The answers to lack of enthusiasm for work among employees often lie outside the job itself, argues Mary Alice Vuicic. But that doesn’t mean firms can’t fix it, and improve productivity at the same time
Contrary to many of the headlines, the “quiet quitting,” “great contemplation,” and “great resignation” phenomena are not new. Yes, the Covid pandemic did introduce a massive disruption that normalised remote work on a scale that was never before thought possible, but it didn’t invent the concept of career burnout. The pandemic just made it easier for employers to finally do something to address the problem.
In fact, the concept of quiet quitting, whereby employees start dialing back their effort and slowly disengaging from their work, was first introduced in 2015 as a concept called “brownout.” Borrowing from the terminology used to describe the lifecycle of a star, the executive coach Michael E. Kibler explained that brownout is even more dangerous – and harder to detect – than career burnout because those experiencing it are not in obvious crisis. They just continue to grind out the work, begrudgingly, without passion.
Perhaps even more troubling for employers, the traditional incentives used to spur employee engagement – more money, more responsibility and bigger job titles – do not fix brownout. In many cases, they prolong the slow decline. Brownout can also ultimately lead to employee turnover, forcing employers to spend precious resources on the recruiting process.
The antidote only comes in the form of things that happen outside of the traditional boundaries of work.
From achieving long-time personal objectives like running a marathon, writing a book or travelling the world, to tackling major professional milestones like getting an advanced degree, the big items on our bucket lists are often pushed back by the immediate demands of our to-do lists. When employers can help their employees achieve those bigger milestones, however, they suddenly find the secret to reigniting their passion.
And that is the thing that has changed. While it may have been considered logistically unwieldy for an employer to help employees fulfill their goals outside of the workplace a few years ago, we’re better equipped than ever to make that possible today. Thanks to the widespread adoption of flexible work and improved agility within the corporate structure that makes it easier to collaborate and share responsibilities across teams, employers now have the tools they need to support employees’ professional and personal goals.
Let’s take flexible work and the early days of return-to-office. Companies took many different approaches to flexible arrangements; however, as these programmes evolved, we started to see the idea of work-from-anywhere emerge, but with boundaries around what “anywhere” truly meant.
While those options look like an evolution, they do not really give employees the flexibility they need to chase their dreams. When work-from-anywhere is opened up to the world, things start to get interesting. Suddenly, the employer becomes an enabler of dreams – a cheerleader, encouraging employees to break out of their routines and tackle new frontiers.
A new calculus for productivity
To really give employees the runway they need to chase big goals, however, employers need to think bigger than just flexible work. They also need to build more flexibility into the idea of giving employees an opportunity to reset, recharge and refocus.
At Thomson Reuters – in addition to our Work from Anywhere benefit – we’ve just introduced a six-month sabbatical programme. My colleagues will be able to take up to six months of leave every five years to do anything they want. Whether it’s launching a non-profit, learning to paint, or just taking some time to smell the roses, the time off is meant to give our teams the space they need to get out and to do what they love, all while having a job to come back to. By facilitating that opportunity as a brand with people at its heart, we’re able to give our people the one thing money cannot buy: time.
This is all relatively new territory for many large corporations who have spent the last several decades focused on workplace productivity and maximising human resources. But we believe that in the long run, shifting that focus to employee wellbeing and maximising personal potential will create a much more engaged workforce and a much stronger company.