The term “quiet quitting” has gone viral across social media over the past few months, and although the term is relatively new (a search for “quiet quitting” on Google trends shows an abrupt rise to a peak in late August), the idea has been around for generations. Call it what you will, “acting your wage,” “work-to-rule,” or just “coasting,” people have been tweaking the work/life balance since humans first started trading their labor for wages. The idea of quiet quitting clearly resonates with many workers in today’s work environment due in part to people’s shifting priorities around work, but a deeper dive into the phenomenon reveals some important takeaways for business leaders:
- The impact of toxic work culture
- The connection between bad managers and quiet quitting
- The need for top-down solutions
- How managers are the catalysts of employee engagement
- The power of peer support in building engagement
In most workplaces, employee engagement falls on a wide spectrum. At the extremes, there are those who always go the extra distance to do their best to advance their companies and careers, while others are content with doing only what is asked of them and no more. Both can have a place in an organization. The problem in many companies today is that even the higher performers are feeling burned out from the expectations of “hustle culture,” and many are turning to quiet quitting as a solution for maintaining their own mental health.
What’s causing low engagement?
Gallup has been studying employee engagement for over 20 years. The results for 2021 showed a drop in the number of respondents who identified as “engaged” for the first time in over a decade. At the same time, the number of “actively disengaged” workers is on the rise.
If you are an HR leader, you’re probably asking what’s really going on? Is this just a sign of the times, with employees bombarded by headlines about “The Great Resignation” and the promise of more flexible workplaces at other companies, or is there something happening in the workplace itself that management can address?
There are many factors driving both resignations and employee disengagement, but the top of the list for those quitting jobs, after compensation, according to a Pew research study, are lack of career opportunities and feeling disrespected at work. In another study by MIT Sloane measuring attrition in Culture 500 companies, “toxic corporate culture” was rated over 10x more important than compensation in the decision to leave a job. While the decision to quit may arise from many factors, it’s clear from these studies that conditions in today’s workplace are at least part of the problem.
For those workers who weren’t part of The Great Resignation, such as those who may not have the security of other job opportunities, disconnecting emotionally may be the only alternative for dealing with a toxic work environment.
Managers are part of the problem
What is it about toxic culture that has people quitting—for real or quietly—in record numbers? The Gallup report blames managers: “A manager’s effect on a workplace is so significant that Gallup can predict 70% of the variance in team engagement just by getting to know the boss.”
This sentiment is echoed in a recent report for Harvard Business Review, by the research firm Zenger Folkman. The report presents data from a 3-year survey of over 13,000 employees who answered questions about 2,801 managers. They found that employee engagement is closely tied to employees’ perceptions of their managers. Employees who viewed their managers as able to “balance getting results with a concern for others’ needs” rated their own engagement significantly higher than those who viewed their managers as uncaring.
“We found that the least effective managers have three to four times as many people who fall in the “quiet quitting” category compared to the most effective leaders.”— Zenger Folkman
Engagement initiatives—what works?
Given the wide range of workplace engagement initiatives, how can HR leaders decide which solutions are going to help bring about real change in workplace culture? Dante Pannell, VP of business development at Wellbeing @ Work Live (W@W), a partnership between Gallup and Careots, says that the research shows that engagement and wellbeing initiatives are much less effective when the responsibility is placed on the employees. Simply adding benefits and access to wellness tools is a bottom-up approach that often fails to achieve significant buy-in from employees due to stigma and other social and cultural barriers to accessing services. Instead, the change must come from the top down, with leaders and managers leading by example.
Managers are part of the solution
While executives may think their strategies for supporting employees are effective, many company leaders are out of touch with the current state of their employees, as a recent report by Forrester Research for Modern Health:
“Even though 85% of surveyed employers feel they actively listen to the needs of employees, only 51% of employees agree.” —Forrester Research
This striking disconnect highlights one solution to the problem: companies need to find ways to bridge the communication gap between employees and execs. That role falls directly on the shoulders of those in between the C-suite and the operation floor—the managers and team leaders.
The authors of the HBR report identify key qualities of managers who inspire more engagement from their teams. First on the list is forming and maintaining positive relationships with employees. But before you can give managers the additional responsibility for leading the change in company culture, these managers need to be cared for as well. Pannell says, “the managers are often the ones who need help with their own wellbeing the most.”
Many upper-level managers and front-line team leaders are the ones bearing the brunt of mental health challenges in the workforce today as they navigate high turnover on their teams and the challenge of managing remote and hybrid team members. They often report feeling higher levels of stress and burnout than other employees. It’s essential to engage managers first by giving them the tools they need to manage their own mental health. Pannell and his group at W@W do this by leveraging Gallup’s well-tested research-based analytics tools, including the Wellbeing Index, which identifies individual and company-wide wellbeing trends, and the CliftonStrengths talent assessment, a tool for identifying individuals’ unique skill sets. These additional resources can give managers the confidence to engage in supportive dialogues about wellbeing and resilience with their team members.
W@W has found that the most effective outcomes are achieved when they start their training with a select group of 5-10% of a company’s employees from the executive leadership all the way down to operations. After providing members of this early cohort with tools they can use to strengthen their own wellbeing, these initial participants can then become champions for the benefits of this approach for the rest of the organization, connecting with their peers at all levels of the company to validate the process. The result is an authentic, peer-oriented engagement that removes the heavy lifting from any one group and fosters a spirit of working together to raise the level of wellbeing of all employees.
A common challenge facing HR leaders today is how to build a culture that supports engagement and wellbeing across a diverse population of employees. The current media hype around “quiet quitting” is an opportunity for people leaders to understand why this topic may be hitting a nerve with their employees. In an effort to close the gap between employers and their employees, managers are the key to keeping a healthy, supportive dialogue with each individual on the team. But to be the catalyst for team engagement, they need the tools, skills, and support necessary to be effective.
Learn more about W@W at Mentera’s upcoming virtual event the Care Stack Summit where you’ll hear from W@W and a variety of other solutions designed to help support your employee’s mental health. The Care Stack Summit is a week of virtual events October 10-14 and a special in person meetup in Minneapolis, MN on October 13. Register here.