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How Companies Should React to the Anti-Work Movement

published12 months ago
4 min read

Two years into the pandemic, many workers are fed up. The prolonged state of uncertainty has brought mental health to a crisis point, and burnout is rampant. In unprecedented numbers, workers are quitting their jobs and the Great Resignation shows no signs of slowing down. But some people are going a great deal further than that by challenging the economic system and asking themselves if there is even a point to work.

These people are part of the anti-work movement, which seeks as its aim to demolish the economic order that is the very foundation of the modern workplace. Anti-work, which has its roots in anarchy and socialist economic critique, maintains that most of today’s jobs are unnecessary. The anti-work forces believe these jobs lead to exploitation of the worker and wage slavery.

Importantly, the anti-work movement isn’t arguing for no jobs whatsoever — just doing the minimum to get by. And this idea, which was fringe as recently as March 2020, has recently gained traction and many new adherents. It’s centered on the r/antiwork subreddit, a community that believes in direct action but whose focus has recently broadened into a wider discussion on working conditions as the thread has gained popularity.

Since the start of the pandemic, the anti-work community has grown exponentially. The r/antiwork subreddit has attracted more than 1.7 million followers (up from just over 100,000 in March 2020) and receives an average of 1500 posts a day. The group describes itself as being for those who “want to end work, are curious about ending work, want to get the most out of a work-free life, want more information on anti-work ideas and want personal help with their own jobs/work-related struggles.” The site says that its point is “to start a conversation, to problematize work as we know it today.” There are also tips for standing up to abusive bosses and for organizing.

Clearly, the site has tapped into the frustration that many employees feel about their jobs. And there’s also a long-overdue recognition that work should not be an end in itself but a means to an end. Given the record number of employees quitting their jobs — a recent survey found that 65% of Gen Zers plan to quit their jobs in 2022 — and the growing appeal of the grassroots anti-work sentiment, what should employers do? Are there ways to make work more palatable, and if so, how?

I’ve studied workplace trends for over a decade now, and this trend is one that I believe all companies should take note of. Leaders need to be especially responsive to their employees’ concerns right now — you don’t want your best employees to quit, after all. Only you know what will work at your company, of course, but I’ve culled some suggestions that I think are worth thinking about. These strategies center around ways to end the overwork grind, put your employees’ wellbeing first, and make them feel valued so they’ll stay with your company.

Move your company away from hustle culture

In many ways, the anti-work movement is a repudiation of what’s known as hustle culture. Some workers feel they wake up in the morning and grind all day, every day, logging in well over 40 hours a week, just to be seen by their higher-ups as productive. And while this may be hugely productive in the short term, over time, it’s actually counter-productive. Overworking, week after week, takes its toll on everyone’s mental, physical, and emotional well-being.

In this type of pressure-cooker environment, employees can get frustrated and can literally “snap,” which leads to high levels of rage quitting. To avoid this, it’s important to foster an atmosphere that is more teamwork-oriented and less competitive. A strong team emerges when each member feels respected for the unique talents they bring and their ability to contribute to a common goal.

Make sure that your expectations are clearly laid out and that you are not secretly encouraging overwork. Consider structuring bonuses to reward strong teamwork — where each member of the team benefits, not just individual stars. Workers are likely to find it less stressful to pull together for a team than to constantly hustle in a competitive way against their colleagues. In sum, imbue your company with less hustle and more huddle.

Insist that everyone use their vacation time

In 2020, 33% of Americans’ vacation time went unused. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that the pandemic shut down travel for a spell. However, studies show that year after year, Americans tend not to use all of their vacation time. And a few years in a row of missed vacations can quickly atrophy one’s emotional buffers, which can result in fatigue and poor judgment. The human body needs time to relax and recharge, and the brain won’t work as well if it is always on.

If your staffers won’t take time off voluntarily, consider enforcing mandatory vacation time. You might consider giving your employees a “friends and family day” or quarterly mental health breaks when all employees are required to take a full week off. Sometimes you just have to mandate self-care for all. Doing so will help keep burnout at bay. Also, while you’re at it, don’t forget to take all of your vacation days. Remember that if you model good mental health practices, others will follow your lead.

Conduct “stay” interviews — not just exit interviews

Companies conduct exit interviews to hear their workers’ unvarnished opinions of their supervisors, teammates, and the company. A standard exit interview will probe why the employee is leaving the position and tease out if the person has another job lined up. But by the time a valuable employee quits, it’s usually too late to make them change their mind. Most likely — especially in today’s robust job market — the person has found another position that pays more or offers better benefits.

Instead, consider conducting stay interviews with your people with the goal of assessing their overall job satisfaction. You might want to ask them what they like most about their job as well as any aspects they wish could be altered. Try to find out what motivates them and what you can do better as a manager. At the end of the meeting, work with each person to develop a stay plan and follow-up with them at regular intervals to see whether things are improving.

Show your employees some love, not just the money

Your company may not be able to make today’s anti-work movement any less popular, but you can do everything in your power to make your company a great place to work. Whether it’s putting a premium on strong teamwork rather than individual feats, insisting that people use their vacation time, or conducting stay interviews to uncover areas where you can improve, all of these steps can help your workers feel less like cogs in a vast machine and more like the valuable assets that they truly are.

How is your company coping with the anti-work movement? Do you have any strategies you can share? Let me know on LinkedIn.