The Irrational Fear of Quitting a Job

Fear of Quitting a JobBefore going to university, we think very carefully about the profession we want to pursue. Choosing a career is a very important task, after all, we don’t want just a job, but the one which will inspire us the most. We want a job which thrills us, where we can get the most of ourselves. And then, 10 years later, we stick with a job that doesn’t meet our needs anymore. What we have now is “just a job”. We might feel bored, under-challenged, stressed. That is not what we dreamed about, so… How did this happen?

Many people have the inclination to stay longer in a position than they should. Even if someone has a vast number of reasons to leave a company, there is an irrational fear of quitting a job. Even if we are unhappy, stressed, lacking motivation, quitting a job involves a lot of strength. Between the moment of realizing that we should quit the job and the moment we actually quit, sometimes years pass by. Why?

In Psychology there is a cognitive bias called the sunk-cost-fallacy. Sunk cost means a past cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered. The sunk-cost-fallacy describes the tendency people have to stick with something, even if it doesn’t seem to be profitable anymore, only to avoid losing the initial investment they made. Like buying a dozen bottles of wine, which happens to be awful. But you already paid for it, so you drink all the bottles. It is not the most rational decision to drink something which tastes awful only because you paid for it. The same happens with your career, if you have already put much effort in a particular project, you will probably stick to it, even if the current chance of succeeding is low.

The sunk cost fallacy is very dangerous for unhappy employees. It leads to an endless loop of waiting and postponing: “The next project is coming soon, maybe things will get better“, or “I want to finish this project first” (this is the best one, because projects rarely get finished!), or “I wait till the next promotion chance“. When you look back, you have complained for about 5 years… And you are still there – unhappy, bored, stressed.

What makes the decision of not quitting even more irrational is that we usually put all the losses related to quitting on one side of the balance, but nothing on the other side. The losses related to not quitting are not considered at all. A not fulfilling job wastes your time (which is limited, remember!), your nerves, your health. And more importantly, you give up the fantastic feeling of accomplishment, to feel active, energized. It just feels great to have the right job.

Another common fallacy when estimating wins and losses about quitting is that the losses related with not quitting are usually perceived as fixed, but they aren’t, they increase with every day you don’t quit. Every day you lose time, every day you lose energy, every day you lose motivation. Those losses are cumulative and raise as time passes by. For that reason, postponing brings nothing positive for you.

If your work is not fulfilling, start to look for another position today, not tomorrow. It is easy to wait and find many reasons why you should give your job some more time. After all, “good things come to those who wait”.

Mastering a career is like stock trading: only the beginners wait till it’s too late.

Your opinion matters! Where does the fear of quitting a job come from? Share your experiences with us!

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6 thoughts on “The Irrational Fear of Quitting a Job

  1. Great article – I think another reason why people stay at a job they are unhappy at is because there is a fear of not being able to do anything different and they question their abilities. As you stated as you think about quitting a job, the morale is already low and the enthusiasm is spent, so the thought of moving to something that will reignite your energy and the desire to take the skills you do have and apply them elsewhere is lost in a sea of fear. People forget how they felt when they originally took the job they have. Remembering where you came from and how you have grown should help you to realize that there is so much more out there to be explored and become a part of.

  2. This was one of the most convincing arguments I’ve ever read on this topic. Thank you to whomever wrote it.

  3. As long as the way this irrational fear is narrowly defined to mean “wait, things may only get better…,” I agree with the writer’s conclusion. It will not get better and those who are under-challenged, bored and stressed should be actively looking.

    However, it is an important nuance to differentiate “most people” who would or should quit. No fear here; but after actively looking for five years without an offer, this suggests that something is quite wrong. Should we not be exercising caution in diagnosing the masses, at least anymore? Insanity is a shared medium, in my view. I read and apply to insane job posts almost daily, answer equally as insane questions during job interviews and do enjoy browsing the plethora of columns suggesting that under-utilized professionals are insane unless they get up and walk away this very minute.

  4. In this economy the irrational fear of quitting a job may not be so irrational if one is concerned about the probability or possibility of finding another one. Staying may be rationalized as “‘at least I can pay the bills”.

    1. Anne,
      Thank you for your comment! Surely not everybody is in the position of quitting a job without having another one. However, it by no means implies someone must stay in a not fulfilling job, you can always look for alternatives without having to quit your job first.
      I agree with you that some people might argue that at least they can pay their bills, but we should be more ambitioned than that, we expend too much time at work to waste our life with something that doesn’t motivate us.

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