How to Get Yourself Back on Track After a Career Setback

Career setbacks disrupt every aspect of your life. They’re stressful, exhausting, overwhelming and disheartening. Maybe you’ve had a job layoff, you are working in a toxic environment or your agency has unexpectedly shifted its strategic priorities. Setbacks often result from a combination of factors that you never imagined would end up happening to you. I recently experienced a career setback that tilted my world off kilter. I didn’t know how I’d get back on track. But I did, and you will too!

My setback happened after I took on a new position at a different agency. I knew there would be risks with this change, there always are, but generally I expected it would be a good experience that would lead to even more opportunities down the road. Things didn’t turn out as I planned.

In my new role, I found myself in charge of an information technology project that was already over schedule, over budget and under-resourced. Little did I know, I was walking into a ticking time bomb. Things unraveled from all ends, culminating with my boss (who had recruited me) being let go and finding myself reporting to a new boss. Our values and styles collided, and I knew it was finally time to leave.

Here are some things I did to survive that very difficult time. Keep these ideas in your back pocket in case you ever find yourself in the midst of a career setback.

Be Open about What You Want

I talked to everyone I could about my situation and about my desire to switch jobs. I did unconventional things like post about my job search on Facebook, with the hope that friends would keep me in mind for job leads. It was a tactical strategy on my part because a large number of my Facebook friends worked at the agency I wanted to return to, and I knew that they visited Facebook much more often than LinkedIn. A few people expressed their opinion that my openness on Facebook was way too risky and that it sent a negative message.

Word of my job search made its way back to my boss. But, to my surprise, I was asked if they could contact a hiring manager on my behalf about an opening at my former agency. I ended up interviewing for and getting that job. If I hadn’t been open about what I wanted, my boss probably wouldn’t have thought twice about doing that for me. If you’re a non-permanent or at-will employee, you should carefully assess your situation before you share quite as openly as me.

Do Something to Build Your Confidence

When you’re unhappy at your job and you’re not feeling supported or valued, it’s easy to lose your confidence in your abilities. Even if you know in your heart that you are talented and possess important skills, it can be incredibly demoralizing to be in a rotten situation at work. When your confidence wanes, make sure you find other ways to build it back up. Are you good at woodworking, writing or art? Make sure you spend time doing that “thing.” Not only will it help you rebuild your confidence, it will also bring you some joy during a stressful time.


Take your stress out on your tennis shoes! Exercise can bring physical calm in the midst of your mental storm. Hop on a kayak at a nearby lake, take a spin on your bicycle, take a walk through a neighborhood park – your mood will improve and your mind will have more time to ponder options that hadn’t been as obvious before.

Surround Yourself with Empathetic People

There’s nothing worse than confiding your struggles to someone close to you and receiving ambivalence, a lecture, an assessment of your own flaws or their disregard for the true stress of your situation. Not every friend or family member is meant to be a member of your “Support Team.” Be aware of your emotional needs and seek out those who can provide you with the right kind of encouragement. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always come from those you expect. The old cliché about finding out who your true friends are when you’re in crisis is true. Seek out the empaths in your life.

Find Gratitude

When you deliberately search for gratitude, you’ll discover that there are always good things to be found in your life. For me, it was focusing energy on my kids and valuing the time spent with them. I was grateful for my good health and for all the opportunities I’d had throughout my life. It’s hard to see what’s good in your life when you are feeling trapped and hopeless about your job, but there’s always goodness just waiting to be found.

Eventually, you’ll make your way out of the darkness into a new and better job fit. In the meantime, practice some of these suggestions and try to stay positive. When you get to the other side, you’ll be even more grateful for all the wonderful things life can bring you.

Kimberly Nuckles is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Declan Riordan

Taking time to build your confidence is very important in this situation. I also love the idea of kayaking to clear your head! Really gives you time to think about your situation from new angles.

Kimberly Nuckles

Thanks Declan! It’s easy to underestimate how the loss of confidence can impact one’s life, until it actually happens. That’s why having a well-balanced life is so important. If work is the only place you feel competent, and then you lose that, it can be absolutely devastating!