Not quitting a job for financial reasons makes complete sense. It’s pretty hard to leave a good paying job you hate if you’re straddled with a big mortgage and a baby who needs food. If you’re paid the big bucks, it’s hard to justify rocking the boat no matter how much you hate your job.
But what about all the other people? People who aren’t strapped in so tight financially? Or the people who can go get an equally good paying job elsewhere, but just can’t get themselves to quit? Why is it so hard to quit a job you hate?
Dr. Denise Rousseau says it starts with a psychological contract that exists between our employer and ourselves. Outlined in this research, the contract is “an individual’s (employee’s) belief regarding the terms and conditions of a reciprocal exchange agreement between that focal person and another party (employer).”
Then, at some point the psychological contract is broken because our needs aren’t getting met. We feel let down by our employer because they’re not delivering on what we expected. We then mentally check out, which makes the employer feel like we’re now not delivering on our part of the psychological contract. The contract is broken but we still can’t quit. Why?
Dr. Marla Gottschalk says one of the main reasons why it’s hard to quit a job we hate is our lack of honesty with ourselves.
“We fail to have honest conversations about our needs/skills and how these align with our work.”
In other words, we choose to ignore the fact that the psychological contract is broken. Why?
Assistant Professor of Psychiatry (Part-Time) at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Srini Pillay, says it’s easier for us to ignore that feeling of misery than get our brain to actually focus on the positive aspects of leaving the job. In other words, our brains are lazy and if there’s a conflict in our minds between two ideas (staying or leaving), we’ll usually side with the easy route, staying, even if it’s painful. To put it another way, our brains like certainty or quantifiable risks more than uncertainty. Staying is certain while the thought of leaving presents all sorts of uncertain scenarios.
Dr. Srini Pillay has a few brain tricks to help us train our lazy brains. If you’re having a hard time quitting a job you hate, he suggests focusing on these three key things:
“Recognize that your inability to leave your job results from you being more positive about your current job than leaving, even if you hate it. Examine why leaving is so threatening to you. Is it unfamiliarity? Or is it the unknown?”
(Think about positive aspects of leaving).
“When trying to leave your old job for a new one, be concrete about new possibilities and the associated risks rather than keeping this as an abstraction in your mind.”
(Our brains like certainty more than uncertainty. Minimize uncertainty with leaving by trying to quantify the risks).
“For change to occur, how can you make sure that you actually make the move? To activate that left frontal cortex of your brain and to bring you to commitment to your actions, you need to have a large “spreading of alternatives”. That is, to resolve the discomfort you feel between two difficult choices (staying at a terrible current job and leaving to an unknown job market), the difference in positivity between your new job and the negativity of your old job needs to be great enough. The message: don’t avoid or rationalize why you want to leave your old job. Bored? Face it. Underpaid? Face it. Uninspired? Face it. Unhappy? Face it. The more you are able to tolerate facing how bad things are, the greater the chance that you will be able to leave your job.”
(I think this is the same as the first, think about the positive aspects of leaving your job, like a new fun dress code, more than how miserable you are).