Locked at the job: ‘People don’t see a way out’

Going to work unhappy every day but not looking for something else? Then perhaps you are locked at your job. This is often not without consequences, according to PhD research by organizational psychologist Merel Feenstra-Verschure. “At a certain point everything builds up and people no longer see a way out.”

Merel Feenstra-Verschure. Image: Ton Toemen

When working in business, she regularly encountered them: people who are dissatisfied with their jobs but stay in them anyway. That this plays out in one in five employees was discovered by occupational and organizational psychologist Merel Feenstra- Verschure during her PhD research into this phenomenon she calls “locked at the job.”

To gain more insight into this relatively unknown phenomenon, Feenstra-Verschure conducted an extensive literature review and quantitative research among employees of an administrative bank in Amsterdam. She also conducted in-depth interviews, within various sectors, with workers who felt trapped at the time or had experienced it earlier in their careers. Now that her PhD is complete, she sees it as her personal mission to reduce the number of people dissatisfied in their jobs.

How do you recognize people who are stuck in their jobs?

“For example, these are the people who frequently grumble about the organization’s policies, who have a conflict with their manager, or are dissatisfied with their duties. If you ask them: why don’t you leave, do something else? Then you hear excuses: after all, I am the breadwinner, and the salary is very good here. Or: my work is so specialized; I can’t do it anywhere else. So there are all kinds of excuses that people impose on themselves.”

‘If you ask them: why don’t you leave? Then you hear excuses’

“It’s really a two-dimensional concept, you don’t want to be here anymore, and, at the same time, you experience inactivity to leave and impose the perception on yourself that there are limited job opportunities. As a result, you can end up feeling locked.”

Do workers themselves realize they are stuck?

“No, a lot of them don’t. The problem is that people often subconsciously find themselves in such a situation. I asked people during my research: do you feel like you’re locked? Then they said, no. When I asked them indirect questions, about satisfaction and about their perceptions of limited job opportunities, they did appear to feel trapped.

“That feeling of being locked doesn’t happen overnight; it creeps up on you to some extent. They get into conflicts, end up in a negative work atmosphere with unpleasant colleagues, or have the feeling of not getting enough appreciation or recognition for the work they do. Then they impose certain things on themselves that make them afraid to leave. They are convinced that it is important to keep that good salary. Or they think: Who wants me after twenty years with this company? People in such a situation experience a lack of control.”

What are the implications?

“Too many people staying in that locked up situation for too long. On average for two and a half years. You can divide them into three levels: low, medium, and highly locked individuals. The first category has few negative feelings and thoughts, but after some probing it appears that they are dissatisfied with their jobs and won’t leave. The medium category wakes up almost every day with an unpleasant feeling of going to work and also goes home feeling down. They experience stress, exhaustion, and a lack of energy.

“The third group, the highly locked individuals, experience depressive symptoms and burnout. At some point everything builds up, and they don’t see a way out. Then the light just goes out. That is really a shame. You lose those people.”

Why do people speak so little about this?

“There is a taboo on this phenomenon. We know almost nothing about it because we keep it to ourselves. In part, this is because of the pressure we put on ourselves, that everything always has to be perfect. That you can’t say at a party: I work there and there, but I don’t really like it and would like to do something else. If we did, things would start to change much faster.”

I can also imagine that people are afraid to say openly, “I don’t like my job” because there are risks involved.

“True. When people do end up going to their manager, nine times out of ten the manager says, ‘Ok, do you want to leave? Well then leave!’ People are not ready for the next step at that point, they just want to get things off their chests. So why react in such a harsh way? Can’t that be done in a good conversation?”

What can you do as an employer if you think someone is locked up?

“It starts with building a good relationship of trust with your employees. When you have that, you can have this conversation and ask if someone is still enjoying him/herself. In fact, you should have these conversations all the time and not just when something seems to be going on.”

“There are various reasons that can make a person feel trapped. The solutions are just as diverse. Leaving is not the only answer. There are other opportunities within a company. That’s why I think the business world should take responsibility for getting people back to being happy and content in their jobs, rather than ending up in a burnout.”

‘We impose on ourselves that we have to get ’the best’ out of ourselves

“So I want to focus not on those individuals but on senior management. Because they are the messenger. They have to make sure people feel safe enough to be open. And then work together to see what aspirations someone has and what the opportunities are.”

What is the result of breaking free from a job you are dissatisfied with?

“Those who felt locked earlier in their careers and eventually left either forced or voluntarily all say, ‘I should never have allowed it to get this far. Now I am much better off than I could have dreamed.’ Or ‘They sent me away then and it was the best thing that happened to me. I should have done this much sooner.’

“I’ve talked to people who worked at large corporate organizations, eventually switched to health care and are now super happy with the work they do. Just the other day, I had a client who once worked as a consultant at a large organization and became washed out. Now he has his own landscaping business and also spends one or two days using his head.”

“We impose on ourselves that we have to get ’the best’ out of ourselves. That we have to take a higher step every time. Sometimes it is actually necessary to take a step back. To do something completely different. Maybe less paid or with less ‘prestige,’ but something that makes you happy. I wish for people that have that so much.”

Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel

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