Silent Abandonment Is the Most False Fake Trend in the Workplace

Perhaps you have heard of “silent withdrawal”. It’s telling that the phrase has taken off on social media – but it’s the most bogus of fake “workplace trends.”

Think of it as the third iteration of dubious pandemic-related work-related fads. After the original variant of Covid-19, we heard about the Great Resignation, but the data did not support it beyond a few sectors hard hit by lockdowns such as hospitality. Then came the delta wave and the “lie flat” movement, another trend based largely on trivia and a catchphrase. Following omicron, we quietly quit smoking.

The reason bosses care about these trends isn’t that they’re depicting actual behavior, but that so many people find them attractive. They talk about employees’ fantasies, not their actual career plans.

As with all misleading trends, the definition is incredibly broad. Some describe the silent shutdown as “doing the bare minimum”, while others say they are “fulfilling all of their obligations”. Some “drive”, while others “leave work at 5 pm”. Some simply hope for a better work-life balance.

But these are quite different from each other. Consider someone who regularly works 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but generally avoids overtime. Is this person “doing the bare minimum” or are they just incredibly efficient? Should someone who meets all his obligations really be considered a slacker? Is it fair to call any of them a form of “withdrawal”?

Silent surrender is also something we probably talk about more than we actually do. A recent Axios poll of young workers found that 15% were doing the minimum at work, although large majorities admitted that sounded “attractive”.

While it’s true that some of the workforce sends it by post, that’s nothing new. Engagement at work has been fairly stable for years. Polling organization Gallup has tracked it for more than two decades, during which the percentage of “actively disengaged” employees has remained largely stable at between 13% and 20% of employees. The percentage of engaged employees has also been stable for decades, at around 30% of employees.

While Gallup recently rebranded the middle — people who are neither engaged nor disengaged — as “silent quitters,” that seems like a leap forward. Many people neither love nor hate their jobs, and they don’t let up.

Every company needs people who are content to do their jobs reasonably well and who don’t harass management for bonuses or accolades, people who accept a slower career path as an acceptable price for a less stressful life. Teams also benefit from long-time members who know how things work. If everyone is scrambling to get in and out as quickly as possible, who is the guardian of the team’s collective knowledge? Who transmits the team culture?

Maybe the Gen Z TikTok users who invented “silent weaning” just discovered what their elders eventually learned: that for a significant number of people, work can be… work. A job is sometimes just a source of income, not a deeper meaning. And to get fired, some people have to be actively bad at their jobs — not just quietly coasting. (Although, as my colleague Kami Rieck points out, this privilege does not benefit everyone.)

Few of us keep our foot on the accelerator 100% of the time. Those who do may find themselves at a higher risk of burnout or workaholism and subsequent health risks. It’s assumed that the most engaged employees are the least burnt out, but that’s not always true – sometimes a high degree of engagement is what makes disconnecting from work so difficult. A study at Yale found that one in five employees reported high levels of simultaneous engagement and burnout. Too much commitment can push you into overdrive for too long.

It is also normal for workload and motivation to fluctuate. Sometimes the cause is random, but often it is seasonal. A tax accountant is going to be busier in March than he is in July, for example — we’re not accusing him of quitting just because he has less to do. I used to feel anxious earlier in my career when I had a slow day. (What if someone found out and I got fired!) Now I’m wise enough to know that a fallow period never lasts long.

Instead of managers worrying about quitting quietly, I think they should learn a lesson: don’t rely so much on employees who go above and beyond their job description.

It is common for companies to expect employees to accept work outside of their normal work. But that assumption hurts people who didn’t get the unwritten memo. And that leads to the same people still finding themselves struggling with menial tasks like taking notes and scheduling meetings.

Seen in this light, silent surrender is an understandable response to a workplace where much is expected in silence.

Then there are the disgruntled employees who take a much louder route. Cornell’s Labor Action Tracker tallied about 265 major strikes in 2021. There have already been 273 in 2022. Among the top complaints we’ve recently received from workers are 24-hour shifts (where workers don’t are only paid for 1 p.m.); work overload caused by persistent staff shortages; and having to be on call for days or weeks at a time, and being called into work at all times. These are legitimate grievances and management failings.

Maybe bosses should worry a little less about silent quitters and a little more about that.

Ideas like laying flat and quitting smoking quietly will continue to take off online, even if they aren’t mainstream trends in real life. Perhaps just talking about it is a necessary corrective in an age when work has often taken on an inordinate importance – shaping our identities, providing a source of meaning, even reassuring us that we are, in fact, people. good and virtuous. In earlier times, it was often religion or family that offered these things. But your family — unlike your job — probably loved you back.

More from Sarah Green Carmichael at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Stop trying to be indispensable at work

• CEOs can’t solve our biggest problem with the RTO

• Women should no longer do housework this year

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is editor-in-chief of Bloomberg Opinion. Previously, she was Ideas and Commentary Editor at Barron’s and Managing Editor of Harvard Business Review, where she hosted “HBR IdeaCast.”

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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