Many people, including some of my clients, feel as if they are stepping into an invisible cage as they settle into their workspace, trapped inside another day of monotonous, yet profitable work. Basically, I’m talking about the concept of ‘golden handcuffs.’ This isn’t really about the student who can’t quit working at McDonald’s because they desperately need to pay their tuition and rent. Typically, the term golden handcuffs applies to high earners who feel bound to their unsatisfying jobs so that they can continue to afford the finer things in life that their work can provide.
As one client confided over the phone, “Most days I really want to leave my office and never come back. I want to pursue something more fulfilling … but can I really justify doing that to my family … and myself? I don’t think I could ever give up the lifestyle we’ve become accustomed to, even though I don’t like the job.”
In my humble opinion, there are no easy answers to this problem. It’s also a topic that I do not take lightly. Depending on the details of a person’s situation, it may not make sense to trade in the golden handcuffs job for something more appealing. I always encourage my clients to pursue their goals as long as they are viable given their timelines and other constraints. I also ask them to evaluate how bad the situation actually is. As the saying goes, there’s not much point of going from the frying pan into the fire … but the frying pan into an oven that’s been pre-set to the right temperature might make for something downright delicious.
If you’re working in a toxic environment, or you’re the victim of workplace bullying or sexual harassment then even substantial pay, benefits, paid vacation, and other advantages might not be enough to offset the misery. Staying in those difficult situations is hard but leaving them can also be hard. Although there is much greater awareness and less tolerance for these bad behaviours in the workplace, many victims are still being mistreated when they bring these issues to the attention of internal HR personnel or business owners. Depending on the specifics, it is probably wise to work with a knowledgeable career coach and possibly an employment lawyer to resolve the problems whether you end up staying or leaving the position. When you take the right steps, in the right order, it should be possible for you to transition away from that job and/or away from the harassment without having to resign.
But what do you do when the work environment isn’t abusive, but you still feel like going to work is just “soul-sucking” and “soul-crushing?”
Here are 4 things to consider before breaking free from those golden handcuffs in the workplace:
1. Acknowledge the advantages of the gold. Many people feel handcuffed to their jobs because they don’t leave their actual work in the office. Instead of enjoying the freedoms and luxuries that come from being employed they remain focused on their work whether they’re at work or supposedly off work. It’s important to be mindful of the advantages that come with your job … even if it’s not your dream job. Focusing on your personal life, engaging in pleasant activities, and spending time with family/friends can help. If your schedule and energy permits, perhaps volunteering, mentoring, or hobbies can give meaning and purpose to your life, even if your career is not satisfying. With all that said, if those handcuffs are starting to rust by not giving you enough in return for the time and energy that you put into your work, then it is time to consider a change.
2. All that glitters is not gold. Often, people get used to wearing their golden handcuffs because they are uncomfortable or scared to do something else. It’s easy to become accustomed to a familiar role even when we are disengaged. In these situations, our gold-plated income, benefits, and perceived job security keep us from reaching our potential. For some people, this is fine because the advantages of their employment can offset the negatives. For other people, wearing those golden handcuffs for so long that their skills and knowledge become stale and irrelevant becomes detrimental to their long-term survival and success. For example, someone who does work that has always paid well (e.g., certain types of financial or legal services) but has not kept up with newer aspects of their field or pursued periodic training/professional development, might find that their role is eventually eliminated and replaced with artificial intelligence software/automated. At that point, their golden handcuffs will feel like cement shoes that have weighed them down and made them vulnerable (read this previous article on remaining relevant despite technological changes).
3. Search for that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Sometimes trading some happiness for long-term success and stability, especially if you are nearing retirement isn’t as hard to do (or as bad) as we think. Not all of us can follow our bliss without major financial consequences. Maybe your imminent retirement is your pot of gold. If retirement is still a long way off, then a smart move may be to develop skills and experience that you can use as leverage to get into a more suitable position. Most likely, those skills and experiences will be available outside your primary job (e.g., in a volunteer role, or a part-time job/side hustle). If those learning and development opportunities were present in your current job then your job wouldn’t feel like golden handcuffs.
4. Stage of Life. What stage of life are you in? If you have a hefty mortgage, young children, or older kids in college/university, then providing a good and stable livelihood for your family is certainly a huge priority. Keeping yourself and your loved ones fed, clothed, and sheltered along with being able to cover the extra expenses that come with those responsibilities is clearly important. With that kind of financial security, feeling handcuffed to an unsatisfying job might be the lesser of two evils. If you are in the earlier stages of your career may be a reasonable compromise is to learn and acquire valuable work experience so that you’ll be better positioned to move into better work roles in the future.
If you’re in the later stages of your career, you’ll need to be careful and strategic about leaving your unfulfilling job before lining up an alternative. Ageism can be an obstacle but there are workarounds (e.g., this two-part blog about late-career jobs vs. self-employment/entrepreneurship as a second career).
Need help dealing with a delicate or high-stakes career or HR issue? I invite you to contact me privately. I offer a free 15 to 20-minute initial consultation by phone. Or, if you prefer, you can contact me by email, or via direct message on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.
More than career coaching, it’s career psychology®.
I/O Advisory Services – Building Resilient Careers and Organizations.
Easily share this article using any of the social media icons below!