Employee Engagement

At least 50% of US workers are quiet quitting—it’s not too late to reengage them

Work is a social experience. To fix disengagement, employers need to up the human element.
article cover

Nuthawut Somsuk/Getty Images

· 4 min read

You may have heard by now that many American workers are—to put it lightly—not doing so well.

In September, Gallup reported that at least 50% of the nation’s workers were likely “quiet quitting,” or completing the bare minimum required of their jobs while emotionally disconnecting. The ratio of engaged to disengaged US employees, it reported, had fallen to its lowest level in a decade. The situation is a far cry from nearly three years ago, when, early in the pandemic, workers reported record high levels of engagement.

Meisha-ann Martin, senior director of people analytics at employee-recognition software Workhuman, said the shift shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who study engagement drivers. People feel engaged, she said, when they feel they belong and are connected to each other.

Everything about the way we’ve been working for the past several years, as well as stressful external factors like the Covid-19 pandemic and widespread layoffs, has set up employees to feel disconnected, discontented, and just plain over their jobs, Martin said. The problem, she said, started with hasty adoption of work-from-home protocols that prioritized productivity over people.

“There wasn’t a lot of talk about making sure people continued to stay engaged, even though we were going through the biggest, most stressful thing of most of our lifetimes,” Martin told HR Brew. “We started that conversation way after we started the conversation about productivity. So, it is absolutely not a surprise to me that we are where we are.”

Low employee engagement, she said, is not irreparable—but it will take understanding exactly what’s broken to make our way back.

The WFH paradox. Let’s get this out there: many Americans are unhappy outside of jobs, too. However, Jon Clifton, CEO of Gallup, who has been tracking happiness and workplace satisfaction for decades, said Americans are typically happy about their work—over the last decade, engagement among US workers was on the rise, said Clifton. According to Gallup’s research, 80% of people worldwide like their jobs.

When employees switched to WFH and had to navigate pandemic stressors, there was some evidence to suggest that the flexibility hybrid work provided could boost overall well-being. It gave people more time to sleep, be social, exercise, and even procreate. (Yup: Clifton said that fertility rates increased during the pandemic.)

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.

And yet, though hybrid work let people thrive outside work, Clifton said the tendency toward asynchronous communication resulted in confusion and frustration between colleagues over expectations. As a result, workers were often disengaged.

Adding fuel to the fire, Martin said, were budget cuts. As economic conditions worsened, some companies, she said, tightened their belts, prioritizing productivity and further letting the “human element” of work slip.

But the human element is everything; workers who lack meaningful connections at work are up to nine times more likely to be disengaged, finds a study from Workhuman in partnership with Gallup. The importance of having a best friend at work to “rely on through the thick and thin” became more important than ever during the pandemic, yet fewer US workers reported having one.

What’s the answer? No one is suggesting going back into the office full-time, but HR teams need to find a way to make workers feel connected. Martin suggested that teams offer recognition for jobs well done, sharing a personal example of feeling burned out by her DE&I-related tasks.

“At the end of last year, I was just feeling like, am I just being negative about the state of inclusion? Does this matter? Is anybody hearing me?” she recalled. Then, a colleague she didn’t know took the time to message her about how her comments in the DE&I Slack channel had positively impacted her and gave her the boost she needed. “It was just this amazing moment,” Martin said.

Clifton said companies can recognize workers by giving them the tools they need to be effective. When basic needs go unmet, he said, workers are likely to roll their eyes at employee engagement stunts.

“Yoga is awesome,” he clarified. “But the problem is, there’s so many of these fundamental aspects of work—like people knowing what they’re supposed to do, or having development opportunities—[that] are completely absent in workplaces. And that’s what’s making everyone want to absolutely lose their minds.”—SV

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.