Workers are quiet quitting, and only employers can stop it

In a worsening labour market, many workers are stuck in jobs they don’t like. They’re disengaging, and firms have a big role to play in addressing the problem.

Quit rates are declining. In the US, they’ve normalised to pre-pandemic levels – seemingly bringing an end to the Great Resignation. Hiring has similarly cooled. In the UK, the number of job vacancies has dropped every quarter for the past year.

Now, in the current labour market, demand for jobs vastly outstrips supply. June 2023 LinkedIn research shows hiring has dropped by 20.9% in the US and 22.5% in the UK year-over-year. At the same time, workers’ job search activity is surging. LinkedIn data, seen by BBC Worklife, shows a 150% rise in job applications in the UK in July 2023 compared to a year ago. In the US, there’s also been a 35% spike in the number of applications per candidate.

Experts say some workers are happy to stay in their jobs: many have found new roles they’re excited about after reshuffling throughout the past few years. But not every worker is staying put of their own volition. Some workers still want to quit, but with a slowdown in hiring and uncertain economic forecast, they may be trapped in jobs they don’t like for the foreseeable future. 

“Through the Great Resignation and hiring crisis, changing roles has been like a game of musical chairs,” says Nela Richardson, chief economist at HR management firm ADP, in New York. “Over time, more jobs have been steadily removed from the market. Now, there are fewer places for workers to sit than before – more people have to stay where they are.” 

This includes dissatisfied employees. During the height of talent shortages, disgruntled workers could more easily vote with their feet, job hopping or industry switching to find roles they enjoyed. “When people feel they’re not in an inspiring job, and see opportunities elsewhere, they’ll likely look to get their career needs met with another employer,” says Jim Harter, chief scientist for workplace management and wellbeing at Gallup, based in Nebraska, US.

But now, with few job prospects, these workers may not be able to quit – so they ‘quiet quit’ instead. According to June 2023 Gallup data, most employees are already doing just that: 59% of 122,416 of global workers say they’re not engaged at work.

It’s up to employers to re-engage their workers by listening to what they want and rising to the occasion (Credit: Getty Images)

There are many reasons why workers may be disengaged right now, say experts. 

For one, cost of living and stagnant wage growth have meant more employees are unhappy with their salaries. “Pay is often the number one reason for someone to feel unhappy with their current job – you’re working just as hard, but your wages aren’t going as far,” explains Richardson. 

A large swath of workers is also stuck in jobs they fundamentally don’t care about. The fact they want a new role but can’t get one leaves them feeling frustrated, stuck and without agency. So, without job-market mobility, “[they] stay simply out of a lack of choice, rather than because they feel fulfilled and motivated by their role”, says Ngaire Moyes, UK country manager at LinkedIn, based in London. 

This is where quiet quitting comes in. “Most people quiet quit because of the nature of their work,” says Harter. “They do the minimum because they’re uninspired in their work and don’t feel they have the opportunity to do what they do best.”

In some cases, companies may be unwittingly adding to the problem.

Harter says an organisation’s lack of personal investment in their workers often drives quiet quitting. And in a labour market that is currently favourable to companies, employers may have even less motivation to engage these workers. “Some employers may now think they have greater control, in that workers have fewer opportunities elsewhere, so they don’t place as much effort in inspiring their teams,” he says.

For employees, being stuck in a job they don’t enjoy is unpleasant at best, harmful at worst. And quiet quitting doesn’t help. “It’s a behaviour that can lead to lower levels of wellbeing over time,” says Harter. “In practice, going into a cocoon and doing the bare minimum for most of your waking hours can have a negative impact on mental health. And it isn’t a way of building a successful career.”

For all the adverse effects on employees, this ongoing issue is also a big problem for companies, since worker disengagement can cost them in lost productivity. Experts say the firms themselves should have a vested interest in engaging their workers. Simply, they have a role in breaking this proliferation of quiet quitting: if businesses don’t make conditions better for workers, a growing number of their employees will persist in doing the bare minimum – until they can actually quit.

One piece of this puzzle, says Richardson, is making sure workers feel supported and prioritised like they did during the pandemic, when wellbeing packages were designed for remote working, and companies placed a greater emphasis on employee mental health.

“During the hiring crisis, many employers did more to keep their workers, offering greater flexibility and mental health breaks. But, as talent shortages have eased, some organisations may have retreated on those offerings. Yet a key reason why someone quiet quits hasn’t changed – and that’s down to company culture.”

In times of economic stress, such as the rising cost of living, Harter says employers also have a duty to acknowledge workers’ broader circumstances and engage them at work even further. He cites Gallup figures indicating that engagement is also impacted by crises outside the workplace. “During tough times, building the right organisational culture is even more crucial in determining employees’ discretionary effort,” he adds.

The reality for most workers is that they may have to remain in their current roles, whether they like them or not. And, unless companies do more to engage unhappy employees, many will opt to quiet quit on the job. 

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