In 2021, there was a significant exodus from the workforce in the United States, creating what’s being called a job-seeker’s market. Companies feel the urgency to find quality employees and may try nearly anything to attract top talent. However, some professionals may find themselves trapped in a precarious situation that leaves them hesitant to leave a job, even if they are wildly unhappy. They are wearing “golden handcuffs” that prevent them from making moves for fear of failure or loss of (major) income. If you are feeling like a prisoner in your gig, here’s what you need to know about golden handcuffs and how to escape them once and for all:
What Are Golden Handcuffs?
Golden handcuffs are a situation where you’re getting paid (extremely) well with killer benefits, but you either find the job incredibly boring or way overtaxing. An example might be an investment management firm where you work long hours, make nearly seven figures, but you dread it. Companies that create the “golden handcuff” dynamic often offer incentives for employees to stay, such as cash bonuses or deferred compensation, requiring them to tough it out. “Golden handcuffs mean that an employee must remain at the job for a set period before receiving specific incentives and/or benefits,” explains psychologist Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D. “Golden handcuffs can include stock options, a big bonus, a company car, a vacation home, paying for some and/or all college classes towards a degree, etc.”
Why Might Golden Handcuffs Be Difficult to Escape?
No one voluntarily wants to put their hands behind their back and slap on a pair of handcuffs — regardless of whether they’re golden or not. As it relates to our career and our ability to earn money, handcuffs provide a sense of comfort and stability that’s challenging to walk away from, particularly if you have other people who depend on you. And even if your job makes you miserable, you may also still believe in the long-term success and the value of the financial benefits provided, like stocks that will vest, explains Olga Etkina, a career expert and the founder of Black Swan Careers.
Meet the Experts
Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D. is a psychologist. Dr. Thomas has been featured as an expert on many local and national shows, appearing on CNN, E! Entertainment, several VH1 documentaries, Nightline, The Learning Channel, CBS, NBC, KCal News.
Olga Etkina is a career expert and the founder of Black Swan Careers.
“Ultimately, when we work for someone else, we work for money, comfort, and an easier life,” she says. “If someone believes that there is a strong plan in place to have all of these things, walking away can feel short-sighted, foolish, and terrifying. Not many like the idea of FOMO.”
How to Release Your Golden Handcuffs
There’s nothing more important than your mental health — even if money is on the line. To better understand your golden handcuffs and come up with a strategy for releasing them, take these measures.
Evaluate Your Lifestyle
First and foremost, if you are flirting with the idea of leaving your job, you’ll need to have the financial backbone to stay afloat until you find a new opportunity. Dr. Thomas says the most crucial step to take is evaluating your lifestyle and determining ways to reduce your budget and spending. To do this, it can be helpful to assess your wants versus your needs honestly so that you can make smarter choices on extraneous spending. “Saving your money at this point should be a big priority so that you will have something to fall back on upon leaving both your well-paid job and the financial incentives you would have received if you had stayed for the required amount of time,” she adds.
Audit Your Company
As Etkina puts it, golden handcuffs can be challenging to walk away from, but they can be made easier by auditing your personal situation and your company’s standing. And honestly, she’s not kidding: Roll up your sleeves and investigate your company like a detective or a journalist. “Read up on the company financials, media mentions, and other relevant forms of information that will give you a good sense of whether your golden handcuffs are a sure bet or perhaps too good to be true,” she continues. “Companies sell employees on a vision that they are executing. As we’ve seen so many times, these visions and strategies can fall short.”
Once you have a better grasp on the reality of the organization that employs you, Etkina suggests turning the scope inward and doing an audit of what really drives you. Is it money? Freedom? Happiness? This will look different for everyone, and there is no wrong answer. “If your goal is to sit on the beach in 10 years and sip Mai Tai’s, and you’re working at a company whose future looks very promising, maybe the best thing to do is push through,” she says. “It’s all completely personal, but first starts with knowing who you are at your core.”
Practice and Prioritize Self-Care
Maybe you have a goal to leave your golden handcuff gig by the end of next year, once you reach a specific milestone or earn a certain amount of money. If so, you need meaningful ways to survive the next several months. As best as you can, Dr. Thomas urges professionals to practice and prioritize self-care. “Exercising daily is one of the best ways to de-escalate upsetting feelings and stress cognitively, emotionally, and physically,” she continues. “Mindfulness, meditation, venting to and leaning on your support systems are also ways to calm and soothe yourself.”
Remember, They Aren’t a Once-in-a-Lifetime Deal
To put your mind in a better perspective, Etkina says it can be helpful to remind yourself that golden handcuffs aren’t a once-in-a-lifetime deal — companies use them all the time. “If you’re going to stay somewhere for long periods of time, you must know it’s working in your favor. You can easily get another amazing offer at a company where you enjoy working and spending time,” she continues. “I cannot stress enough that there is so much opportunity out there right now. This is not the time to settle. I’ve seen countless people leave seemingly ‘amazing’ opportunities only to get wildly better offers.”
And on that note, also try to remind yourself that money isn’t everything; your health is. While you can find many jobs, you only get one life and one body. So, at the end of the day, if the company that you work for is impacting your mental or physical health, you have to consider the long-term implications that working in a stressful or toxic environment can have on your health, Etkina adds.