From misplaced loyalty to flat-out martyrdom, Stylist investigates why we stay in jobs we hate (and when it really is time to leave)
Words: Lizzie Pook
FOMO illustration: Barry Downard
It comes upon you like a bank of rolling storm clouds. A murky darkness. A creeping malevolence. At about 7pm every Sunday, you begin your slow descent into a helpless funk, at the depths of which you’ll wallow until 9am the next morning when you grit your teeth, roll your eyes and step through that door. Your friends beg you to make a change. Your long-suffering mum is sick of your whining WhatsApps. You feel abject dread at the thought of doing it every single day. Yet still, you cannot leave.
Unfulfilling jobs are all-encompassing. They shatter our self-esteem, stifle our creativity, monopolise our relationships and have such a vice-like grip on our lives it can seem like we’re being kept captive by our own position. But many of us feel unable to take a stand and leave the roles that are making us so miserable. It’s a malaise of recent times. Our jobs themselves haven’t got worse over the years, yet our levels of satisfaction have (studies show that we like our jobs less than we did in the Sixties, even though opportunities for women were actually far fewer back then). We are in the middle of what UCL professor Tomas Chamorro Premuzic calls an “epidemic of disengagement”. Brought about, in part, by the fact that we are constantly bombarded by visions of what a ‘perfect’ job looks like on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook (ie. the woman you met once joyously negotiating her lucrative new book deal over a swanky champagne lunch at the restaurant you’ve never been able to get a reservation at).
Yet despite our dissatisfaction, we also have no motivation to quit either. In fact, around the world, the proportion of employees who say they feel ‘engaged’ at work is just 13%. The reasons some of us loathe our jobs are many and myriad. Figures from the Chartered Institute of Personal Development show that almost one in four workers is unhappy because of bad managers. But this unhappiness can also extend to lack of responsibility and even sheer, mind-numbing boredom. Really, it’s like a bad romantic relationship. We know we should go, but we stay regardless. So, what exactly is it that’s holding us back?
Unsurprisingly, we didn’t have to cast our net very wide to find women in this exact situation. “My boss is 100% the worst thing about my job,” Daisy*, a marketing manager from South London tells us. “It’s almost like she’s testing me every day with negative jibes and passive aggressive emails. But at this point, I just feel like I wouldn’t have the confidence to put myself out there and get another job. Making myself feel even more vulnerable by applying for other positions is literally the last thing I want to do.” But it’s not always our ‘difficult’ colleagues that make us feel trapped. “I just feel like I’m stagnating,” says Lucy*, an occupational therapist from Glasgow. “I don’t really feel like I’m progressing in my role, or that anyone is particularly invested in me growing my skills either. But I’m reluctant to leave as the idea of not having easy, regular income – especially with everything that’s happening with Brexit at the moment – makes me really, really anxious.”
But the truth is (and sound the ‘obvious’ klaxon here) dreading going into work every day is simply not good for us. “One thing we often see with people who feel truly stuck in their roles is burnout – or at least symptoms that suggest they are heading in that direction,” says Maurits Kalff, psychologist and faculty member at The School of Life. “These are similar to symptoms of depression: feeling overwhelmingly fatigued, a distinct lack of energy and feeling really low about your work and yourself.” Not only that, studies have also shown that unfulfilling jobs can make us gain weight, lower our immune systems and put unnecessary strain on our relationships. So what’s really behind this feeling of being ‘trapped’, and what can we do about it?
The psychology of stuck
In short, being bound, 9-5, by a job we no longer love, generates a never-ending cycle of negativity. “Often, in toxic work environments, we lose our self-esteem and feel like we simply aren’t being upskilled in any way,” says Dr Rachel Lewis, associate professor in occupational psychology at Kingston University. “This has a really detrimental effect on our self-belief and we feel that we aren’t able to go and get a new job because we simply believe that we are not capable of it, when objectively this isn’t actually the case at all.”
“If you feel unhappy in your job, you often make it about yourself as a person,” adds psychologist Emma Kenny (makeyourswitch.co.uk). “This means you blame yourself for what is happening. Many people experience bullying, systematic threats from colleagues and workplace harassment. Even though none of that is their fault, it can feel as if they are causing it. This is the type of helplessness that’s seen in abusive relationships, where a victim realises that what is happening is wrong, but feels unable to take positive action to extricate themselves for fear of reprisals.”
Then, of course, there’s the sheer uncertainty that comes with waving goodbye to a job we know better than our childhood bedroom. More often than not, as humans, we equate uncertainty with the worst case scenario (‘If I hand in my notice I will spend the next six months watching daytime TV’). We are consistently reminded throughout our lives not to lose control; yet that is actively what we are doing when we quit our jobs. Many career coaches recommend the immersion method to help combat this – try it. Flex your uncertainty muscle with smaller things first: go for a long walk with no end destination, book a solo travel trip without planning an itinerary; you’ll soon realise that often these things actually end really well, rather than the other way around. Looking at uncertainty as an opportunity is a mindset shift that can be liberating (especially if you’re toying with going freelance, for example).
Are we all masochists?
But of course, there’s also the stark reality that some of us are simply suckers for punishment. According to studies by Harvard School of Public Health, the majority of us are naturally competitive. It’s simple. We want to be at the best, most prestigious company, making more money than our friends (even if we don’t need it) and fine-tuning our CV (even if it is a little tear-stained). “Often for women, staying in these jobs is about identity and status; fearing what others will think if we leave our ‘high-flying’ career and do something less status-driven or socially valued,” says Evelyn Cotter, founder and coach at Seven career coaching (sevencareercoaching.co.uk). Coincidentally, a study by Aon Hewitt study actually found that those who earn higher wages are more likely to feel trapped (because higher paid jobs often come with more professional pressure, and we worry that we wouldn’t get as good a deal elsewhere). Oh the irony of golden handcuffs.
Read more: 13 books to read when you’re hating your job
But actually, many psychologists believe that struggling through difficult situations is key for career growth (there’s nothing worse than stagnating, right?). In the Sixties, Professor Edwin Locke’s pioneering research showed that there is a strong relationship between how difficult and specific a goal is and people’s performance of a task. He found that specific but difficult goals actually led to better task performance than vague or easy goals. Hence why some of us might thrive in more testing environments.
“Also, some personality types just crave challenge; that will be their driving force to stay in their job, even if they hate it,” says Lewis. “They take it upon themselves to be this kind of David vs Goliath character, to triumph over adversity.” It’s bruising but addictive. Some companies will actively nurture an environment like this to keep staff on their toes. Take one international bank, which encourages teams to reach impossible targets by pitting them against each other. The ‘losers’ have to pay for the remaining four teams’ weekly night out – often resulting in a bill of over £1,000 for each ‘loser’. “The competitive nature of an already stressful environment means some people thrive and some sink – it creates hostility and resentment,” says Anisha*. Likewise a small tech firm with a flat hierarchy encourages employees to critique each other’s performances in presentations. The result? “The feedback is always aimed at making the person presenting look bad, for personal gain. It’s unbearable but people are so knocked down they can’t leave,” explains Abigail*. And in both these places – and many more like them – people still stay.
In these cases, the key to becoming unstuck is taking a step back and getting some perspective. “Quite often, people feel trapped because they just have no idea of what step to take next,” says Kalff. “This is often linked to not being entirely clear on what success means to them. We are driven by wanting to be successful. So it’s important to have an honest conversation with yourself and work out what success looks like for you, or rather what your life would look like if you were what you considered to be ‘successful’. This can be broader than just a job – it can be travelling, achieving other things, writing a book. Take a look at what gives you pleasure and what it would take for you to feel successful, and use that as a guide.” If it’s doable in your current role, put a plan in place to make it possible. If not: sayonara.
“Taking time off work can help,” says Lewis. “There’s something about being out of the work environment that will enable you to think straight. Talking to people also helps. Make sure it’s a professional or a work colleague familiar with the office environment. Friends aren’t always that helpful. They tend to just want to look out for us and tend to say, ‘You’re worth so much more than this – get out now’. But actually, that’s not always the most constructive thing.”
However, there’s also the very real possibility that we’re expecting too much from our jobs. For so long we’ve been told that we have to be successful; to follow our dreams for the sake of our families, for our forefathers, for feminism! But actually, have we wound up in an entirely implausible situation where we expect our jobs to fulfil our every desire? “I think that’s quite possible,” says Kalff. “There are two schools of thought. The one that we subscribe to most is that work should be a life-enhancing experience. We feel that our jobs define our worth and our identity is linked to what we do. The other school of thought, however, is that work is just ‘work’. If a job pays the rent, the commute is acceptable and your colleagues are OK, there’s a lot of relief in the ability to say ‘this is good enough’.”
So if we feel trapped in our jobs, it’s not necessarily a sign that we must leave. “Career development can come from a wide range of places,” says Lewis. “We can progress via things we do outside of our core role – take courses, learn new skills, join a committee.” Ultimately, it’s about taking back control and being active in upskilling ourselves (doing things ‘to’ our job – asking for extra responsibility or to shadow people in other departments, rather than letting our jobs buffer us through life). “The feeling of being trapped doesn’t necessarily mean you are trapped,” she says. “Remember, you are the one in charge.”
Four signs that you should (probably) leave your job
If you have these symptoms, it could be time to move on
You lack the passion to do it well
Plenty of people don’t hate their job, but are no longer growing or thriving and are just going through the motions. “Ask yourself the question – ‘How is this good? How do I contribute, either to myself, or other people?’” says Kalff. If you’re stagnating and the passion’s just not there, it could spell P45.
Those in charge refuse to help
“If you are being made ill, mentally or physically, from your job then you need to address it,” says Lewis. “Your employers have a duty of responsibility to you. If you just leave, you are not getting them to address that responsibility.” If after raising the issue they don’t agree to give you the help you need, that’s when you need to think about upping sticks (seek legal advice at citizensadvice.org.uk).
There’s no room for promotion
If you want a promotion and you can’t see a clear path towards it, get your ducks in a row. “Rather than get out of this situation quick, recognise that if you jump you are likely to jump into another job that is not worthy of you,” says Lewis. “Instead, write down what you are going to achieve in the next six months in order to put the plan in place to leave for the right role.”
You find yourself making the same excuses
“We often have this attitude that bad times have to get better,” says Lewis. “We tell ourselves, ‘Oh I just have to get through this project’, or ‘Once the office move is done we’ll be OK’. We cling onto the idea that it will change, but if we are constantly saying this, then there’s a problem.”
*Names have been changed