Curious about the growing anti-work movement and its potential impact on your company? You should be.

About 2.3 million subscribers, or idlers, have joined Reddit’s anti-work community since it launched in 2013 — a figure that’s larger than the population of New Mexico and 14 other states — with its ranks growing nearly tenfold over the past two years. This jump came as employees across the globe faced burnout and mental health issues in coping with the new workplace and home life realities that the pandemic brought.

What Is the Anti-Work Movement?

The anti-work movement holds that modern work and working conditions tend to be meaningless and degrading and that we should question the role work plays in our lives. Proposed solutions range from positing that people should not have to work at all, to a belief that employees should only do as much work as needed to support themselves, rather than work tirelessly to make more money for their employers.

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What Is the Anti-Work Movement?

Reddit’s r/antiwork community lays out its call to action in its headline “Antiwork: Unemployment for all, not just the rich!” The r/antiwork subreddit’s bio states it’s designed for people who want to, or are curious about, ending work, as well as those who are seeking information and ideas about a work-free life and coping with their own work-related challenges.

Notably, the anti-work movement is different from the great resignation movement, Deniece Maston, an HR knowledge advisor with the Society of Human Resource Management, told Built In. While the great resignation saw people quitting their jobs to look for better opportunities, the anti-work movement often leads to people finding ways to make just enough money to get by so they will have more leisure time, rather than working long hours to earn more money.

Much of the year-over-year growth in the anti-work subreddit came from Gen Z members, said Rob Gaige, director of global insights for Reddit.

“The r/antiwork subreddit is particularly important to young Americans who are taking a different approach to navigating adulthood than previous generations before them,” Gaige told Built In. 

The combination of being equipped with digital devices and living in a time of economic turmoil prompts Gen Z r/antiwork members into getting advice from their peers on sensitive topics, such as re-evaluating what a healthy work life balance means to them, he added.

“I think there is this assumption in American life that we work hard and we get ahead. I think the anti-work movement shatters this assumption.”

Matthew Call, assistant professor in the management department at Mays Business School at Texas A&M University said the movement questions the way work and self worth are tied together.

“I think there is this assumption in American life that we work hard and we get ahead. I think the anti-work movement shatters this assumption,” Call said. “People are asking, ‘Why would I want to work so hard? Why would that be something I would want to do? Maybe I would rather not work.’”

 

How Should Employers Think About Anti-Work? 

Employees who are sympathetic to the anti-work movement may begin to question the need to do as much work as you expect them to, or even question the purpose of their jobs or your company. That, in turn, could affect their workplace engagement and lead to absenteeism, low productivity and a lack of motivation, said Call.

But if you have concerns about employee disengagement, it’s important to remain tactful and patient as you seek to address them. Handling employee concerns poorly can be detrimental to your company’s reputation. 

“There’s a lot of online forums where people have the opportunity to expose employers as horrible bosses and share stories about their toxic workplaces,” Maston said.

Re-engaging employees involves paying attention to their comments during one-on-one sessions with managers and exit interviews and taking steps to address those concerns, Maston said. 

Other steps employers can take to re-engage disengaged employees includes treating employees like stakeholders in your company, offering developmental training and creating a formal plan that outlines ways to improve their engagement levels.

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Where Did the Anti-Work Movement Originate?

The anti-work movement began approximately a decade ago, when the hustle culture of 2010 began to fall out of step, experts said. The hustle culture called for going full bore at work, grinding it out and taking on stretch assignments.

“That’s when people really began to question the definition and purpose of work, with many starting to believe work does not provide any benefit or meaning to one’s life,” Maston said. 

The r/antiwork subreddit was launched in 2013, the same year people quitting their jobs accounted for more than 50 percent of total separations for the first time since 2009, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Layoffs and discharges accounted for the remaining portion of total separations. 

Since 2013, quitting workers have risen from 52.2 percent of total separations to a whopping 69.3 percent in 2021, the largest slice ever recorded, according to the BLS. 

 

What Can Companies Learn From the Anti-Work Movement?

The most important lesson employers can learn from the anti-work movement is to treat employees with respect and let them be heard, Maston said.

“I think those are some of the things that employers should be recognizing from the movement and how it originated,” Matson told Built In. “People have worked themselves to the bone during the pandemic and are now searching for a change of lifestyle and a healthier and happier way of working for a living.”

For example, are your employees complaining about toxic managers? Bad managers are a common complaint in the anti-work movement, she said. High turnover may be another red flag.

Another lesson learned as a result of the anti-work movement is the importance of affective commitment, said Anita Williams-Woolley, associate dean of research and a professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business

Affective commitment is when an employee feels their organization cares about them and what they care about, Woolley said. 

“It’s one of the ways that organizations can use to help communicate concern about the things that are important to the people who work for them,” she added.

Employees who feel affective commitment from their employer may display it in a variety of ways. For example, they attend and participate in company activities, such as work-related events and social gatherings that occur outside of normal work hours, according to a post in Organizational Psychology Degrees.

“People have worked themselves to the bone during the pandemic and are now searching for a change of lifestyle and a healthier and happier way of working for a living.”

Other signs include arriving early and staying through the end of all company meetings, as well as being among the first to volunteer or step forward for added responsibilities and training, according to the post.

And when asked about themselves in social situations outside of work, they are likely to first respond with their occupation and name of their employer, a sign they see themselves as an extension of the company, Organizational Psychology Degrees reports.

To foster an affective commitment with your employees, begin by taking frequent pulse surveys to learn where you can bolster your support for your workers, Woolley advised.

Promoting a social network among employees also helps to build connections at work and can reduce the odds that folks will leave. People on the outskirts who don’t have any connections tend to lack feelings of affective commitment with their employer and are more likely to leave, Woolley noted.

Employers should view affective commitment as part of their company’s culture, where it’s embedded in the workplace fabric that employees’ concerns are listened to and addressed, she added.

Similar to trends like the great resignation, the anti-work movement will affect some workplaces more than others, and your work to foster affective commitment might help. But ultimately, some people may decide the kind of work your company offers just isn’t for them — and maybe that’s OK.

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