Feeling trapped: how to cope when you can't quit your job

May 04, 2022 - updated Apr 17, 2023

5 mins

Feeling trapped: how to cope when you can't quit your job
Joanna York


The Great Resignation has been a remarkable phenomenon, with millions of US workers leaving their jobs in the two years, seeking better opportunities and work-life balance. However, amidst this mass exodus, there are countless individuals who find themselves feeling trapped in jobs they can’t leave. Whether it’s due to financial constraints, job security concerns, or other personal reasons, these individuals face unique challenges as they grapple with the decision to stay or go.

As we delve deeper into the stories of those who feel stuck in their current roles, we’ll explore the factors that contribute to this sense of entrapment and the strategies people employ to cope with their situations.

Balancing job discontent with financial needs

Content creator Sarah was thrilled when she was offered a position at a small PR company based in New York, in August 2021. “It was my first official job out of college and I had been looking for a job for about two years because of the pandemic,” she says._

But eight months later, Sarah’s excitement has turned to fatigue. Her boss is a micromanager. Project deadlines are unrealistic. Staff turnover is worryingly high. “It turned out, this position sucks,” she says. “If I had the ability to quit tomorrow, I absolutely would. This place has given me a lot of stress in a way that I was not expecting.”

At the same time, she is wary given how hard it was to find a job in the first place, and she needs the money. “I want to save up so I can stop living with my parents. I’m 26 and I want to get my own spot, but I can’t do that without a job and reliable income,” she says.

Staying put during The Great Resignation

In 2021, US workers quit their jobs en masse in a trend that has been dubbed The Great Resignation. From June onwards, more than four million Americans voluntarily left their jobs each month, with figures hitting a record 4.5 million resignations in November. The trend has continued into 2023, with more than four million US workers per month quitting in January and February.

Workers have cited reasons such as low pay, lack of opportunities for advancement and feeling disrespected at work as decisive factors that pushed them over the edge, according to a survey by Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, another survey by JobSage shows that one in four have quit a job for the sake of their mental health. Some experts have even labeled The Great Resignation a “workplace revolution” as droves of employees are making a stand against poor working conditions.

And yet millions of other people who feel similarly frustrated have stuck with their jobs. An October 2021 survey of 2,000 working Americans found that 73% were thinking of quitting. This means that even though resignation numbers are unusually high, only a fraction of those thinking about leaving have made the leap. Whether it’s for financial reasons, part of a larger career plan or uncertainty over what to do next, for many workers quitting doesn’t feel like an option.

Overwork and paperwork

One of those workers is Jason, 25, from Boston. He started his job as a salesman at the end of 2021, only to realize he didn’t want to stay. “It’s just a bad fit for me,” he says. “Sales is a job that requires you to be all the way in, and I am not. I spend most of my day on the phone talking to 100 different people, 95% of whom have no idea what I’m talking about and don’t really want to talk to me.” Jason says that at the end of the day he’s often so tired there’s simply no energy left to look for another job.

As the pandemic has made workers reassess their priorities, the amount of time spent at work has emerged as a main point of tension. A 2022 Microsoft study found that poor work-life balance, as well as lack of flexible working hours and location, were two of the top five reasons employees quit their jobs in 2021. In New York, Sarah feels under constant pressure to overachieve at work. Her bosses monitor the time she is at her desk and she wishes she had the flexibility to work remotely.

Also living in New York, Mia, in her mid-twenties, is an entry-level architect who is tired of putting in long hours. “It’s a really tough industry to be in. You’ve probably heard of architecture having terrible work-life balance,” she says. In her company especially, “there are management issues, and it’s not super-efficient. A lot of things could be communicated better so we could plan our timing better, instead of just having to work overtime.”

However, fatigue is not the main factor preventing her from quitting her job. She has been headhunted for new positions a few times, but the offers disappear when they find out Mia works in the US on an international visa. After graduating as an international student, she had the right to work in the US for three years – but now her time is almost up. Originally from China, Mia would need a new work visa to change roles, something prospective employers are reluctant to take on. “I can’t really leave this job and go to another company because not every firm will spend the money to sponsor international people,” she says.

Waiting for the right opportunity

Mia would love to work for a smaller architecture firm with fewer organizational issues where she could participate in local builds. “But that is exactly the type of place that will hesitate to sponsor me because that’s a lot of costs for a smaller firm,” she says. Sarah too hopes to stay in the same industry when she quits her job. “I ultimately don’t hate what I do. I just hate where I’m doing it,” she says.

Jason has the opposite problem. Even though he wants to quit his job, he sees potential in the company. “I have a very good management structure supporting me, and my co-workers and immediate managers have invested in me professionally and personally,” he says. Jason hopes sticking with his current role will open up opportunities for promotion within the next six months. “That feels like the most risk-managed goal.”

Sarah has given herself a longer timeline: “In a year, I need to be out of there,” she says. Wary of being unemployed and without an income again, she is applying for jobs so she can secure a new role before leaving. Many other workers may be plotting similar exits – a McKinsey study found that 64% of US workers who quit between April and September 2021 did so only when they had another position lined up.

Deciding on a new direction

Meanwhile, Mia knows she has only nine months left on her current visa and needs a company to sponsor a renewal. If she cannot find another role in architecture, she may go back to school and change careers altogether. And she wouldn’t be the only one to do so. Some 53% of adults who resigned in 2021 changed fields or occupations, and workers under 30 were most likely to do so.

Wherever the future leads, Mia will make good work conditions a priority. “If I do change industries, I hope it’s to a unionized industry and I’ll work at a unionized workplace,” she says. Alternatively, she would like to go into management, “to be the person to help a team or company work better, and work smarter.”

In the meantime, the positives of the job help her to stay motivated. Mia is satisfied with her salary and likes the core tasks of her role. Jason too is happy with the benefits that his workplace offers, even though his salary is lower than he’d like. And Sarah appreciates her colleagues: “My co-workers are pretty great. It would suck to leave them,” she says. “But when I do eventually, I think they’ll understand why.”

*Names have been changed

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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