Employers need to think creatively about ways to keep their staff engaged, experts say, or risk adding to the growing ranks of ‘quiet quitters’ in the workforce.
Quiet quitting - the idea of doing the bare minimum at work – is not a new concept. Words such as ‘coasting’ and ‘bludging’ have been around for decades to describe colleagues who may not be giving their all.
Still, the idea has returned to prominence after pandemic lockdowns caused many to reassess their priorities in life. A recent Gallup poll suggested half of the American workforce were psychologically detached from their jobs.
“Across the employment landscape generally, the lockdowns that pervaded the last two years have prompted workers to reprioritise work/life balance and demand more flexibility from their workplace,” says Dorothy Hisgrove, KPMG’s head of people and inclusion.
“We’ve also seen people reassess their career choices, with 65 per cent of workers who quit their jobs in the last two years not returning to the same industry.”
Economic conditions are another factor. Wages growth has been stagnant across many major economies in recent years, and the impact from that is now being felt more acutely as inflation pressures rise.
In addition, record low unemployment means employees may feel less need to impress their bosses to feel secure in their role, says Phil Preston, chief executive officer at The Business Purpose Project.
“For the younger generation, ‘quiet quitting’ is a rebellion against unhealthy workplaces,” Preston says. “They may question whether they will ever be able to buy a house. And that leads to thinking ‘Why should I kill myself on the career ladder?’”
Counter-balancing that, evidence suggests that most people still aspire to having a successful career. A report by Australian social research firm McCrindle found that almost two-thirds of people under 25 cite being stuck in a job they don’t find fulfilling as one of their biggest fears.
Preston works with organisations to create a sense of belonging among staff and a clarity of purpose, and he says that the desire for advancement gives employers something to work with.
“Employers need to have honest conversations so that they can understand if it’s about them or the employee. Sometimes when you get to the bottom of it, you find that a person is suffering from something that may not be obvious. It could include a lack of opportunities for career advancement.”
Hisgrove agrees, saying: “Remaining focused on internal mobility is critical.”
Unilever was this year ranked as the best place to work in the manufacturing and consumer goods sector by AFR Boss magazine. The company has taken a novel approach to worker engagement with its U-Day initiative, which divides the week into a 2+2+1 format. Two days are for team collaboration, two days are for deep work and one day is for “play and innovation through self-directed learning and development.”
Similarly, KPMG has ramped up its focus on health and wellbeing as a way of preventing burnout. It has brought in flexible work practices and its wellbeing discussion groups focus on things like depression, anxiety and workload management.
Studies have found that organisations with workplace giving programs benefit from greater staff engagement and retention, especially when donations are matched by the employer. Many top companies, including Westpac, also run initiatives that allow their employees paid time away to do charity work.
Some firms have taken engagement to the next level by adopting an alternative employment model that seeks to link the employee more closely to the company’s overall performance.
Meld Studios last year became the first Australian business to introduce an Employee Ownership Trust (EOT) – which holds a company’s equity on behalf of its staff. As shareholders, employees have a say in the company’s direction and receive equal profit distribution. In the UK, over 420 EOTs have been established since the model was introduced there in 2014.
Arianna Huffington, who founded the US behaviour change platform Thrive Global, has issued a plea to reject quiet quitting. For Huffington, disengagement is not the answer to stamping out ‘hustle culture’ and burnout. With such a big portion of our lives spent at work, why not try and find meaning and purpose in our endeavours, she argues.
She proposes ‘joyful joining’ as an alternative.
“Quiet quitting clearly entered our work conversation, but here’s why we need to keep it out of our work lives,” Huffington wrote in a LinkedIn post. “Quiet quitting isn’t just about quitting on a job, it’s a step toward quitting on life.”