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Illustration by iStock; Security Management

Quiet Quitting and Disengagement Persist Despite Improved Workplace Outlook

The world’s workforce continues a slow emotional rebound from the shock induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, though the number of mostly disengaged workers is proving to be a stubborn problem for employers.

According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2023 Report, which is based on 122,416 survey responses in more than 160 countries, the percentage of worldwide employees who are actively engaged with the work they do is 23 percent. While that’s a dismal number, it is an all-time high for the survey, and this is the second straight year with a small increase after the number declined for the first time in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also showing a post-pandemic rebound is the number of workers who say it is a good time to look for a job: 53 percent, which is an increase of 10 percent from the previous year. The improvement supports other recent research showing improvement in worker attitudes, though with plenty of caveats.

Gallup describes 18 percent of workers as “actively disengaged.” These are the employees that are doing real harm to the organization: they undercut organizational goals and oppose managers and leadership. The workers may not be actively malicious, but their employment is a strong negative for the organization. The 18 percent is nearly the same as the 2022 report when it was 19 percent.

That leaves 59 percent of employees in the category Gallup calls “quiet quitting.”

“These employees are filling a seat and watching the clock,” the report says. “They put in the minimum effort required, and they are psychologically disconnected from their employer. Although they are minimally productive, they are more likely to be stressed and burnt out than engaged workers because they feel lost and disconnected from their workplace.”

With more than three-quarters of the workforce not actively engaged, it is important for companies to develop and implement strategies to deal with the quiet quitters and the actively disengaged. For the latter, the object is to identify and deal directly with behaviors harming the company. The actively disengaged are likely your organization’s largest insider threat.

For quiet quitters, however, companies can explore strategies to drive increased engagement. Gallup calls this group “an immense opportunity for economic growth.” The key is getting managers to engage with them and inspire them.

In the Security Management article “In the Great Resignation, Engage to Retain,” Axis Communications’ Elaine Palome advised managers to be on the lookout for heightened absenteeism, negative attitudes, or increased stress levels. These issues can lower morale and lead to increased disengagement. “It’s important to develop a roadmap for reinforcing trust, demonstrating respect, and providing flexibility,” she wrote. “Employees are your company’s greatest competitive advantage, and they should be taken care of holistically, mentally, and physically.”

While there are regional differences in Gallup’s study, some of which are described below, the study shows that employee stress is the main driver for disengagement and quiet quitting.

After remaining more or less stable for five years, employees who said they experiences “a lot” of stress during the previous workday jumped five points in 2020 to 43 percent, and it has remained high, now at 44 percent. Those who report being angry during the previous workday also remained steady at 21 percent. In addition, about half of workers (51 percent) said they are watching for new opportunities or actively seeking a new job.

Not surprisingly, the actively disengaged workers were more likely to be stressed and more likely to be looking for a new job. In addition, “a recent Gallup analysis found that engaged employees require a 31 percent pay increase to consider taking a job with a different organization; not engaged and actively disengaged employees, on average, want a 22 percent pay increase to change jobs,” it said in the report.

Last year, Gallup declared the United States and Canada were the best region in the world to be an employee. The region got top marks for actively engaged workers and for having a strong job market, factors that offset a high stress level.

This year, actively engaged employees in the United States and Canada fell 2 points to 31 percent. However, the job climate measurement far outpaced the rest of the world with 71 percent saying it was a good time find a job—second in the world to Australia and New Zealand’s 81 percent.

Also in the region, 52 percent report stress, one of the highest marks in the survey and a small increase from the previous year.

South Asia, which encompasses Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, inched ahead of the rest of the world with an active engagement rate of 33 percent, seven points higher than the previous year. The region also reported a healthy job climate with 56 percent of workers saying it was a good time to look for work.

Joining South Asia and the United States and Canada as leaders in most engaged workers, the region Gallup describes as “Latin American and the Caribbean” and encompasses Mexico as well as all of Central and South America as well as Caribbean island nations came in at 31 percent to tie the United States and Canada. This represents an eight percent increase in the region.

Europe, meanwhile, remained a region with one of the worst active engagement rates at just 13 percent—the same as the previous year. However, Europe’s actively disengaged rate was a tad lower than the United States and Canada at 15 percent, meaning its “quiet quitting” rate was 72 percent—13 points higher than the worldwide average. Stress in Europe, at 39 percent, was well below the United States and Canada and five points lower than the world as a whole. A healthy 56 percent of European workers report a strong job climate.