Here’s the Thing About Government Work – It’s Either for You or It’s Not

Have you ever taken the time to consider whether you’re in the right place or not? Most government employees haven’t.

I was one of those people. I grew up hearing from my grandfather what a noble thing it was to have a good old American government job. To him, that meant I would have good pay, I’d never look for another job again, and I’d have a giant payday after I put in my time.

What he didn’t realize was that his version of government was quite different than what I was actually experiencing.

The very first year I started my government job, the benefits were amazing. They actually paid for my healthcare. Really, they put extra money into my check that wasn’t part of my salary and it was meant to cover healthcare costs. “Heck yes, this is great. I’ll stay here forever!” I thought. The next year, they took that extra pay away and quadrupled the cost of health care. Well, okay, I still had the matching and extra 3% going into my retirement. At the time, that was still better than a lot of places.

The next year, that went away too. And so this went until after four years, all I had was healthcare I couldn’t afford, a glorified savings account for a retirement plan, and a hiring and raise freeze. All the things my grandfather was so happy for me to have were gone.

When you have all of those things, nearly anyone, myself included can justify that government is the right place to be. Once all those incentives were gone, now I only had the work to look at. I loved what my job was supposed to do and some days I actually got to do it. Other days, there was so much red tape involved I felt I was going backwards.

Had I been a person who wanted lots of structure and rules around how I could and couldn’t get my work done, I’d still be there. But it turns out that I am better suited for contract work on my terms working with governments rather than in them. This was a discovery I wish I had made years earlier.

Here are three questions you can ask yourself to evaluate if you’re in the right place:

  • Am I continually frustrated by being told we have no means to accomplish something, or that the powers that be would never go for such an idea?
  • Do I want to work longer hours than everyone else because I want to get results faster than we’re getting them? (not the same as being forced to work extra hours)
  • What does my future look like here?

In the long run, it is better for you and your employer to figure this out earlier rather than later. Waiting can lead to burnout and frustration for you and some bad relationships with management down the line. We’re in a time where jobs are plentiful, it is a good time to make a switch. Government is a great place for people who believe in servant leadership and want clear work/life boundaries.

Like I said, I wish I had answered these questions for myself earlier on in my career. When I finally did resign, I can’t tell you how many people said to me, “I wish I could do what you’re doing”. Many of them claiming they had put in too much time and were “stuck”. Don’t get stuck, the government needs people who belong there and the world needs more people who are happy. Whatever you do, don’t get stuck in a job that doesn’t satisfy you because it’s someone else’s idea of a good job. My Grandfather never did really understand why I left my “cushy” government job.  If your evaluation says you might like to try something with more flexibility and autonomy, go for it. There are other ways to continue to contribute to servant leadership or work with government organizations that might suit you better.

Laura Thorne is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She is an organizational improvement consultant. She specializes in helping business owners and individuals to be more effective. Laura has over 25 years of professional experience and has had opportunities to work with some of the best and worst performing organizations. Read her posts here.

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Avatar photo Blake Martin

Excellent post, and a sobering one for many I assume. I was especially struck by the sentence toward the end in which you noted the world needed more happy people just as the government needed more folks who belong(ed) there. Getting into public service is a very personal choice, and I hope more will heed your advice and think critically about the pros and cons of working for government.