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Moaning about your job is a British tradition – let’s not judge the young for it

Bored stiff: Martin Freeman’s Tim – a cultural embodiment of workplace apathy – in the seminal comedy ‘The Office’ (Alamy)
Bored stiff: Martin Freeman’s Tim – a cultural embodiment of workplace apathy – in the seminal comedy ‘The Office’ (Alamy)

A few weeks ago, a friend told me he sometimes thought about quitting his job. I told him I also sometimes thought about quitting my job. So together we bonded over our mutual loathing of workplace drudgery, the day-to-day miseries of leaving the house, and our shared dreams of self-inflicted unemployment. Then we acknowledged that, actually, we both liked our jobs. So we changed the subject.

Feeling apathetic about work, and the back and forth between embracing it wholeheartedly and telling it that it’s terrible and that you want it to die, is a modern constant. Everyone seems to be at it – whether you work in a shop, an office, or freelance from home, little is more appealing than shutting down and staring at the ceiling rather than doing what you’re being paid to do. Or at least taking time out to fantasise about having a completely different life and vocation. And some workers are allegedly doing just that – downing tools, metaphorical or otherwise, and ghosting their employers entirely.

According to new claims by a leading employment lawyer, this is most rife among specific demographics. “What we have noticed is, in those sectors where perhaps wages and skills are a little lower, there is a definite increase in the number of employees who are just not showing up to work,” Nick Hurley of Charles Russell Speechlys told The Daily Telegraph this week. He identified retail and hospitality as the sectors most affected, younger people as the biggest culprits, and mental health conditions and long-term sickness post-Covid as some of the key factors leading employees to go awol.

Some of this has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Stories like these often feel a bit like fury bingo: toss some worrying employment figures together with images of right-on and/or lazy young adults self-diagnosing themselves as depressed or anxious, and you can practically hear readers clicking indignantly through their rage sweats. That said, if the picture painted by the stats is indeed accurate, can you really blame young workers for dropping off the map?

In January, the charity Mental Health UK warned that Britain is at risk of becoming a “burnt-out nation”. The kind of phrasing once synonymous with gloomy epigraphs at the start of dystopian fiction, it’s now just a thing we say to one another. “We live in unprecedented times,” chief executive Brian Dow explained. “Life outside work has become increasingly difficult due to the cost of living crisis and pressures on public services, while global challenges such as climate change and artificial intelligence fuel stress, anxiety and feelings of hopelessness.”

On a related note, a YouGov poll of 2,060 adults found that 35 per cent of participants had experienced high or extreme levels of pressure at work. Twenty per cent of those had taken time off due to poor mental health in the previous year. Is apathy perhaps merely a natural consequence of feeling increasingly overwhelmed and burnt out?

Apathy about work isn’t limited to a certain generation. It’s just the most recent stick to beat Gens Y and Z with

David Rice, People Managing People

David Rice, an HR expert at People Managing People, tells me that apathy in the workplace isn’t necessarily something to worry about. “No one can be switched on all the time,” he says. “There will be times when your enthusiasm and energy will wane. That’s perfectly natural. It can be negative if you have performance-based incentives that you fail to achieve because you can’t find it in you to keep going. But at the same time, it can create a little distance between you and work. It can give you a bit of clarity around what actually matters, allow you to work on other things and let go of what you can’t control. Ultimately, those are good things.”

He’s also unsure about the idea of workplace apathy as a preserve of the young. “It’s not limited to a certain generation,” he says. “It’s just the most recent stick to beat Gens Y and Z with.” Anecdotally, I can’t remember being around anyone in my life, from peers to grandparents, who hasn’t once or twice confessed to wanting to quit their job in a blaze of glory – or admitted to dawdling around their workplace killing time until they can flee to the nearest exit. The act of working is occasionally – or often, for some – a rancid bore. It was true in 1978, is true in 2023, and will still be true in 2050, when we’re brushing dust off our robot overlords in exchange for hunks of bread.

If age does play an important role here, though, it’s in young people’s relationship with fairness. Keeping calm and carrying on – otherwise known as nihilistically trudging through abject misery out of a sense of moral duty – is an exhausting cornerstone of the British psyche. But it’s become less appealing in recent decades. Wages have stagnated, industries have collapsed, and the basic tenets of adult stability – from starting a family to owning a home to the looming threat of increasingly late, or non-existent, retirement –  are in the process of becoming completely unachievable for many young people, particularly those living in big cities. Without that warm hug of stability – from, say, a stable job market or a contract that isn’t zero-hours – where’s the incentive to stay put? Walk out. Get sloshed. Get a face tattoo. Choose life.

Long day at the office: Little is more appealing than shutting down rather than doing what you’re being paid to do (iStock)
Long day at the office: Little is more appealing than shutting down rather than doing what you’re being paid to do (iStock)

This is at the more drastic end of possible responses. But it speaks to a general feeling of the sands shifting when it comes to work and our relationship with it. Discussion of a boom in apathetic employees coincides with further gentle teasing of the four-day working week, which only days ago was described as “an inevitability” by a campaigner for the policy – pilots that have taken place so far have noted a range of benefits, from increased productivity to improved worker wellbeing. Flexible working is already rife in certain industries.

It seems a reset of sorts is coming – the question is just how long it’ll take. In the meantime, it’s sometimes healthiest to become numb to your work for periods of time rather than have a mortifying meltdown at your desk. “You need to figure out if the apathy that’s set in is related to burnout or just needing to invest time and energy into other things,” Rice says. “Be sure you’re getting lots of rest, and allow yourself the freedom to think about other pathways you can take in your life. It’s OK, and even necessary, to entertain these things from time to time.”

He adds that it works both ways, too – it can’t just be an employee’s responsibility to ask for help when they need it, or to source their own workplace joy. If you’re a manager, he says, “find projects that people are passionate about and give them the space to work on them. Try to eliminate excessive hurdles or bureaucracy from their workflows. Encourage them to use their vacation time as well. Sometimes they just need to get out of a routine, or see and do something exciting.”

In other words, feelings of apathy aren’t worth panicking about. Have a moan to a friend. Quit in your head. Scroll on your phone while that important email remains unanswered for a few extra hours. All of it might even be a boon in the long run.