Quiet Quitting and the Productivity Problem for HR Amid Recession


Human Resources in the United States, not to mention some other parts of the world, have a new problem to confront: a drop in productivity that is concerning some business leaders. At the same time, the trend of quiet quitting, in which employees do the bare minimum and nothing more for the employer, is gaining attention. What does this mean for employee engagement? How can HR professionals turn the tide? 

REPORT: Employee Engagement and Experience for the Post-Covid World

What to Expect in 2023

In the United States, labor productivity growth averaged from 2.6% from 1996 to 2005 but only 1% from 2006 to 2017, according to Forbes, which continues: 

“This 1.6 percentage point decline means that the average American is over $12,000 poorer than she would have been had labor productivity continued to grow at the faster rate.” 

At the same time, another recent Forbes article expressed how the predicted recession of 2023 will be different than any other previous economic downturn. For starters, it will begin with a large number of unfilled positions, nearly two for every unemployed person. As a result, Forbes predicts some companies will cut hiring plans rather than actual jobs. 

READ: 4 Ways to Recession-Proof HR

Already some sectors, namely technology, are seeing layoffs while others are facing staff shortages. The writer of the article also suggests that the pandemic resulted in people having huge savings, which made them less worried about job loss. But other economists have argued that any savings from the pandemic are long gone, and this probably will not be the case by 2023. 

READ: 6 Ways to Combat Employee Burnout

Why This Matters to HR Management

These prospects mean HR must focus on productivity because it directly connects with economic growth. This may mean focusing on investments in technology and innovation to help do more with fewer people. 

A more challenging aspect of fixing the productivity problem is addressing why quiet quitting is a thing. Burnout, frustration, and ennui are part of the drop in productivity, said Julia Pollak, Labor Economist at ZipRecruiter, on NPR.

Over the years, employers have given the wrong message to workers. There’s a growing divide between the salaries of executives and the talent that helps them fulfill their vision, layoffs, pay cuts, and poorer compensation and benefits while the cost of living continues to rise. Pollak thinks this is what U.S. workers are understanding:  

“Companies will just work you till you drop and then drop you when they want. Working your heart out for them is a fool’s game.” 

READ: Is Quiet Quitting a Problem or a Wake Up Call? 

Connecting Lower Productivity and Wellbeing

When workers see their employers as taking advantage of them or being uncaring, the morale takes a dive. This looming recession is filled with many contradictions. One of them is that HR professionals are paying attention to the mental health and wellness of their employees. In the wake of the pandemic, it has become a priority for most organizations. Yet, quiet quitting is still happening. 

This resentment is a result of years of people feeling undervalued and underpaid. It might not have even been the case at the organization that employs them now, but it was a societal trend. 

Still, work is intertwined with one’s identity. The number of hours put in is often seen as a badge of honor in the United States. The writer Elliot D. Cohen, PhD, warned against the American ideal of “production perfectionists” in a Psychology Today article. He points out that nearly half of employed Americans consider themselves “workaholics.” 

“In the United States, human worth and dignity tend to be equated with productivity,” he writes. 

This is dangerous thinking. After all, if people lose their jobs, they may feel lost or without value. Now, there is a culture shift that is slowly changing this mindset. Thus, quiet quitting is a trend. 

The pandemic put a spotlight on how working long hours, stressing, and experiencing anxiety leads to poorer health. In fact, the World Health Organization reported in 2021 that long working hours increased deaths from heart disease and stroke. Stanford researchers also showed that employee productivity decreases significantly around 55 hours per week, which means additional hours are not going to contribute to output necessarily. 

READ: What Is Mental Health and Wellness in HR? 

How HR Can Move Forward 

Human Resoruces leaders can help guide executives as they set expectations for employees. In addition, they can set rules about working hours, and help employees tend to their mental health and wellness through relationship building, programs, and benefits. 

Many are talking about how HR must recognize the difference between productivity and output. Perhaps, the United States is moving away from rewarding people for burning the midnight oil and instead considering their achievements. 

Photo by Julien Bachelet for Pexels

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