Is quiet quitting the newest cultural buzzword meant to stir up needless panic, or is quiet quitting a legitimate concern for employers? Quiet quitting certainly has a shocking quality that can drive sensationalized narratives pitting employees against employers. However, when viewed diagnostically, quiet quitting can also be a legitimate symptom of workplace misalignment that can empower managers to think more strategically about the impact of work/life balance and employee engagement on the long-term health and vibrancy of an organization.
What Is Quiet Quitting?
Quiet Quitting is the name coined through TikTok videos for doing the exact requirements of your job without going above and beyond those requirements. To be clear, quiet quitting is NOT failing to perform your job—it is simply choosing not to take on MORE than your job.
For example, quiet quitting might look like having clear boundaries around only doing work during working hours and not answering emails after 5pm, on weekends, or while on parental leave or vacation. Not going above and beyond can sound like quitting in a culture that has defined a good work ethic as someone willing to prioritize work at all costs. However, Labor Day, a day we celebrate the hard-won legal rites of the US labor force, is a great time to remember that “all costs” is often far too high a price tag.
Why Is Quiet Quitting Happening?
Employees quiet quitting might be due to their capacity, their engagement, or a mix of both. If your employees have begun quiet quitting due to diminished capacity, your workforce may have a burnout problem (which is not surprising following years of pandemic stress). If your employees have begun quiet quitting due to diminished engagement, you may have a management and culture problem. The good news about both of these problems is that once your leadership team identifies the behavior, they can work toward righting the ship.
Burnout-Driven Quiet Quitting
If the year had an extra month, how would you spend it? Unfortunately, you’re probably already spending it at the office. The US’s hustle culture has Americans working the equivalent of 1–4 months more than Europeans every year. To add insult to injury, 4 months more work does not equal higher productivity as rest is increasingly proven to positively impact efficiency.
The recent rise in conversations around burnout has been the proverbial canary in the quiet-quitting coal mine. Indeed conducted a survey of 1,500 US workers in 2021 that showed 52% were “experiencing burnout.” Burnout, a state of exhaustion resulting from prolonged and ongoing stress, has been part of the workplace culture conversations since the mid-70’s when Herbert Freudenberger identified “dedicated and committed” workers as those most prone to burnout. Unfortunately, while dedication and commitment are excellent characteristics when hiring someone, they can also be at risk of a “burn-out trap” by experiencing both internal pressure to continually help and external pressure to give long hours and full attention, often while receiving compensation that is less than fair.
A study published in 2010 by behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton found that happiness did not increase as one’s salary surpassed $75k a year. However, a negative impact on happiness was correlated with one’s income being less than $75k a year. An annual income of $75k in 2010 would have been equivalent to $89.68k at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. However, the same amount is now equal to just over $102.5k in September 2022 (according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator). Only 34.4% of American households will reach a yearly income of $100k in 2022.
The cost of living in the US has increased by 13% in the last 2 years, and the average 2.5–3% yearly pay increases for workers have failed to keep pace, leaving many with less spendable income than the year prior. This drop in real income is difficult to swallow for a workforce that, when compared to the vast majority of industrialized nations, is working considerably longer hours (up to 25% more), enjoying less paid time off (7 days less per year), and taking shorter lunch breaks.
Since working harder hasn’t increased happiness, productivity, or compensation for the American worker, quiet quitting may mark a shift toward a more European workweek model that allows employees to view rest and boundary setting as essential parts of productivity and long-term physical and mental wellness.
Employee Engagement-Driven Quiet Quitting
Beyond considering compensation and work/life balance needs to guard against burnout, quiet quitting also offers an opportunity to evaluate the health of company culture and employee engagement strategies. Employee engagement is an employee's excitement or emotional connection to their work. Gallup, a trusted US analytics group, has found a direct correlation between high employee engagement numbers, reductions in absenteeism, turnover, and theft, and increases in productivity, safety, production quality, customer loyalty, sales, and profitability. Perhaps even more surprising from Gallup’s data, “70% of the variance in team engagement is determined solely by the manager.”
Investing in engagement-focused management holds vast potential for workplace impact. Our human pull toward what is meaningful determines our engagement. Employee engagement is fueled by our relationships, our sense of purpose and mission, and our ability to utilize and develop our strengths and skills daily.
Should You Be Worried About Employees Quiet Quitting?
You should have a healthy concern about quiet quitting as an indicator that something is missing the mark in your organization. However, focusing on quiet quitting doesn’t treat the root cause. Instead of focusing on stopping quiet quitting behavior, invest your energy instead in promoting the roaring advancement of your employees by:
respecting rest as a part of the human cycle of productivity
valuing fair and livable compensation
clarifying organizational missions and the purpose of individual work
training relational managers who genuinely care about their team members and have daily meaningful contact
outlining clear development plans that grow employee skills and celebrate unique strengths