Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Stuck in a Job and You Can’t Get Out

by Professor Tony Wheeler
Associate Professor of Human Resource Management

Even in a down economy employees still voluntarily quit their jobs.  Estimates suggest roughly 1.5% of the workforce recently quit their jobs .  Employees leave jobs regardless of prevailing economic conditions, and many times the employees who leave are the employees who can: your most marketable employees.  Sometimes leaving a job is the healthiest course of action; however, we know that some people stay when they shouldn’t.

Have you ever been stuck in a situation, feeling that you cannot get out of it? What are the factors that bind you to your job and you organization?  Certainly finances bind you to a job, as does the prevailing job market.  You need to pay bills.  Other factors also bind you to a job and an organization.  You might otherwise feel like a misfit if not for the relationship with your boss. You might also stay at your job because of how it affects your home life.  Changing jobs affects your home life. In fact, your spouse’s job can keep you from leaving your job.  Really?

Yes.  Really.  I will presented a paper at a conference this past November on some research I conducted with colleagues that examines the impact your spouse’s job has on your turnover decisions. To your detriment. We looked at a concept called embeddedness, which describes the ties that bind you to your job and organization. Aspects of the job and company enmesh you; things like relationships with your boss or colleagues, your feelings of fitting the job and organizational culture, and understanding what you will sacrifice if you leave your job and employer.  Similarly, aspects of your home life actually keep you embedded to your current employer.  The more you like your neighborhood and community, the more close relationships you have in your community, the more you worry about losing those things.  Changing jobs, even for a better job in the same local labor market, comes with inherent uncertainty.  What if things don’t work out at the new job?  What if the company goes under?  What if they decide to relocate you?  The uncertainty threatens your home life.

We found, more specifically, that your spouse’s embeddedness in his or her own job and community affects your turnover decisions. However, there is a distinct downside to this.  We tracked two large samples of employees and their spouses over 2 and 5 year periods, asking them how embedded they felt, whether or not they intended to change jobs and actually changed jobs, and their emotional exhaustion.  We reasoned that when you want to leave but cannot, you start to feel worn out.  You wake up in the morning and you want to stay in bed.  That’s emotional exhaustion, and under normal circumstances emotional exhaustion is a precursor to turnover.

Before you leave a job due to exhaustion, however, you first become dissatisfied and decommitted.  You become burned out, and your motivation to work hard decreases.  Over time, your performance will deteriorate.  Emotional exhaustion is the tipping point.  Once you get there, the rest will slowly but inexorably occur. The personal effects of exhaustion can be quite severe, including increased heart attack rates, mental health deterioration, and a general decline in your overall well-being.

When you feel exhausted, you want out of your current job and employer.  Yet changing jobs is disruptive to your life and to your spouse’s life.  We found the more embedded you are in your job, company, and community, the less likely you are to leave, even if you are emotionally exhausted.  Moreover, the more embedded your spouse is in his or her job, company, and community, the less likely you are to leave, again even if you are emotionally exhausted.

Our findings pose problems for employers.  Here you have employees with increasing emotional exhaustion who stay at the job when they would otherwise leave. This exhaustion not only hinders employee performance but actually hurts their well-being.  Moreover, exhausted employees generally do not perform their job very well, tend to take more time away from work trying to recharge their batteries, and actually end up in the doctor’s office more (thus increasing employer healthcare costs).

First, I would recommend your company engage in at least semi-annual workforce surveying.  Don’t just capture things like job satisfaction and commitment.  Survey employee well-being.  Survey for known stressers that lead to exhaustion (role overload, relationship conflict, supervisor relationships, perceived support).  If you can detect environmental problems early, you can rectify those problems quickly.  Second, you might also consider adding employee assistance programs (EAPs) through your benefits packages.  Research on EAPs suggest they generate considerable returns on investment.  Finally, you might consider helping employees separate from your company through outplacement counseling.  I understand these last two options cost money, but so does a burned out employee. These last two options might save your organization money in the long term, and in the meantime will make your organization a better place to work.


  1. You raise some interesting points about emotional exhaustion and somehow it also sounds like what happens when you're embedded in an unhappy marriage.

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  3. An excellent read. It would be interesting to read some narratives on this topic. Thank you for sharing this post.