These are trendy concepts that are widespread in the news and social media. The terms may be unfamiliar to many of us, but these challenges to employee retention are nothing new—and the solution may surprise you: It’s safety. No, we’re not talking about orange vests and work boots. We’re talking about employees feeling safe to communicate, ask questions, and be themselves.
But let’s take a step back and look at what these workplace struggles are.
“Burnout” means that employees suffer from serious physical or emotional exhaustion because of their job. Burnout is a response consistent stress from job conditions that make employees feel like their work is beyond their control, completion requirements are unrealistic, or that their work-life balance is unsustainable.
“Quiet quitting” means that employees reduce the effort they are devoting to their jobs until they are doing the bare minimum. They are only doing the tasks explicitly stated in their job description or skipping tasks that they think nobody will notice. Employees typically do this in response to a sense of dissatisfaction and/or a desire to work somewhere else. This behavior has been discussed more often since the widespread adoption of remote work, but quiet quitting has been around as long as formal work has existed—when people are unhappy or unconnected, they do not want to work.
“Overemployment” is a tongue-in-cheek term that is sometimes used in discussions about workplace culture. Used this way, it means that employees (usually working remote) take on another job in addition to their current position, usually to the detriment of one or both jobs. They keep this a secret from each employer. While employees do this to maximize their income, they generally do not do this unless they are feeling dissatisfied with their original job.
All three of these have something in common: they happen with employees who have begun to feel disconnected, cynical, and unhappy about their jobs. More importantly, they are not responding to these workplace shortcomings by working with their employer to make things better for them. Instead, they are taking matters into their own hands. They do this because they cannot—or do not want to—talk it through and repair their relationship with their workplace. This happens because they do not feel safe to address their underlying concerns about their job. So they begin to hide away from work and switch to a survival mode.
What Makes Employees Feel Safe
Safety means that employees feel like they can communicate their concerns, do things in the open, make mistakes, and trust that they can always count on their employer to provide support and fair treatment. Building a safe workplace takes a concerted effort across leadership and throughout teams. Here are some things that you can expect to see in workplaces that have a sense of safety:
Start with Surveys. Start developing safety by running a thorough workplace survey, openly acknowledging the results, and taking action. Employees will never feel safe until they feel that leadership knows they challenges, annoyances, and struggles. Employees also want to know that leadership knows what they like and want to keep. Do a broad workplace survey (it doesn't have to be from Amazing Workplace, but we have them.) Acknowledge to publicly to employees that you have heard them. Tell them how you will act on their responses in detail and with a timeline if appropriate. This is the very first step in opening safe communication between teams and leaders.
No “screen minimizing” culture. Some workplaces closely scrutinize when employees are working and when they are engaging in personal activities. This can result in a culture where employees worry that they need to hide when they are taking a little time to do something diverting, like checking the sports scores or messaging a friend. In this situation, you might see people in-office suddenly minimizing windows on their computers when people walk by. Safe workplaces do not do this. In a safe workplace, the leaders encourage employees to go ahead and keep that in the open. It’s okay for employees to take time for their personal interests, to have a break, and to be themselves.
Regular Check-ins. Safe workplaces don’t wait for employees to get stressed, overwhelmed, or fed-up before problems are identified. They create an opportunity for candid feedback and open communication. Employees have regular opportunities in both group and one-on-one settings to say how things are going, express any struggles or upset, and get support from their leaders. This should be available to employees on at least a monthly basis, if not weekly. Most importantly, leaders need to communicate that this is a time to provide help and support—not a performance review.
Nobody knows it all. Safe workplaces make it safe to say “I don’t know.” Many workplaces create a sense of pressure to always know everything: how a problem happened, what an acronym stands for, or what a leader means when he is assigning a task. This makes people pretend that they know something they don’t know. This only leads to frustration or mistakes later. In a safe workplace, employees are secure in saying “I don’t think I understand, can you explain?” or “I don’t know, but I can go over this and come back to you with the answer.” To get to this point, leadership must consistently communicate that employees are encouraged and expected to say when they do not know or understand. Individual leaders are responsible for modeling this by themselves speaking up when they do not know something.
Have fun, don’t make fun. Workplaces are spaces for safe communication and supporting one another. “Making fun” happens when employees and leaders mock, dismiss, or deride people for the things they say, the feelings they have, or because of who they are. When making fun is allowed in the workplace, employees get disconnected from each other, upsetting emotions bubble up, and communication breaks down. Safe workplaces do not allow anyone to make fun of anyone else. They encourage having fun instead! Jokes, silliness, and puns should be shared in the open and safe for all to enjoy together.
With these values in place, employees are resistant to burnout, quiet quitting, and the temptations of overemployment. Frustrated employees speak up for support from their leaders. Employees do not fall into disconnection and confusion because they are ready to ask for help and admit when they need to know more. Employees do not become alienated and cynical because they feel a sense of safety and a secure bond with their teammates and leaders. In short, employees are safe and supported to love work where they are.