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Should you help an unhappy employee? And how?

by News Room
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While some people enjoy going to work every morning, many people are not at all satisfied with their work or work environment. However, it is not everyone’s reason to look for another job. For example, the fear of a lower salary can ensure that employees stay for years in a place they are not satisfied with. This is disadvantageous for the employee who reluctantly goes to work every day, but also for the employer who employs an unmotivated employee. What can you as an employer do about it?

Start a conversation with your “locked” colleague

The risk of being “locked” into your job, as Merel Feenstra-Verschure calls it, lies with everyone. As assistant professor of organizational psychology and academic director at TIAS School for Business and Society, he has been studying this phenomenon for years. “By locked out, I mean employees who are not in place and are unhappy with their work situation, but who also feel that they cannot leave, even if it would be wiser.”

The feeling of being trapped can have many reasons, says Zayra Muller. As a coach at Het Groei Atelier, he sees many people who doubt their work but don’t dare to leave. “People don’t really know what they want, they’re afraid they’ll lose a salary, or they’re afraid another employer won’t want to hire them.”

It may seem incomprehensible, but it happens that people stay in such a situation for fifteen years, says Feenstra-Verschure. “We can think all kinds of things about it, but they really can’t figure it out for themselves. Studies show that they have lost control of the situation and cannot see solutions.” This happens more often than you think: “When I ask in lectures who feels trapped now or has experienced this in the past, about 60-70 percent of the people present often raise their hands.”

The most common reaction in the workplace is to look elsewhere, says Feenstra-Verschure. “People then think: yes, that colleague on our team is not enthusiastic, but he’s been here so long that he’s really not going to leave.” According to Feenstra-Verschure, managers avoid the conversation because they believe people should take responsibility for their own careers, because they have too many people, or because they fear losing someone, even if someone is no longer very productive. “This has created a big taboo on this subject.”

That’s a shame, says Feenstra-Verschure, because good communication can save a lot of suffering and even absenteeism. About one third of all people in a closed situation end up with burnout. “It sounds simple, but talking really helps,” says Feenstra-Verschure. He also sees a clear role for managers in this. “It’s easy to put all the responsibility on the employee, but ultimately everyone in the company is to blame for the situation, because the employee’s feeling of being trapped arose during work.”

Find inner motivation

Muller sees a shared responsibility in solving the situation. “It’s actually a kind of relationship: both the employee and the manager have a stake in the employee’s well-being. So the employee has to sound the alarm if he doesn’t feel comfortable, but it’s also the supervisor’s job to pay attention and recognize the behavior.

He advises the supervisor in such situations to facilitate a conversation in which the employee and supervisor together look for what is needed to restore motivation. According to Muller, this does not have to take the form of an initial interview, it is only the last step. Small changes can make a big difference: “If someone needs more freedom, hybrid work can be very helpful. But a transfer to another department, more appreciation or regular sparring can also prevent the feeling of being trapped.

However, such regulations are not a solution for everyone, Muller sees. Especially people who have been dissatisfied with their work situation for a long time need more help to get rid of the feeling of being trapped. “In that case, the most important thing is that the employee evaluates and looks for what motivates you internally: why do you do what you do? When you look at your core values, motivations and expertise, it often turns out that someone is good at many more things than previously thought.”

Guiding the employee in these searches is more the expertise of a career coach than a manager, says Muller. However, that does not mean that the supervisor’s role ends here: the employer can, for example, support the employee by providing a budget for coaching.


Don’t look away if someone seems unhappy or dissatisfied with their work. Instead, start a conversation with the “trapped” employee, especially as a manager, to work together to find a solution that will help the employee re-motivate. This can vary from a small adjustment of the workplace to a coaching process, but it is about the employee and the employer looking together at what the employee wants to achieve and what the employer can do to support.

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