Corporate culture

The Great Disengagement: Why Employees are “Quiet Quitting”

By: Mercy Ehrler

July 27, 2023 – 7 min read

It’s a fact: more and more people are feeling disengaged at work. Just 33% of Americans say that they are currently engaged at work, with millennials feeling the most disconnected from their employers. But why? Is it the aftermath of COVID-19? Anxieties over political unrest? Or talk of the looming recession? It’s undeniable that people are more distracted than ever. Still, there appear to be multiple factors contributing to what’s being called the “quiet quitting” movement, where employees are “just showing up” at work and no longer going the extra mile. Below, we’ll look at what’s contributing to The Great Disengagement and what business leaders can do about it.

What is Quiet Quitting and Why are Employees Doing It?

Of the 67% of Americans saying they’re disengaged at work, an alarming 17% say that they’re “actively disengaged.” But why are we seeing this period of Great Disengagement or quiet quitting?

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be a factor for many. Employers were not prepared to support employees working remotely for the first time, lacking the infrastructure, technology, and emotional support needed to make this major shift in working conditions, leaving them unable to support the new workforce model indefinitely. This, coupled with many organizations reducing headcount in the pandemic, put a greater burden on many employees, who were forced to take on extra workloads in an environment largely unequipped to manage this change while also worrying about their own job safety.

Employees were forced to do more than they previously were, in a new work environment, with many leaders lacking the skillset to support and coach their teams effectively. Employees had to juggle family responsibilities, working from home, and blurred lines in their work/life balance, drastically changing how they felt about work.

Who is Most Affected by Quiet Quitting?

Over the last two years, overall job satisfaction has reached a 20-year low, with employee loyalty continuing to decline—particularly among women, people of color, Gen Zs, and millennials. Coupled with the isolation, constant anxieties of global headlines, taking care of loved ones who were sick, and adapting to new working standards, it’s no surprise that employees have become so disengaged.

It’s also no secret that millennials and Gen Zs have very different value systems from traditionally minded business leaders. Whereas the typical C-suite values loyalty, respects authority and will do whatever it takes in the workplace, millennials and Gen Zs tend to value work-life balance, flexibility, and a collaborative working environment. If this is missing, it’s easy to see why employees are quietly quitting. Sectors such as life sciences, including the pharmaceutical industry and biomedical research, have not only seen a wave of quiet quitters but a major disconnect between those identified as quietly quitting and those admitting to it. 40% of life sciences employers say they have quiet quitters on their staff, but just 26% of employees in the industry admit that they are quietly quitting. Interestingly, 63% of life sciences employees say that they have colleagues who have quietly quit, suggesting that the problem is even more prevalent than employers themselves have realized.

“40% of life sciences employers say they have quiet quitters on their staff, but just 26% of employees in the industry admit that they are quietly quitting.”

What is the Economic Impact of a Disengaged Workforce?

Quiet quitting is a very real problem for organizations. Disengaged workers. Individual organizations must grapple with the effects of less productive, less motivated employees, and the departure of their top talent.

A massive 46% of Americans are planning on switching jobs in 2023, with “unclear or unreasonable job responsibilities” cited as the biggest factor in making the switch. It is estimated that it costs 6-9 months’ salary to replace an employee, so this expense for almost half of an organization’s workforce could be devastating (not to mention the time spent hiring, onboarding, and the time lost to employees “quietly quitting” ahead of actually quitting.)

A major challenge, though, is that once quiet quitting takes root in an organization, it tends to set a vicious cycle in motion. Suppose employees see their colleagues are mentally checked out and not working as hard as usual. In that case, they will naturally feel less inclined to put in their best effort, leading to the rapid spread of disengagement throughout the organization.

When quiet quitting is identified as an issue in an organization, senior management must act fast. If left unchecked, it will spread like wildfire through the rest of the workforce, which only exacerbates the problem and leads to widespread toxicity. Very quickly, employees will recognize that their colleagues aren’t putting in the same effort anymore, and they will either overwork themselves to make up for it, leading to resentment and burnout, or they will reduce their own level of effort to match their colleagues. It’s easy to see how quickly the situation becomes toxic.

The Great Re-Engagement

Of course, if quiet quitting is a problem in your organization, your number one question will be, “How can I re-engage my quiet quitters?” That’s where The Great Re-Engagement comes in. The Great Re-Engagement is a collection of tactics for re-engaging employees with their work, reconnecting them with the company mission, and getting them excited to start work every day. But just as workplace disengagement doesn’t happen overnight, there is no quick fix to reverse quiet quitting—it will take time, effort, and the need to listen to what employees have to say.

Woman looking unfocused and disengaged during a meeting

“The Great Re-engagement is a collection of tacts for re-engaging employees with their work, reconnecting them with the company mission, and getting them excited to start work every day.”

6 Re-Engagement Tactics

Examples of tactics to build into your Great Re-Engagement strategy include:

1. A strong onboarding process

When people join your organization, ensure your employee onboarding process is as robust and comprehensive as possible. Onboarding doesn’t end after the first four weeks, so build regular onboarding conversations into the first six months at least to ensure that new employees feel supported and have everything they need to perform well.

2. Rewards and recognition

Disengaged employees often feel like their efforts and achievements are going unrecognized. Celebrating achievements can help employees start to feel valued again, so consider introducing a recognition program (such as asking managers or employees to nominate colleagues to receive a reward) or reevaluating your bonus program to incentivize employees further.

3. Coaching and leadership

Many employees feel that they don’t receive the support or guidance of their managers. Ensuring managers have the skills to coach their employees to improve their own skillsets and progress in their careers will help establish trust and build positive working relationships and will ultimately lead to a higher-performing workforce.

4. Employee check-ins

Too often, employees will go for weeks, or even months, without having a proper conversation with their managers. Make sure every single manager in your organization is scheduling regular check-ins with employees, which focus not just on their performance and removing work blockers, but also on their well-being and how they feel about work. This will help managers recognize and deal with motivation challenges as they arise instead of allowing them to take root.

5. Mental health and well-being support

Part of these check-ins should focus on the employee’s mental health, as this will naturally impact how they perform at work. Every organization should have a structure in place to support employee well-being and mental health, whether this is a formal employee assistance program, mental health first aiders, or signposting to external services. Managers should also be trained to spot the signs of quiet quitting.

6. Transparency from management

Widespread layoffs throughout the pandemic led to distrust from employees to their employers. Senior management should take care to be transparent and to maintain two-way conversations with employees, keeping them in the loop about the organization’s economic performance, the employee’s performance, and any potential challenges down the road, helping to reassure employees about the ongoing situation.

Want to re-engage your employees and buck the trend of quiet quitting? Contact Performance Development Group today to discuss your challenges.

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