The era of workism is over and HR needs to act

With an increasing number of people now classifying as quiet quitters, HR faces the tough task of re-engaging their workforces. But the solutions are simpler than you think


Before the pandemic, work was our religion. In 2019, American journalist Derek Thompson coined the term ‘workism’ to describe this phenomenon. Instead of prioritising community, family or interests, Thompson argued that, for many, work was “the centrepiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose”. 

We were totally head over heels in love with labour – and not in a healthy way. In fact, our obsession with work was making us miserable. Work was never meant to be the centre of our lives, therefore it would always fall short of our expectations. “Our desks,” said Thompson, “were never meant to be our altars.” 

Then the world shut down. The Covid-19 pandemic marks a turning point in our shared attitude towards work. The promotions, the pay rises, climbing the corporate ladder – all of these pale in comparison to the terrifying global health crisis unfolding around us. 

Since then, the religion of workism has lost many followers. More than half of the global workforce (59%) now classify themselves as quiet quitters, according to Gallup’s latest State of the Global Workplace Report. While people are still working, their hearts are no longer in it. The aim is to get by doing the absolute bare minimum.

There is a simple solution to these complex problems: start by caring about your staff 

This trend is more hidden, perhaps more pervasive, and therefore more damaging than the trends that went before it. After all, organisations can reflect on their practices when people quit their jobs loudly but not when they quit their jobs quietly.

To me, the fact that anti-workism is in vogue comes as no surprise. On my morning travels, I frequently observe other commuters hurrying to work with similar expressions of tense exhaustion and hopelessness. Every week, I hear stories of people lacking motivation in their jobs. It has very much become about surviving, instead of thriving. 

This is bad news for companies; disengaged employees result in a loss of $1.9tn (£1.5tn) due to low productivity, according to Gallup. How do we get employees excited about the start of the week, rather than only looking forward to the weekend? 

How can HR navigate these challenges

For HR managers, this presents a challenging tightrope to walk. It will be the responsibility of the people function to get employees engaged in work once more, while still giving people the flexibility they need. 

While the growth in anti-working sentiment gives leaders a fresh set of complex challenges to navigate, with difficulty comes opportunity. In my experience, there is a simple solution to these complex problems: start by caring about your staff. 

It sounds so obvious, and yet it’s something too many companies fail to do. Each generation has something in common – they want to feel valued and they want to feel heard. 

This means HR leaders have to provide flexible working arrangements, while also making sure that there are opportunities for meaningful in-person connections. It means that companies that promise certain values must stick to them, so employees are not left with unmet expectations. 

Regular feedback from staff is essential on how the hybrid approach is working for them and the company and this must be continually evaluated to ensure it is satisfactory for all parties. 

During the pandemic, we found junior employees needed more support and were the most disappointed when they were told they were not able to come into the office. During these more stable times, we must continue to keep attuned to employee sentiment around hybrid working. 

In March last year, Derek Thompson was back with new observations. The workforce was undergoing a revolution, thanks to home-working and AI. Who knows how these will play out – it is both “thrilling and terrifying”, according to Thompson. 

The companies that are able to weather these movements best are the ones who offer flexible working arrangements while sticking to their values. The companies that did the best post-pandemic were the ones who were able to respond to the changing needs and wants of their workforce. For HR leaders, this means they must continue to be flexible but also stick to their principles.