Here’s What Happens When You Feel Overqualified at Work

Underemployment is a very real thing for our generation.  In 2016, more than half of college-educated millennials reported they were underemployed, or overqualified for their jobs, in a survey by Accenture.

If you’re doing a job you’re overqualified for it probably means you’re making less money than you think you should be. But it turns out that situation isn’t just frustrating financially. There are also psychological implications to feeling like your true potential isn’t being actualized through your work.

Not using skills leads to feeling deprived

Researchers at Florida Atlantic University and Florida International University found by looking at 25 years of data that folks who feel they’re overqualified for the work they’re doing are often unsatisfied with their jobs, uncommitted to the organizations they work for and experiencing psychological strain.

Overqualified pbs rewireThis can happen when you apply for a position you believe will be well-suited for you and your skills, but, once you’re actually doing the work, it’s not what you were expecting it to be. Maybe you were expecting a creative role and you’re stuck doing something clerical, or you’re working for a boss who has a hard time giving you control of projects so you end up getting coffee and making copies.

FAU study author and assistant professor Michael Harari said this can leave employees feeling deprived.

“That deprivation is what is theorized to result in these negative job attitudes,” Harari said to the university. “There’s a discrepancy between expectation and reality. Because of this, you’re angry, you’re frustrated and as a result you don’t much care for the job that you have and feel unsatisfied.”

Those feelings of frustration can stunt the connection you feel to your workplace. You might be more likely to develop bad work behaviors: maybe coming in late, leaving early or even bullying your co-workers. The more overqualified employees feel, the more likely they are to act out to the detriment of the organization they’re working for. Being underemployed isn’t good for the employee or the employer.

Some feel stress from doing less

It might seem counterintuitive that doing less than you want at work would result in stress. But prolonged feelings of frustration about your work caused by perceived overqualification can lead to psychological strain, the researchers found. When you feel like you’re not being compensated at the level you believe you deserve, your self esteem can take a hit.

“We invest effort at work and we expect rewards in return, such as esteem and career opportunities,” Harari said. “And for an overqualified employee, that expectation has been violated. This is a stressful experience for employees, which leads to poor psychological wellbeing, such as negative emotions and psychological strain.”

Overqualified pbs rewireIf you’re feeling stuck in a job that you think is beneath you, keep the faith. More opportunities will open up to you. Young workers report higher levels of perceived overqualification, the researchers found.

“It seems to suggest that there is a need to take jobs below one’s skill level in order to gain entrance into the workforce,” Harari said. “We do see that, as people get older, they are less likely to report overqualification.”

New to the workforce? Check out these tips on moving forward in your career:

At Work, Stick Out Rather Than Fit In

What’s Holding Back Young Female Scientists?

How to Make Workplace Stress Work for You

Feeling Bad at Your Job? It Might Be a Problem With the Design

Achieving Peak Performance at Work Shouldn’t Be Stressful

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s web editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.