The hidden psychological stress of work and why I want out

Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to work we go!

As another daunting work year begins I am reminded why I want to get out of the 9-5 until you’re 65 salaried full-time worker game.

It’s not that I dislike my job. Quite the opposite – I really enjoy it and I genuinely love the people I work with. I’m one of those annoying people who gets to work with his friends in relative autonomy doing a gratifying job with reasonable pay. But at times it is extremely stressful.

Why do I want to opt-out of the workforce and retire in ten years?

Because most jobs are bad for you and your mental health. It’s not natural for us to be seated all day – we have become fat and bloated creatures about as far removed from our hunter gatherer ancestors as you can imagine.

We stress about unimportant things like deadlines and office politics and why stupid people get promoted and THE MORNING TEA ROSTER IS NOT FAIR and miss out on the opportunity to do meaningful activities with the people we love. Because we are there.  At work. In meetings.


I have recently had about ten days off work over the Christmas period and it was a delightful sneak-preview into my life as an early retiree.

Without the international travel, but full of time with family and friends – games, drinks, laughter, exercise, reading, gardening, exploring the beach, swimming in the ocean and building things. It was wonderful.

It was my first day back at work today and it was difficult because I only managed to get to sleep at 4:30AM this morning. Horrible, staring-at-the-ceiling-wide-awake-insomnia – complete with rooster calls taunting me and the sun threatening to rise as I finally drifted off for a broken two hour sleep.

I was quick to blame the amount of coffee I’d had during the day and the fact that I slept in the day before, but at work today at least three people brought home the real reason.

“You were probably just stressed about work – don’t worry it’s normal.”

I tried to dismiss the notion. I hadn’t in fact been thinking about work while I was trying to sleep and it wasn’t going to be a particularly difficult day – but they were right. Work was the only new variable in the equation and my subconscious mind was clearly quite distressed about the prospect of starting a whole new year of work.

How has it become acceptable that we trade stress and anxiety for money for our entire adult life? We are more efficient than ever, have more technology and machines to do the work for us than at any other point in human history – but we work more instead of less. It doesn’t make sense.

At previous jobs I have had negative health consequences because of work stress – bad mood swings, anxiety, lethargy, unexplained sadness, racing pulse, high blood pressure (at 25!).

Last night was a realisation that no matter how good the job we are paid to do is, that at times there will be a conflict between what we want to do and what we have to do for an income. This conflict causes stress – and I want to avoid it as soon as possible.

For those of you unlucky enough to have a job you truly detest or not have a job despite a long search – I can’t imagine the toll it takes on your health.

Numerous studies [1,2,3,4,5,6] suggest that poor working environments (I would argue that a great percentage are) are horrible for your health. Some even suggest that a bad job might be more destructive to your mental health than being unemployed (unsuccessfully looking for work, not financially independent).

What can we do about it?

I would encourage all of your who read this to study the simple maths behind early retirement and to look into the possibility that you could be free from work within ten years. It doesn’t have to be a dream that you use at night to stop you thinking about work in the morning – it can be a reality if you want it enough.

It requires only an average family income, serious dedication, sacrifice and frugality on steriods! It can be done and just the health consequences of a life of work make it worth exploring.

When you add in all of the other things you could be doing with your time if you didn’t have to go to work, early retirement is definitely something you should consider.

I often espouse a hard-line extreme early retirement philosophy here, but it is equally valid to shoot to save 25% or 50% of your salary rather than the 75% I aim for. Either way, you will be rid of the insomnia and stress inducing work all the sooner if you commit to an early retirement plan.

If work has had a negative health consequence for you please share  your experience in the comments below – equally, if you think that I’m overstating the negative health consequence of work I’d like to hear that too.

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The hidden psychological stress of work and why I want out — 40 Comments

    • I have just switched jobs last year, and I love the job and people – this feeling isn’t constant. My point was really that it’s horrible that we have to sacrifice our health to do our jobs even when we like our jobs. When we hate them it’s even worse.

      My desire to get out of the workforce is about many other things other than health as well.

    • That’s great Grayson. I’m planning on early retirement and getting to financial independence early so that I have the option to quit as much as quitting itself. It’s the idea that I could just walk out and call everyone a knob that I find liberating.

  1. This is one of the very reasons why I left last year too help my wife expand our business. I was miserable and going no where and was starting to negatively impact my health. I am much happier now then in any other job I’ve ever had.

  2. I never really thought about early retirement before, but as I continue to get older, I definitely understand why it might be a good idea to prepare for it. I just can’t see myself in an office until I’m 65 and still being happy.

    • Planning for retirement should be one of our highest priorities from a personal finance perspective in my opinion – not just an early one, but having money set aside for when you can’t or are too old to work is very important. All the better if you can get out of the office a few years early. :)

  3. This blog post describes how I feel about work. Even though I have a secure decently well-paid job at a great company with awesome benefits and am surrounded by colleagues that I enjoy being around, all it does is make the daily grind suck less.

    It is like being stuck in a cage … chained to my cubicle, knowing that life is passing me by, waiting patiently but trying desperately to earn my freedom. It’s not necessarily that I never want to work again … but I hate that I *have* to: show up from 9-5 every weekday (not to mention the commute time and prep time), stay even when there’s hardly anything going on, go against my natural sleep pattern, put up with B.S. … all because I depend on that fat paycheck from my employer every two weeks.

    I worry that all this time spent imprisoned will take its toll and I will eventually forget how to enjoy life (or otherwise lose the health/spirit to make the most of it). I long for the day when I can control every day of my life … not merely 2/7 of them with an occasional treat (i.e. PTO, holidays).

    • Welcome Frugal Coconut! It sounds like you could benefit from looking into early retirement – a work free life is probably closer than you realise. Also starting to work on some passive income sources that aren’t work related might take the pressure off your job so that it doesn’t feel quite so restricting. There are many things you can do online to make a dollar which you can do from anywhere in the world, or in your underpants.

      • I’ve definitely been working on the early retirement frontier … I still have around 7 1/2 years to go though, which of course feels like forever. I save over 50% of my income now … working on a couple of things this year which will hopefully increase that by improving cash flow (refinancing rental property, renting out master bedroom in primary residence) so a lot is riding on how those new things turn out. I just paid off the mortgage on my primary residence in 2012.

        As far as the passive income stream from online sources or whatnot, it seems rather daunting to get involved in that. Even though I’ve read numerous articles about it, the whole concept is rather vague. It’s harder for me to do something that isn’t structured … I wish there was a step-by-step manual for that sort of thing (although then there wouldn’t be a market for it since everyone would already be doing it). Rental property seemed the easiest … especially as I had a natural interest in it … unfortunately I made a bad purchase the first time (although I learned from it and have read tons about it since!). Starting a business is intimidating and I don’t know what I’d want to do and I probably won’t have sufficient time to devote to it. I guess it boils down to being scared to venture into the unknown and being afraid of failure. Do they have books at the library for people like me? Maybe “How to Get Over Your Fears and Develop Passive Income Streams: A Detailed Guide for Non-Entrepreneurs”? Any advice is welcome. ;)

        • Congratulations on paying off your mortgage! It sounds like you’ve got some really good semi-passive income streams already with your rental/room-renting so don’t sweat the online stuff if it doesn’t interest you. There are heaps of ways to skin a cat and it sounds like you’re doing well. If you’re really interested in reading about earning money online I would recommend Smart Passive Income.

  4. Most days I really like my job. But when it comes down to it, I also like having time to devote to people and causes I care deeply about. And pursuing personal passions that can find their way to the backburner too quickly when the boss wants something “yesterday”.

    I totally get where you’re coming from. Your job doesn’t have to be in the 5th circle of hell to want to have more freedom. =)

    • Amen! I think we get used to work and sometimes forget how difficult it can make other aspects of life – all because of the mistake of thinking there is no way around it.

  5. I like my current job and the people I work with a lot. But I don’t like it as much add I like spending a day at the coffee shop or hanging out with friends :)

    We are definitely on board with early retirement. Hoping to make good progress in 2013.

  6. There are people that go to work because they genuinely love their job and helping others. I don’t mind going to work at all infact I’m blessed that I’m even working in the economy today. I’m happy when I went back to school I took something that likely won’t see a slowdown but the reality is work is work for most. We go to work to make money and come home at the end of the day. Some people make work their life goal and that’s ok too. If I wasn’t happy at work I’d look for something different end of story. I’d love to retire early and focus on other aspects that I would like to accomplish before I kick the bucket. Until then I’ll keep saving for that day if and when it comes. Mr.CBB

  7. I know exactly what you mean – I love my job, and I expect that I’ll probably choose to work even once I’m financially independent, but at the same time I’d love to work less or have the freedom to retire when I want to, not when the old age pension says I can.

    I think that once you know you can retire if you want to, a lot of that stress will just magically melt away anyway!

    Also it’s great to read an Australian PF blogger :-)

    • Thanks Sophie! Welcome to the site. I’ve just had a look at your site and like what I see – this is probably a stupid question but I can’t see a way to subscribe to your blog at your site – do you have an RSS feed?

      • Nothing like a technical question to really throw me off! I’m soooo not a professional or aspiring-to-be-professional blogger (my friend and I started our blog as a bit of fun) so I had to google it: apparently you can click on subcribe to posts (atom)at the bottom of the first page of posts, and then once you’re in the feed: “If your viewers would like to change this to RSS, then they will need to add ‘?alt=rss’ to the end of the site feed URL” – does that make any sense?

        I’m really keen to hear more opinions on investing in Australia (because most blogs, what with being American or Canadian, focus on the options there) – are you planning to write about investing extra income soon?

        • I ended up following you by becoming a friend of the site through my google account. I’m hoping I’m subscribed and I get your updates.

          I am preparing an article on index fund investing through Vanguard Australia. It’s a company that is based in the US and is talked about a lot in personal finance/investing circles. I will be writing a detailed investment plan and also why I’ve chosen the investing philosophy I have (long term, low fee, index fund). It will be focused on the hows and whys but will also be relevant to Australian readers because it’s something that we have available to us here. Not all of Vanguard’s products are, but they have some fantastic low cost index funds which I’ll explain in the post.

          I hope it helps. When you see it let me know if there is anything I could explain in more detail. :)

  8. This speaks to me so much. There’s nothing terrible about my job. It’s fairly enjoyable, not too much deadline-induced stress, I like a lot of the people, and they pay me pretty well, but spending 8 hours sitting in front of my computer every day really drags me down. I don’t want to do this forever. I can’t wait until the day when I’ve saved up enough money to leave the 9-5 job.

    • Thank you for the very kind words, and welcome. I think we get used to work so that we think it’s more enjoyable than it is – a good job by definition is just better relatively to a worse job. It doesn’t compare to being financially independent though!

  9. I was really stressed at my last job with back pain and jaw clenching. My boss had us working under a webcam to check on us all day and was an a** with so many other things I am glad I am out. Before considering early retirement I considered changing jobs for something I really enjoyed, like teaching, that would have cut my salary in 4 or 5 but allowed me to escape the rat race a bit earlier and work a few more years happily.

    • Wow – that sounds terrible Pauline. I’m glad you’re out of there. Just goes to show that no amount of money makes a job like that worth it. Our health is too important.

  10. There was a period of time when I was getting terrible tension headaches from stress at work. (So bad I couldn’t even go to work somedays). My MD told me I should quit my job, I joked with him, would he hire me. Since that time things have gotten better, but I’m still thinking about ways I can quit my job to do the things I love.

    • That’s horrible KK – hopefully you can find something that’s better for you soon, or pursue early retirement and try to reach financial independence so you can give work the boot for good.

  11. I don’t foresee early retirement for me, but because of the BK that I am currently and where it will leave me in 5 years, I will at least have something to retire with. It was a difficult decision to make, but it will set me up later to have more options!
    Good luck to you!

    • That sounds like a tough situation but can definitely be the right one if the circumstances are right. Never write off an early retirement no matter how poor your finances are. I started with a moderate amount of debt and an average income and I’m not too far off (hopefully). All the best with your financial goals DG.

  12. You are totally right about all of this, and this blog is so important to teach us the way towards early retirement. Something interesting happened to me during this same process, though…I decided that 10 years was STILL too long to be miserable…if we die in 12 years what is the point? SO I pared down my expenses and found work I was passionate about. My desire to retire early completely went away, which is not to say I stopped saving viciously! Either way, it’s an interesting process that yields different results..

    • Thanks Tony. I’d love to be able to retire in less than ten, and it’s certainly possible if I’m able to further reduce spending, or have a series of really good years in the share-market. I’d love to develop a few side projects that turned into my main job so that I’d have the flexibility of working from home – it’d be interesting to see if doing that made me want to be financially independent any less.

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