Job mobility

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.

MORE: 5 questions to ask your next boss

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. More

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