The aftershocks of the Covid pandemic continue to shake the labour market. Quiet quitting is the latest trend to emerge – so how can employers reengage disengaged workers?
Each morning at the start of the working day, we face a set of questions. What tasks should I focus on today? How should I manage my time? Do I go above and beyond my manager’s expectations and put extra effort into my work?
Many, it seems, are answering ‘no’ to the last question, and the employees with this mindset are engaging in quiet quitting.
First coined on TikTok, the central premise of the quiet quitting trend is that work should not be the focus of our lives. Self-identified quiet quitters resist the expectation from their employers and fellow employees to put extra time and energy behind their work for the benefit of the business or in the hope of securing a promotion in the future.
While it’s impossible to say how many workers have quit quietly this year, it is notable that the trend is gaining traction, as productivity in the UK and the US is dipping.
In August, the US Labour Department announced that work productivity in the year’s second quarter fell at its steepest pace since records began – and a recent Gallup study estimated that at least half of the US workforce have quietly quit to some degree.
Dr Ashley Weinberg is an occupational psychologist at the University of Salford. He believes the impact of the pandemic on the relationship between employees and employers partly explains the rise of the quiet quitting trend.
He says: “Organisational culture is the mortar between the bricks of how businesses work and psychological contracts are an important part of it. This is the unwritten set of expectations between employees and employers – and it’s how people understand the benefits of their job, be it monetary or social.
“But during the pandemic, many people’s psychological contracts with work were either completely shattered – because their employer had to close and their job was suddenly gone – or the medium through which they understood their working lives changed completely. A lot of the social side of work disappeared and was replaced with online meetings where the focus was often solely on work or the task at hand. That’s a poor substitute for what employees used to have pre-pandemic.”
Weinberg adds that employee disengagement is one consequence of ripping up our psychological contract with work – and recent studies support this view. Gallup’s global workplace report for 2022 revealed that only 9% of workers in the UK were engaged or enthusiastic about their place of work, coming 33rd out of 38 European countries.
Other factors, though, are at play that may be contributing to employee disengagement and feeding into the quiet quitting trend. Notably, widespread disengagement is coming at a time of extreme once-in-a-generation financial pressures, where salaries are tracking way below inflation, and many workers are locked out of the housing market due to prohibitively high prices regardless of how many additional hours they do.
According to the TUC, British workers put in two and a half weeks more work per year than the average European. However, this additional work is not translating into higher incomes or a better quality of life, with many millennials and gen-Zers set to be worse off financially than their parents.
In this context, quiet quitting – and the conscious disengagement from additional work beyond what is required – appears to be more of a correction to a working culture that hasn’t recognised or remunerated staff than an outright rejection of the work itself.
Maria Kordowicz, an associate professor in organisational behaviour at the University of Nottingham and director of its centre for interprofessional education and learning, concurs with this view.
She says: “The decrease in work/life delineation during lockdown many experienced put workers in a position where they had to advocate more vociferously for their needs in how they could best fulfil their role in a challenging context.
“Quiet quitting is about making an effort to uphold our wellbeing through the way we work and through rediscovering the relationship we have with work, rather than risk burnout by working excessive hours or by having only a work-based identity.”
In the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, the desire to seek out more fulfilling work manifested in the great resignation trend, with 47 million Americans voluntarily leaving their jobs in 2021 alone. But, given the cost-of-living crisis and rising energy bills, many workers may opt to temporarily remain secure with their current employers until the incoming financial storm is over.
The benefit of this from the employer’s perspective is that there is still an opportunity to reengage workers before they leave. But to do this, Kordowicz notes, employers need to recognise how their actions have contributed to the quiet quitting trend.
“We have to move away from individualising the problem - i.e. blaming the individual worker for disengaging - and instead seek organisational solutions, such as appropriate workload and non-tokenistic implementations of employee-centred wellbeing policies.”
However, widespread remote working limits an employer’s ability to engage workers who have quietly quit. Whereas before the pandemic, office culture enabled employers to quickly build a rapport with their teams, many employees now work in isolation and only interact with their colleagues during the odd video call scheduled throughout their days.
Jill Cotton, career trends expert at Glassdoor, believes that employers need to put in extra effort to build a company culture that resonates with employees regardless of where they are working.
“Businesses need to create an equitable experience for all employees. Meaning that whether they work remotely or in the office full time, employees still feel an active part of the workplace community.
“In lieu of ‘watercooler moments’, employers need to make time for remote employees to be heard and feel that their contributions are valued. Set up regular informal group meetings to help foster personal connections beyond day-to-day work chat and encourage recognition to happen organically.”
Cotton’s point touches on the vital role line managers play in reengaging workers who have quietly quit. While wellbeing policies and higher wages will help employees feel more appreciated, a recent Harvard Business Review study found that the decision of whether an employee quietly quits often rests on the quality of their relationship with their manager.
If an employee felt undervalued or unappreciated, they were more likely to disengage from work. Conversely, the research found if an employee felt like their manager trusted them and cared about their wellbeing, they were less likely to quietly quit.
“The relationship you have with your manager is the most prevalent in your day-to-day. Line managers must be trained and thoroughly understand how to manage hybrid working employees,” says Nicki Pritchard, managing partner at Anderson Quigley.
She adds: “Many people become managers because they’ve simply progressed to a certain level of their career – but that’s not to say they’ve been supported or trained to be a manager. Others might have years of face-to-face management experience, but they now need to understand how to manage remotely. Those skills contribute a lot to the company’s wider culture, which is now more important than ever.”