Words That Signal You Have a Problem with Your Work Situation

When you speak with lots of people about work you can’t help but develop a sonar-like ability to pick up certain words or phrases. They suggest either (a) someone is unhappy at work but doesn’t yet want to admit it to themselves OR (b) knows they are unhappy but has a faulty strategy in mind to improve their situation. Fortunately, my sonar goes off chiefly when I’m part of the conversation, but I will admit to pushing myself into dialogues where I wasn’t always invited!

Words that signal trouble at workMy all-time number one sonar-pinging word about work is ‘fine’. In the wild, this appears in a version of the following:

Me: How is the new job? 

Me: How is work going?

Me: Have things been resolved with that work problem?

Them: (often preceded by deep inhale) Oh, it’s fine.

Do you know how the detective looks for the obviously paler skin on the ring finger or the differences in footprint size or shoe tread? I listen very closely for the words that are underwhelming in their usage, and fine is the most often used word when people either don’t want to lie or haven’t quite yet admitted the truth to themselves.  

And if you find yourself as one who often uses the word “fine” I want you to reread the second half of the sentence above because I am speaking directly to you. 

If you are someone who doesn’t want to lie, I am okay with that. With good reason, perhaps you want to have a conversation with everyone about why you are disappointed by your situation. I get that. But let’s improve your situation and put in the effort to make work more fulfilling. In the future you’ll be able to respond that ‘work is great’. 

Sometimes the words we use are ahead of what we’ve allowed ourselves to freely admit. If you drop fine in response to work-related questions it may be that you are working your way towards fully realizing how unhappy you are, and this is your bland response that won’t evoke follow-up. 

The problem with that approach when you’re talking to me is this. I. Always. Follow. Up.   

Decades of working with others has helped me to see that fine, rarely is. In fact, it suggests you have been settling for some time. You need to do something to change your work situation by improving relationships with your boss or colleagues, seeking a shift in your responsibilities, or changing jobs to one more aligned with your professional goals.     

The other word that creates a massive bat signal is the slightly more innocent word, “different.” This most often shows up in a version of the following dialogue:

Them: I’m pretty unhappy with my work situation and I’ve decided to do something different.

Me: What are you considering? 

Them: It just has to be different. I need to get away from this (boss, role, employer, etc.)

Me: Well, not exactly what you want is a BETTER job.

Remember that there is a degree of distinction that goes beyond bad, otherwise known as “worse.”. All too often people end up choosing a different job and end up with a WORSE boss, WORSE pay, or WORSE work. And the people I’ve counseled with who have reached out after two successive bad experiences often have their confidence in making smart decisions considerably shaken.

Looking for “different” is a bit like taking a dart and throwing it at want ads. There is really very little certainty that this is going to make you happy. I mean maybe inseminating livestock will really end up being amazing. But I doubt it. 

Your focus needs to be about what will make your situation BETTER. You need to determine a set of criteria and align what you are considering to that criterion. For example, better for you could be:  


  • A raise of x%, a shorter commute and smaller & more supportive workplace
  • A communications role, an employer who promotes from within and strict 9-5 hours
  • Working in professional sports, a boss engaged in your growth and generous family leave

See what we did there? You have a set of things that you are aiming for that will improve upon what’s making you unhappy now. Knowing these criteria will allow you to better consider all of the possibilities and make informed versus accidental choices.   

Thank you for letting me get that off my chest. If you can’t recall the words that you are regularly using, ask the friends you chat with the most about what they hear you saying. Or do your best for the next few days to hear the words you are using and try to gauge the feelings behind them. 

“I’m fine.”

“I’m thinking of doing something different.”


Then, begin to do the work that will allow you to solve what’s creating this bad situation. You can be happier and starting to improve things is completely dependent upon you.  

Russ Finkelstein is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor.  A career coach, social entrepreneur and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship, Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship and a Co-Founder of Title8 a Legal Marketplace. He was a founder of the noted careers website Idealist.org and his new book, "Let's Sort Out Your Career Mess, Together..." is forthcoming in 2021. 

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