Some organisations are learning the hard way that practices such as rescinding employees’ time off requests at the last minute and texting them on their scheduled days off (and insisting they come in or be fired) are not just a sure way to lose people. Employers engaging in these practices may gain unwanted attention from the passionate and active audience of more than 1.5MM people on r/antiwork – a fast-growing and highly active group on the internet discussion giant Reddit.
The subjects of employee burnout and The Great Resignation are, at this point, nothing new. However, the recent swell of activity on r/antiwork in the last quarter of 2021 is noteworthy.
Between October and December, subscribers to the r/antiwork subreddit (read: discussion group) doubled, from 600,000 to more than 1.5MM people. For perspective, during the same period, the activity on r/antiwork outstripped the giant r/wallstreetbets, which has ten times as many subscribers and is the catalyst behind the meme stock phenomenon.
What makes r/antiwork noteworthy is that it’s emerging as a force in real life, not just a place where people discuss ending work and pursuing a work-free lifestyle. In addition to theory, the subscribers are putting their sentiments into practice, to the point that Goldman Sachs analysts cited r/antiwork in an investor note issued in November 2021 that pointed to a “long-run risk” to labour force participation in the form of a “general distaste for work.”
“We see some risk that some workers will elect to remain out of the labor force for longer, provided they can afford to do so,” wrote the authors of the note, quoted in a story by Yahoo! Finance, titled ‘‘Antiwork’ movement may be long-run risk to labor force participation: Goldman Sachs.’
“There’s a short-term story of what’s happening post-COVID,” said Sylvia Allegretto, a labour economist and co-chair of the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics, for an article on Salon.com, titled, ‘The latest viral trend taking over social media? Quitting your job.’ “But it’s couched in the long-term story of what has happened over the last 40 years. People are saying enough is enough.”
The big stories on r/antiwork
The premise of antiwork is exactly as it sounds – the group’s catchphrase is “unemployment for all,” and as such, the group has a decidedly anti-capitalist bent. However, there’s more to antiwork than a discussion of general strikes, Marxism, and labour unions.
The group has also become a voice for “The Great Resignation” with thousands of posts about toxic work environments, heartless managers, and fed-up employees quitting on the spot. The posts offer insight into the circumstances many people endure and therein offer important perspectives leaders should not ignore.
We sorted through hundreds of these accounts, and found many recurring themes:
- Micromanagement that punishes and degrades
- Disregard for (and intrusion upon) peoples’ personal time
- Acts of retribution and petty behavior by line managers
- Unreasonable expectations of employees’ availability, e.g. assigning overtime work at the end of a shift, requests to come in on days off, and rescinding approved time off
- Treating employees as machinery by limiting breaks, extending shifts, and ignoring peoples’ family commitments or personal needs for rest.
Without a doubt, the anecdotes offered by r/antiwork posters represent worst-case scenarios that cause people to reach their breaking point. However, a prevalent underlying theme in almost all of these posts is understaffing. Many posts reference covering for coworkers who have quit or called off, leaving the employer with little or no coverage of a shift or overall rates of churn – strongly suggesting that problems are rife within that particular team or organisation.
Here are two examples:
- One administrative assistant quit his job without having secured new employment. In his two years with the company, the employee noted the company decreased staff by 60% and asked him to work “off the books overtime” daily. He also said his boss would yell and throw things at him.
“Because of the layoffs, within a year they had me doing all the work of a director of operations (who was laid off) which I was EXTREMELY underqualified for,” the poster wrote. “After being asked to work a weekend for free (again), I quit with no job lined up.” The poster went on to say he almost immediately landed another job that paid him 30% more. “I am happy,” he concluded. (See the full thread here.)
- Another popular example is the story of one Redditor who broke her foot and was thus unable to stand for her 12-hour warehouse shift. She received approval from a manager to use a stool so she could sit while she worked. Another manager, evidently unaware of this arrangement, chastised the employee via a series of text messages, even though she had led the team in their daily performance measures despite working while seated. She responded by quitting on the spot. (You can see the full exchange here.)
r/antiwork is sparking real-life action
In addition to the discussion activity on the forum, the members are also exhibiting a kind of “digital solidarity” as a Morning Brew article described. Members have joined forces to clog food giant Kellogg’s job site when the company announced it would hire replacements for workers that were on strike.
In late November, antiwork manifestos began appearing on cash register receipts across the world, the result of an apparent broad hack of unsecured receipt printers.
“Someone or multiple people are blasting “antiwork” manifestos to receipt printers at businesses around the world, according to people who claim to have seen the printed manifesto, dozens of posts on Reddit, and a cybersecurity company that is analyzing network traffic to insecure printers,” reported Vice, in an article titled, ‘Hackers Are Spamming Businesses’ Receipt Printers With ‘Antiwork’ Manifestos.’ (Image via Vice).
“Naming and Shaming “ is another consequence some employers are experiencing after posters reveal the name of their employers when they share their negative experiences. Fellow r/antiwork readers then flood those companies’ reviews on Yelp, Glassdoor, Google, and other review sites with negative commentary.
Changes r/antiwork is fostering
In addition to grabbing headlines, r/antiwork is fostering change on the individual level, and given its rapidly growing audience, its influence is starting to scale. Changes antiwork is fostering include:
- Increasing awareness of employment law and individual rights. The r/antiwork community is savvy and informed, and immediately advises their fellow posters of related laws, their rights, and potential actions they can take. Employers who insist that employees not discuss salary, alter their employees hours worked or fail to pay overtime have always risked serious legal and regulatory consequences for these actions. These practices, which are never a good idea, are becoming even riskier as employees become more well-informed and equipped to take action.
- Affirmation for employees who stand up for themselves. One of the most noteworthy aspects of antiwork is the empowerment and support the community provides. In the most egregious cases, Redditors have raised funds for their peers, using online giving platforms and digital payment apps for virtual “whip-rounds.” However, the most common form of support is the robust approval and affirmation many find when they share their stories of standing up to a prototypical bad boss.
This affirmation is an important feature of antiwork. Stories of people standing up to abusive bosses, quitting on the spot, and (in many cases) quickly finding other, better-paying work, make people feel more confident in their own ability to make similar changes to their own situations. Managers who treat employees poorly may see even more acceleration in employee turnover as a result.
- Ramifications in the workplace. The “distaste for work” cited in the aforementioned Goldman Sachs research note is, in our view, more accurately described as a collective refusal to not endure toxic workplaces, meaningless work, and bad managers any longer. A common thread throughout r/antiwork is the entirely reasonable desire to enjoy life, which means rejecting workplaces that burn out and exhaust their workers and managers who create endless stress and misery in their lives. Employees are placing a high value on fair treatment and the entire work experience, and the current labor shortage offers them a raft of potentially better options if they become unhappy with their current employer.
For more than a year we’ve been warning of the impending culture crisis in the workplace, and the importance of engagement and a sense of belonging for all employees. The situations described in the posts we viewed are entirely preventable, but they require senior leaders to lead with empathy and realise the immense value their employees represent.
However, senior leaders who “get it” aren’t enough – ensuring the organisations’ leaders and managers are aligned in their commitment to treating employees well and fairly is crucial.
Gaining a clear view of your organisation’s managers
This is where employee engagement can be a critical measure of leadership throughout the organisation. Measuring the engagement of each manager’s team, as well as larger groups and departments, and making engagement a core KPI for all leaders, is one of the most effective actions a leadership team can take to not just stem employee departures but to improve employees’ job satisfaction, performance and longevity with the company. This is why we believe so strongly in surveying employees quarterly. When a manager starts to struggle and their team starts to feel disenchanted, it will show up in the team engagement scores, enabling senior leadership to take action to investigate the situation and provide help to struggling employees and managers.
“Employees show up wanting to be engaged,” says our founder, Stefan Wissenbach. “It’s companies that disengage them.”
Employee engagement as a measure of good management
An engaged employee is present, focused, and energised. However, it’s incumbent upon the organisation – and in particular, the employees’ manager – to create an environment that enables people to actually feel present, focused, and energised about their work.
The drivers of employee engagement, as we discussed in an earlier article, are both measurable and are hallmarks of good management, and include:
- Providing employees a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities
- Ensuring staff have the tools, training, and resources needed to do their job
- Recognizing people for their contributions and successes
- Prioritizing opportunities for training and professional development
- Creating an environment in which employees have an authentic voice
- Leadership that cares about the well-being of employees and treats people fairly
- Promoting a sense of purpose, and contributing to the good of the community.
How many of the disasters described on r/antiwork would have been prevented if the managers involved had prioritised the bullet points listed above? The effort needed to manage well is more than offset by the effort required to hold an operation together when customer demand outstrips available staffing levels.
This is why many of our clients are assessing employee engagement levels at the team and department levels – it’s a fantastic measure of manager effectiveness.