Are you truly trapped at your job?

September 21, 2012: 1:40 PM ET

In a sluggish economy, it's natural to feel like you have little control over your working life. But people have more power over how they feel at work than they may realize.

FORTUNE -- When cubicles start to feel like prison bars, it's a problem. Unfortunately, a downside of the sluggish economy is that many of us lucky enough to have a job can feel like we are trapped in it.

Some data suggests people are still acting trapped. In a good economy, more people quit their jobs than are laid off. But that relationship flipped during the recession, which could indicate that people were less willing or able to leave. While more people are leaving voluntarily now than not, according to a report published this month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that gap is closer than it was before the recession.

Often, people stay at jobs they don't want because of very real external circumstances -- there are bills and loans to pay off, families to support, and your job can feel like the only means to get affordable healthcare. Many of us have skills (ahem, journalism) that are closely tied to industries in flux.

"The reality is objectively worse than in other times; the economic crisis is real," says Gilad Chen, a professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland. Yet, feeling trapped might not match our actual situations. Our brains process information in ways that, sometimes, can amplify those feelings.

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People often feel trapped when it seems like circumstances are out of their control, says Chen. Conversely, "the people who adapt in these and other economic conditions are those who take ownership."

But certain events make it tough to shake the notion that we are slaves to the office. "Usually that amounts to something that changes at work," says Bill Becker, a management professor at Texas Christian University's Neeley business school. "You get a new boss, and they're just impossible to work for, you get some kind of new assignment and it doesn't fit, or you realize the culture is just so different." So the nature of the job changes for the worse, yet employees feel like they can't leave.

Our brains don't help matters. "We have this self-serving bias, that I think is our worst enemy in these kinds of situations," says Becker. The self-serving bias goes like this, he explains: "When things go good, we attribute them to ourselves and say, 'Of course they're going well, I'm awesome.' When things go poorly, on the other hand, we are much more likely to blame it on the company or the economy."

Blaming external forces actually serves a purpose: it's a protective mechanism. Some evidence suggests that people with depression have very low self-serving bias -- they think everything is their fault.

But there is a limit to the benefits of this approach. Shifting responsibility from oneself to external forces can make it difficult to build up the drive it takes to change your act. If the outside world is the problem, the thinking goes, why should you change?

Fear of the unknown is another powerful psychological factor that can trap us, Becker says. "Even if we're unhappy, there is always a bias to stay where we are."

Yet where we are is relative to where we have been before, Chen says. People tend to compare their situations to their past. Our mind draws a trend line: if we were doing well at work, then something bad happens, we process that information to mean that things are getting worse. We also tend to think that if work is getting worse, or better, it will continue on that track.

Employees who start that spiral on the negative side can become toxic to a company.

One way to pull out of it is to stop and reexamine the data, says Chen. Maybe work feels worse compared to six months ago, but what about two years ago?

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Employers can use our tendency to view our experience as part of a larger trend to their advantage, Chen says. You can see this happen in the presidential race, as both President Obama and Governor Romney try to cut different pieces from the same data points to convince voters that we are either better or worse off than we were four years ago. "What leaders at companies as well as politicians should do is frame things in terms of where things could go," Chen says. "Frame it as, 'Maybe we're not in the situation we wanted to be, but we have been improving.'"

Apple (AAPL) is a master of this, he adds. The company's shareholder meetings always emphasize how far the company has come. It probably helps that Apple has crafted a solid, chronological narrative based on a string of new devices, each one flashier than the next. People believe Apple when it cries progress.

We -- employees, consumers -- eat that stuff up. Not hot air, but substantive claims, Chen says. "People would like to believe that things are better than they were and will be better than they are."

Ironically, that doesn't mean that we should aim to feel ecstatic about our jobs all the time, Becker says. That's a common misconception. "Happiness is a temporary state in the brain, it's only an emotion, so it can only last for a short period of time." When people shoot for constant happiness, they often fall short, which makes them feel like they've failed, spinning them further away from their goals.

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What our brains really like is contentment -- a sustained push towards a steady, pleasant state. Bursts of happiness, Becker says, are merely movement towards that endpoint.

So perhaps, when we retool how we think about where we have been, put the potency of our negative experiences in perspective, and give ourselves realistic goals about how we should feel at work, those prison bars might start to come down. If they don't, though, employees who feel truly trapped and unhappy might need to buck the status quo and start laying down a plan to make a break for it.

"I would guess," Becker says, "we're never really as trapped as we think we are."

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About This Author
Shelley DuBois
Shelley DuBois
Writer - Reporter, Fortune

Shelley DuBois writes on management issues for Fortune.com. Before joining Fortune, she was a producer for National Public Radio's Science Friday and worked for Wired. Shelley has a graduate degree in science, health and environmental reporting from New York University. She lives in Brooklyn.

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