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Quiet quitting: Old problem, new name

By Jill Havely | October 21, 2022

Quiet quitting is a new media buzzword, but is it the same old employee engagement problem by a different name? WTW experts discuss.
Employee Experience|Benessere integrato

Quiet quitting has become a hot topic in recent months. Google searches have increased by nearly 23,000% globally since July, and the flood of recent articles and social media posts suggest it’s a new phenomenon. But is it really? Has something changed in the employee experience or is it just the latest media buzzword? If something has changed, what is it, and what can employers do to fix it?

To find out what’s really going on, we turned to our global database of employee opinions, the world’s largest with over 250 million completed employee surveys. We examined data from the second quarter of 2022, globally across all sectors and geographies, and compared that data with global averages from 2020 and 2021.

Employee engagement remained steady in Q2

Definitions of quiet quitting often include references to drops in discretionary effort, a reduction in energy toward one’s work and declines in advocacy toward the organization — what you might ordinarily call declines in employee engagement. Interestingly, however, our analysis showed no demonstrable dip in energy or inspiration in the second quarter; engagement held steady.

If engagement is holding steady, what has changed?

Employee opinions about staffing and workload dropped significantly in Q2

Of the full range of employee experience, one of the biggest drops in sentiment was around staffing and workload, confirming the impact of the great resignation. In fact, in the first six months of 2022, employees perceived their employers as doing a significantly worse job of retaining and recruiting top talent and maintaining efficient staffing levels and manageable workloads.

Employee perception of compensation also declined

The second most significant area of decline was in the perception of compensation — not in absolute terms but in whether it was perceived as fair. Most notably, employees’ perception of whether their pay is fair compared with that of others in their organization dropped significantly.

Employee opinions of flexibility were mixed, but leaders appeared less interested in the wellbeing of their employees

Employees continued to acknowledge flexibility to support work/life balance in the second quarter, most likely through their hybrid and work-from-home arrangements; however, we still saw a decline in employees’ perceived ability to balance their work and personal lives. We also saw a drop, back to below 2020 levels, in how much employees believe their leaders are interested in their wellbeing. This is despite an uptick during the pandemic.

Fascinatingly though, despite a significant increase in the messaging, focus and financial investment in wellbeing programs as well as resources and the effort of employers to communicate they care, employees’ perception of “caring” has dropped. What’s causing this disconnect? We suspect a “say/do” issue: Employers are saying they care, but their actions (or inactions) around resourcing, the magnitude of work and the sheer amount of stress are off.

What’s going on? Is quiet quitting really a thing?

According to WTW’s engagement data, it seems there hasn’t been any real downturn in discretionary effort in recent months as the quiet quitting articles suggest. Our data shows that we have moved into a new employee experience globally, created from a combination of workload and staffing stressors because of talent attrition, concerns about fair and equitable pay, and increased pressures affecting physical, financial, emotional and social wellbeing.

The reality right now, and likely for the foreseeable future, is that with inflation and the increased cost of living, real wages are going down. And because of the “great resignation” and decreased staffing, real workload is going up. As a result, it makes sense that work/life balance is going down. This new employee experience creates a potent mix of raw emotion, real hardship and feelings of being taken advantage of. And employers need to address it, immediately.

What can employers do to enhance this new employee experience?

The truth is, there is no silver bullet to magically make everyone happy, fully engaged, feeling balanced and highly productive. Because every company is different and every company’s culture is unique, it’s important for employers to make decisions based on their own unique facts.

To navigate this difficult period, employers have some tough choices to make. Here are five actions for consideration:

  1. Talk with employees and listen to what they’re saying — and not saying. Use employee surveys and focus groups (virtual or traditional) to gather input from your people. Your employees want to know and believe they’re being heard and that improvements in their day-to-day experiences can come as a result. For example, when your people express frustrations about a lack of work/life balance, dig in to understand what this really means. Are more (or different) resources or skills needed? Is there a need to review key priorities and timelines? Are there other ways the work can get done to allow for more “free brain space” and personal time during the day?
  2. Define and design the experience you want your employees to have. What will it take to deliver on that desired employee experience ? Build the plan and execute. It sounds easy. It’s not. It takes thoughtful planning, time and commitment from all levels of leadership.
  3. Inspire your people through clarity of direction, purpose, truth and humanity. Cut through the noise with clear messaging around your business’ vision and path to get there. Help all employees see how they’re creating value for your organization and those you serve.
  4. Help employees understand the full picture of their total rewards. Total rewards are often referred to as the “hidden paycheck.” Beyond base and incentive pay, showing employees the full value of their total rewards can increase awareness of programs and resources and improve the perceived value of what the company provides.
  5. Close the wellbeing “say/do” gap. If you tell employees you care about them and their wellbeing, show it through actions, not words. This doesn’t mean you need to spend more money to add programs. On the contrary, it means ensuring your messaging and your actions are in full alignment. For example, as employees worry about balancing work and personal commitments, avoid introducing new, non-critical initiatives such as wellbeing challenges that require employees to add more to their plate. Although well intentioned, these initiatives could be met with further frustration and expressions that the company is ignoring employee feedback. Instead, coach leaders and managers, who may also be trying to find their personal balance points, on ways to lead with empathy and creative problem-solving. This will potentially help all find new ways to deliver on business expectations while giving employees the space they need to thrive.

Final thoughts: While we question whether quiet quitting is the most pressing issue of the day, we believe talent retention and employees’ increased consideration of quitting to be serious issues. As economic tides turn, voluntary attrition rates continue at pace and involuntary attrition becomes a foreseeable threat, there is a growing urgency for employers to (re)engage their most valuable resource: their talent.


Managing Director
Head of Global Community Excellence, Employee Experience
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