'We treated employees like machines: 'How do we get the most out of them?''
HR leaders have long known about the concept of presenteeism, in which disengaged employees continue to show up for work but do not “give their all” while on the job.
Now, there’s a new term that may seem a lot like presenteeism, but is a little different.
“Quiet quitting” was coined by users on social media, specifically TikTok, and is known as employees doing the bare minimum in their jobs, without going above and beyond.
According to a recent survey of 1,000 adults in the U.S., done by Resume Builder, 26 per cent admitted to either doing the required amount of work or less, and 80 per cent of those employees reported they were burned out.
For one expert on work-life balance, these results are not surprising.
“I work a lot with medical teachers, engineers, lawyers, and I go into a room and I ask who has experienced burnout and, without hesitation, every single person in the room raises their hand; that would have never happened before COVID,” says Lisa Belanger, CEO and behaviour change expert at Conscious Works in Canmore, Alta.
“People wouldn’t have admitted it. Even if they were, they wouldn’t have said it. Now they’re like, ‘I’m on fire. I’m exhausted. I’m bringing the cynicism to everything I do.’ So [quiet quitting] is absolutely inspired by burnout, and then reevaluating what work and life means.”
Reimagine the work experience
But the way the issue is being approached is papering over the real issue, says Belanger: “I hate the name because they’re not quitting.”
It’s up to HR professionals to redefine exactly what should be expected of employees, she says.
“If they’re like, ‘You’re just doing your job description,’ write better job descriptions… we’ve come to a culture that is expected to own people’s time and that’s not good for anybody.”
With the great resignation continuing to vex employers, it might be time to reimagine the entire work experience, says Belanger, to combat this trend.
“We were never designed to spend eight hours in a chair. That’s not how the human body works or the brain, so if people are pushing back on that, and knowing that there’s so many jobs out there, they’re not as worried.”
By engaging in so-called quiet quitting, “in some ways, the employee is taking back autonomy, being: ‘This isn’t working for me so I’m going to do it my way,’ instead of working with the organization, which should have been how it was done in the first place,” she says.
Train your leaders
For leaders, they need to learn more about empathy and recognize that some workers are suffering — and then address the issue, says Belanger.
“We treated employees like machines: ‘How do we get the most out of them?’ And even if we still ask that same question, the way we’re doing it isn’t working. If you burn somebody out, they’re gone. They’re a fraction of productivity or innovation or creativity, whatever you’re measuring, they’re going to be a fraction of that.”
It often isn’t their fault, she says, as leaders also need to be trained on how to lead remotely in the virtual world.
“You hire a whole person when you hire them, and so to be able to develop the skills of empathy, emotional intelligence, how to manage distress, how to notice it in somebody else, and reprioritize for them, these are all fundamental skills,” she says.
‘Culture over policy’
While having solid policy documents might help to stem the tide of burnout, there are more important areas that should be looked at first.
“I always go to culture over policy, and a culture [where] the leader should be like, ‘I really respect that this person has time to not work every single day, I’m going to create normative behaviours or policies that allow for that,’” says Belanger.
Limiting when emails can be received, such as before 6 p.m., and ensuring leaders take the requisite time off to model good behaviour around mental health are other ways to change the culture, she says.
“These are not common practices — they should be, but they’re not. Just being able to clearly define what our expectations and what are our success markers, so the employee can meet those, and not be so hung up on time and not be so hung up on how the work is done.”
As well, instead of focusing solely on work, it’s important for HR to think about “strategic nonwork,” says Belanger, which is the time spent outside of the day-to-day.
“There’s not been a company I’ve met that has work policies to ensure their company, their people aren’t working because that’s a terrifying thing to ask or to think about [but it’s about] really thinking through ‘What can we put in place to protect people’s non-work time as a fundamental step towards getting people engaged in the time in which we have them?’”