit your plateau.

2. Your boss’s words and actions about your career path consistently do not align.

Your ability to be promoted and get raises are tangible ways to track your opportunities for growth in a role. Wulfhart said to watch out if there’s a repeated pattern of your boss promising opportunities and promotions over months and years, but they never happen.

“People love praise, and they love the idea that someone is looking out for them,” Wulfhart said. “That kind of thing can keep you coasting along for a really long time.”

3. You can’t stop thinking about quitting.

Wulfhart said many of her clients come to her with job plateaus they have been in for years. She said one of the big signs of a plateau is if you keep obsessing over the idea of leaving your job.

“If the thought starts buzzing in your brain, like, ‘Maybe I’ve done all I can with this,’ or ‘Maybe it’s time to get out of here,’ that probably is not going to go away,” Wulfhart.

For clients who are torn between leaving and staying at a job, Wulfhart said she asks them to answer: “Would I take this job now if somebody offered it to me?”

That’s because one of the reasons people stay put in a job that has plateaued is because it is a job that seems good on paper, Wulfhart said. Answering this question can help you clarify if this is really a job that you are content to stay in long-term.

“I would encourage people really to look at who they are now, not who they were when they got the job, just to see if it’s still a fit for them,” Wulfhart said.

4. You’ve stopped caring about your work.

Does every day feel the same at work? When you’re not learning or growing, you can become completely disengaged from your projects, and it’s a sign that you’ve hit your plateau.

“Oftentimes when people are in a plateau, they’re not really thinking about it. They’re just going through the motions more than anything,” Orbé-Austin said.

There are a few immediate actions you can take to shake your job plateau.
Morsa Images via Getty Images
There are a few immediate actions you can take to shake your job plateau.

What To Do If You’re In A Job Plateau

A job plateau is a tough place to be in, but it is possible to address it more immediately. Here’s how:

First, decide if you’re OK being in a plateau.

Before you start job-hunting, assess what your current job is offering you. A stable but boring job that you know how to manage may be just what you need to complete higher priorities in your life.

Wulfhart gave the example of a job that is helping you pay off credit card debt or helps fund your true passion of being in a band.

“I have a friend who has worked in medical publishing for 25 years. And he does not care about medical publishing,” she recalled. “But he has a band, and he’s really into the band. And this is a steady, reasonably well-paid job ... So that’s a perfectly good reason to stay at a job.”

Find a creative outlet that will bring much-needed energy into your life.

While you feel stuck, Wulfhart suggested, it can help to find a hobby unrelated to your job, like pottery, a book club or crafting, that you enjoy doing. Nurturing a new passion can help you see what you have been missing at your job.

“When you find something that you’re actually really hyped and passionate about, then it kind of puts the rest of your life into perspective,” she said. “You’re like, ‘Oh, this is actually what it looks like to really enjoy the thing that I do. Like, why am I putting up with less at my actual job?’”

Network to find out what would be a better fit.

People often stay in job plateaus because of their fear of the unknown. Deep down, you may know you need to quit, but you’re afraid of ending up in a job that is worse than what you have.

Doing informational interviews with people in other jobs you’re interested in can dispel those anxieties and give you the encouragement you need to take action. With informational interviews, you will also learn what responsibilities you can do at your current job to look like a better candidate for positions you actually want, Orbé-Austin said.

You want to take these responsibilities “strategically, so they can be helping you get to the next place you want to go,” Orbé-Austin said. “But you’ve got to know the place first before you start doing that.”

Don’t give up.

Ultimately, getting out of a job plateau and finding a more rewarding opportunity can be tough, hard work, which is why so many of us simply stay put.

Wulfhart said our brains can trick us “into thinking like, ‘Oh, everything’s fine. You can just stay here,’ just because looking for jobs is so miserable. Changing jobs is scary.”

But if you’re up for the challenge, facing your plateau head-on can help you finally decide whether it’s time to move on. And that kind of peace of mind is priceless.

When you’re wrestling with a big decision, “taking action is 99.9% of the time better than not taking action,” Wulfhart said.

Popular in the Community


HuffPost Shopping’s Best Finds