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Why People Stay in Jobs They Hate

Man sleeping on his desk

The golden handcuffs are real!


That’s the term of art for those stuck in a job they hate but can’t seem to leave, according to an Aon Hewitt survey based on data from 500,000 workers. It seems about 8 percent of the global workforce have no interest in their jobs and no motivation to quit them. Thus did these inert, unhappy workers earn their name, a slightly aggressive term for gainfully employed people suffering from ennui.

Having no motivation at work does make it a slog, and that seeps into the rest of your life. “If you’re that disengaged and you feel that stuck, what kind of spouse, or partner, or friend, or life do you have outside of work? It’s not a great place to be,” said Ken Oehler of Aon Hewitt. “We feel for these people.”

So why don’t they do something about it? Why don’t they try to change their circumstances, especially given the improving labor market?

How annoying.

One reason: They’re shackled to their desks by an elegant pair of golden handcuffs. Prisoners, by Aon Hewitt’s definition, aren’t people who can’t find work. They’re people who don’t even want to look. And that’s because they’re often overpaid. Aon Hewitt’s research found that more than 60 percent of prisoners make above-market wages, compared with around 48 percent of nonprisoners.

“They are getting paid higher than they could maybe find externally out in the market,” Oehler said. “Then you get this feedback loop, because they’re not getting performance management.”

Then inertia sets in. The longer you stay with a company, the likelier you are to feel stuck in that job, the research found. “You have people that have been with the company longer and feel like they’ve been through a lot with the company,” he said.

The burden of achieving happiness (or “engagement,” to use the buzzy term favored by HR folks) shouldn’t fall entirely on the employee, Oehler said. “Engagement is something that organizations owe to employees,” he said.

Of course, as prisoners know all too well, many companies just aren’t going to provide it. In that case, the imprisoned can act. “There is a choice in this matter,” Oehler said. “We would suggest people are more empowered than perhaps they think.” Ask for what you want.

And if that doesn’t work, now’s a pretty good time to start looking for a new job.