When workers say they hate their jobs or that their bosses are abusive, people wonder: Why don't you quit?
It can happen at any company. Staffers may feel that their atmosphere is unpleasant or contentious. But many don't leave, and instead spend years being unhappy.
The reasons for staying include practical considerations like a good paycheck and benefits and experience that will look good on a résumé. But often there are emotional reasons that stop employees from mustering the energy to look for a new job.
"If you're depressed and down in general, and you're in a very negative place, it's very hard to launch a job search," says Belinda Plutz, owner of Career Mentors, a consultancy based in New York.
Many people cling to a bad situation out of fear that if they get a new job, it might not work out — much like the old saying, "better the devil you know than the devil you don't know," Plutz says. But she finds that people who have been laid off in the past often find it easier to make a move, believing they'll again land on their feet.
There may also be deep-seated psychological factors at work when an unhappy worker stays put.
"There's a bad feeling that may not be conscious, but it's there: 'I don't deserve better,' " says Nancy Kulish, a psychoanalyst and author of psychological books who practices in Birmingham, Mich.
In some cases, employees have had abusive or selfish parents who gave their children the unconscious belief that they must accept whatever poor treatment they receive, Kulish says.
"I'm worthless, and I'm lucky to be here. That's what they're told," Kulish says. The adult worker may not understand this dynamic feeds justifications for not seeking something better.
Parents' attitudes about working may also influence an unhappy employee to stay. Katie McDonald despised her job at a telecommunications company, where the corporate atmosphere limited her autonomy and stifled her creativity. Her parents were very conservative about staying in a job, and she believes that helped discourage her from leaving.
"I was locked in this ridiculous notion of, I have a 'good' job, and it would be foolish to leave and give up this security," says McDonald, who has small businesses including a corporate writing company based in Toronto.
Sometimes the practical reasons and emotional ones pile up. Three months into her public relations job at a Boston financial services company, Sara DiVello was miserable. Her boss was abusive, insulting and undermined DiVello, keeping her out of important meetings. DiVello felt she couldn't leave; she hoped for a year-end bonus and also didn't want a prospective employer to think she was unreliable for quitting so soon.
"They're afraid you're going to do it to them and they won't hire you," she says.
The atmosphere didn't improve under a different manager.
"I kept thinking, 'I can solve this. I can make it work,' " says DiVello. After three years, she had had enough, realized she needed to feel good about herself and her work, and she quit. She now teaches yoga.
For some people, a bad work environment comes as an unpleasant surprise soon after they're hired, while for others, the bad times start later, with a new boss or reorganization. But some people go to work for companies understanding that while they'll give a big paycheck, they face long hours and a difficult atmosphere, says Roy Cohen, a career counselor based in New York. He cited hedge funds and law firms as examples.
"In certain industries, there will be abusive behavior. In order to benefit from some of the riches, you've got to put up with it," Cohen says.
The status of working at a high-profile company can also make some people stay even when they feel oppressed. But the cachet can disappear if bosses are uncaring or hostile when a staffer has a family or health problem, Cohen says.
"None of us ever expects something horrible to happen, but it's inevitable it will happen in our lives in some way, and a company doesn't necessarily respect that," he says.
Joyce Rosenberg is a business reporter for the Associated Press.