Art: Charter / Photo: iStock naruedom

It’s been about a year now since the term “quiet quitting” first blew up into an obsession of the working world. After a long slog of pandemic-induced exhaustion, many employees simply had nothing more to give, as the idea of going above and beyond lost its luster in a widespread, highly public way.

Right now, a new trend is emerging: This time, employers are the ones quiet quitting.

A growing number are throwing in the towel on the “above and beyond” elements that helped their businesses and workers survive—even thrive—during the pandemic. This “perk-cession,” as it’s been called, isn’t just about the disappearance of nice-to-haves like free dry cleaning and fancy coffee. Increasingly, more foundational employee supports like well-being benefits, flexible work arrangements, and more humane cultures are disappearing, too. As a recent Time story put it: “Goodbye to the kinder, gentler employer.”

What employer quiet quitting looks like

This abrupt reversal of policies has been framed as both a return to an old pre-pandemic norm and an inevitable response to a rapidly cooling economy. Really, though, it’s indicative of a deeper problem: While most pandemic-era benefits and programs were put in place with good intentions, they were often launched reactively and piecemeal, without much connection to any larger, longer-term strategy. Diversity, equity, and inclusion teams were spun up or enhanced to meet employee demand—but too often were under-resourced and understaffed, resulting in a loss of momentum, or were first to hit the chopping block during budget cuts. Organizations touted a focus on mental wellness with days off, stipends, and other benefits, but failed to address the underlying culture that led to burnout—a problem currently affecting 42% of workers, according to Slack’s Future Forum.

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Research has shown that employee quiet quitting is driven in large part by disengagement and lack of connection to the organization’s purpose. The same is true of employers: If you launch a program unmoored from any larger vision for the company, of course it’ll be easy to quit on it.

On the other hand, employees who feel valued and find purpose in their work are far more likely to thrive. And once again, the same is true of employers: Those that want to cultivate a meaningfully engaged workforce should design their offerings in a way that connects back to their vision and values.

In other words: Quiet quitting begets quiet quitting. Purposeful investment begets purposeful investment.

Navigating an inflection point

Even in a climate of cost-cutting and adjusting to a new post-pandemic era, right now is an opportunity: As employers reassess what they’re offering employees, the smart ones will recognize how critical it is to move forward in a way that strengthens, rather than weakens, their relationship with their talent.

And that means working strategically to understand where the biggest vulnerabilities lie. Which parts of the workforce have the highest levels of disengagement? Where are you seeing signs of burnout? Knowing these answers will help you to strategically prioritize where to start, and where investments will have the largest returns.

Let’s look at an example. At my company, Josie, which offers coaching to new parents, we commonly work with mid-career professionals, typically characterized as 30–45-year-olds in mid- to senior-level management roles within their organizations. Recent research has highlighted how valuable these employees can be to an organization’s overall success and the happiness of its workforce, and yet these same manager-level employees are also two times more likely to leave a company compared to their individual contributors. One reason I often hear in my own work: They do not believe their jobs are compatible with having a family life, and aren’t confident their employers will support them in juggling both.

Continuing the example: How might employers better support this population of new parents? Possibly (probably) through things like flexible work policies and child-care benefits—but the first step before implementing anything new is to simply ask employees what’s working and what isn’t, especially because one-size fits all approaches to employee wellbeing too often fail to move the needle.

And the second step is to create new support systems in a way that shows a commitment not only to retaining employees right now, but to both developing them and keeping their work life sustainable over the long term. In a 2020 report from Maven Clinic and Great Places to Work, working parents who weren’t suffering from burnout were 35 times more likely to recommend their employer, and 10 times more likely to “do extra” in their roles. Again: Purposeful investment begets purposeful investment.

And for employers, the cost of that investment is small compared to the cost of losing rising stars, whether to quiet quitting or actual quitting. As leaders continue to navigate this post-pandemic phase and difficult economy, they should do so with one thing top of mind: Don’t quiet quit on your employees, and they are far less likely to quiet quit on you. Re-engage with your workforce, connect your efforts to a greater purpose, and allow that to drive clarity on what stays, what changes, and what to let go.

Michelle Yu is CEO at Josie, whose mission is to transform the working parent experience. Her work focuses on cultural transformation at the organizational level and personalized support at the individual level to drive retention and engagement among the working parent population.

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