A cartoon of a man and a woman sitting at desks back-to-back working on computers. They both have different storm clouds over their heads, symbolising being anti-work.
Image: © Knut/Stock.adobe.com

Anti-work movement shows it’s time for a bigger conversation

26 May 2022

The anti-work movement may be a chaotic community on the fringes, but it does signal that it’s time to question what we really want from work, writes Jenny Darmody.

The workplace as we know it has been changed irrevocably in recent years – the biggest of those changes undoubtedly being the mass shift to remote working.

Those who had been begging for the flexibility to work from home, only to be told that it wasn’t possible, suddenly found themselves set up in a makeshift home office in 2020.

While there’s still plenty of resistance to the idea that a more remote-first approach is possible in many industries and sectors, it’s fair to say that we’re not going back to the traditional ways of working.

But another trend has blossomed in the wake of the pandemic: the anti-work movement. What was previously described as a fringe movement for years suddenly gathered a huge following, most visible from the r/antiwork subreddit.

This online community – described as a “subreddit for those curious about ending work” or who “want to get the most out of a work-free life” – had about 100,000 subscribers before March 2020, but this ballooned up to 2m at the time of writing this piece.

While the energy from this community is high, it’s also chaotic. Its sentiments are scattered and posts range from calls for better working conditions to griping about bad bosses. It also recently suffered some turmoil in which it went private and had a change of moderators.

But I believe the movement as a whole raises a bigger question against the backdrop of the last two years and what we have now come to know as ‘the great resignation’. Is work as we know it really working for us any more?

Employees have been calling for more from their employers for a long time now. Decent pay is not enough in a company that doesn’t consider its staff’s wellbeing. Snazzy perks can no longer distract from a lack of diversity and inclusion.

But the pandemic in particular has highlighted the importance of work-life balance, the value of our time and the need protect our lives outside of our careers.

‘These are not people who don’t want to work, these are just people who don’t want to be treated badly while doing it’

The idea of the great resignation became prevalent in the summer of 2021, when millions of US workers were resigning from their jobs as they began to re-evaluate their life choices and what they really want from their career.

In September of last year, a Workhuman survey indicated that this phenomenon of mass resignations could be coming to Ireland, with more than 40pc of Irish respondents saying they were looking for new jobs.

“After a year and a half of uncertainly and strain, Irish workers now have a very strong idea of what they will and will not tolerate at work,” Derek Irvine, senior VP of client strategy and consulting at Workhuman, said at the time.

“The upshot of this is that many are seeking new opportunities, which offer more flexibility and/or better compensation.”

Another element to this phenomenon may be burnout, which appeared to skyrocket during the pandemic, as highlighted by a number of surveys and reports last year.

HRLocker found that more than half (52pc) of respondents in Ireland were experiencing burnout. Another survey of US workers found that 89pc of respondents reported experiencing burnout over the past year.

And research from Laya Healthcare, which surveyed 1,000 employees, suggested that while productivity levels rose since the onset of the pandemic, it was at the expense of employees’ mental health, morale and motivation.

While the phrase ‘great resignation’ has become some somewhat of a buzzword – especially since a lot of the resignation part is actually just people moving jobs – the sudden upheaval combined with the talent shortages that many employers are worrying about cannot be ignored.

Anti-work or anti-work-as-it-is-now?

As I said, the anti-work movement on the surface could be seen as an extreme ideology that seems chaotic and unrealistic for many. But the underlying sentiment that employees are no longer willing to put up and shut up when it comes to bad bosses, toxic work environments and unreasonable demands requires a much bigger conversation.

Endless Thread, a podcast from Boston’s NPR news station WBUR, covered the anti-work movement in an episode that was filled with snippets of people’s negative work stories. None of these stories were particularly wild or unbelievable. In fact, many were very similar to real stories I had heard from friends and acquaintances in their own jobs over the years.

Phrases like “being treated as replaceable objects of low value” and “feeling like a lemon being squeezed” really stood out to me in the episode. These are not people who don’t want to work, these are just people who don’t want to be treated badly while doing it.

The podcast also highlighted a cruel irony that became more prevalent than ever in the last two years, which is that the jobs we so often deem ‘essential’ are often the lowest paid and most overworked.

In fact, the term burnout is believed to have been coined in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, who used it to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in ‘helping’ professions such as nurses.

And while we may be in a new world of work with hybrid working, the complaints employees have are old. Micromanagement, burnout, inflexibility, a lack of empathy, unrealistic expectations, moving goal posts, inadequate resources, the list goes on.

None of these problems will be solved by going fully remote, bringing everyone back to the office or even tick-box exercises like yoga at lunchtime or an extra week off.

Solutions won’t even come in the form of some quick management training, a shift in recruitment policy or bringing in better perks and wages.

Instead, every leader, manager and employer needs to look at their own behaviour in the context of their staff. They need to consider how they speak to them, how they set goals for them, how they involve them in strategies and how they manage requests from them.

We’re at a strange junction right now where it’s supposedly a jobseekers’ market. Employees in theory, have the power now. But in reality, on an individual level, it will almost always be the employer who has their hand on the wheel. Only they have the power to turn the boat around.

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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