woman holding up 'I quit!' sign at table with crumpled up paper Source: AdobeStock

Recent data shows that U.S. workers’ productivity levels are falling, a recent Gallup poll shows only 32% of U.S. workers feel “engaged” in their jobs, and the media is awash in articles focusing on employee burnout, work-from-home versus back-to-the-office arrangements and “quiet quitting,” which means non-union employees choosing only to do what is in their official job duties as though they were unionized. Many analyses tie these trends to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the pandemic no doubt brought these work-life issues to a head, quiet quitting and decreased employee productivity are at least partially due to fundamental changes to work-life balance over the past 20 years as well as toxic leadership in the workplace. The good news is that leaders can keep their employees engaged at work by avoiding harmful leadership behaviors, like narcissistic abuse, which create toxic workplaces.

Over the past 20 years, technology and management theory have changed how office work is done in ways that make it more difficult for employees to achieve a reasonable work-life balance. Back then, office work was conducted in the physical office because of technological limitations. There was also a higher level of administrative support, such as secretaries, and many workers had their own private offices with doors that shut so they could concentrate on doing work. Since then, most workplaces have cut their administrative staffing – shifting low-skill, routine work formerly performed by support specialists to higher-skilled workers without reducing the higher-skilled workers’ other duties – and expect employees to monitor email and perform other work outside of normal business hours too. Many workplaces have also switched to “open office” formats, which, contrary to expectations, actually reduce employee collaboration in real life, with face-to-face interactions in open offices decreasing by as much as 70%, according to research published by The Royal Society. Other research shows open offices also decrease employees’ satisfaction with their work and increase stress and exhaustion, largely due to workers’ inability to control noise and interruptions.

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