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Quiet Quitting: The Next Labor-Market Adjustment

“Quiet Quitting” is trending in the news and on social media, but it’s not a new concept -

The phrase “quiet quitting”, first popularized on TikTok in July 2022, has now been covered by most major news outlets, and has likely popped up on your social media feeds a few times – but what is it?

While some people think quiet quitting means just doing the bare minimum at work and coasting through your job, it is actually characterized by the practice of doing every part of the job you were hired to do, but none of the extra unpaid work that is expected of you. You aren’t quitting your job; you’re quitting the idea that you need to go above and beyond when you aren’t being compensated for the extra time or effort. Essentially, “quiet quitting” is individuals’ way of drawing healthy boundaries and opting for a better work-life balance for themselves.

The BBC covers this topic through the lens of an employee of a PR firm who was experiencing burnout, underappreciation, and who was being underpaid for overworking. From her perspective she says, “I think a lot of people are fed up…They’re realizing they’ve put in a lot more effort than their salary shows.” This is a marked shift away from hustle culture mentality that has dominated the US workforce for the last decade or so (think: side hustles galore, up by five, 80-hour workweeks, etc.). What we are seeing now is a rejection of the mindset that work needs to dominate your life and that your worth and value as a person is defined by your labor. Instead, individuals are moving toward a balanced life that requires less overworking to make room for family, friends, pets, hobbies, passion projects, travel, and more; “People want a career, but they want rich, healthy lives outside of work, too.” (BBC)

The idea of doing your job, and only your job, isn’t new.

Business Insider notes that “quiet quitting isn't a new phenomenon, and it isn't even quitting. It's just workers doing their jobs as written.” But because this phrase and trend are emerging at a time when we’re seeing big shifts in the labor market (think: the great resignation, the great renegotiation), it’s gaining a lot of popularity and attention. We’re dealing with an ever-changing labor market where individuals are rethinking their relationship with work and taking a holistic approach to finding value in their lives that may not center around labor.

Anthony Klotz, associate professor at UCL School of Management notes that the trend of quiet quitting is just new packaging for “disengagement, neglect, withdrawal”, which has been studied in the workforce for decades. Klotz likens quiet quitting to these other terms because he notes that “always going above and beyond the call of duty consumes mental resources and causes stress. And there’s little reward for doing so if someone perceives they’re stuck at a company.”

Klotz also specifically notes that quiet quitting is not the same as coasting or slacking at work. Coasting / slacking has always existed in the workplace, but is characterized by underperforming, doing only some of your assigned tasks, and being generally unengaged at work regardless of outside factors. Quiet quitting, on the other hand, only removes the behavior of going above and beyond the job you were hired to do – coming in early, staying late, working on weekends and in the evenings, helping colleagues with their tasks, etc. People who quiet quit are typically still doing all of their assigned (and paid for) tasks, but they’re likely to skip happy hours and other unpaid work that takes a toll on their wellbeing.

Burnout, neglect, disengagement – none of these are new terms or concepts in the workplace. Business Insider covers the “systemic cultures of overwork” that have led us to quiet quitting, and why quiet quitting is trending now.

Researchers at HBR have been conducting leadership assessments in the workplace for several decades, and their findings can provide insights into quiet quitting. HBR says their data indicates that “quiet quitting is usually less about an employee’s willingness to work harder and more creatively, and more about a manager’s ability to build a relationship with their employees where they are not counting the minutes until quitting time.”

What this tells us is that it would be inaccurate to view quiet quitting as an employee’s lack of dedication to their job or the company. Instead, jobs / teams with high levels of quiet quitting tells us that the manager may not be performing well in their role, thus leading to low levels of engagement and job satisfaction for employees.

It would be an oversimplification, however, to say that a single manager bears all the responsibility for how their employees and team members feel about their jobs. Individual managers typically do not have full control over the larger company culture, pay rates, promotion practices, or employee benefits; there are many factors that come into play when we talk about job satisfaction.

How did we get here?

Stacey Gordon, Executive Advisor, Keynote Speaker, Author & DEI Strategist, examines the current state of work in her recent article on Work Relationship Status and reminds us that this “labor force reckoning has been a long time coming.” The Covid-19 pandemic, plus the public and racially-driven murder of George Floyd, pushed many of us past our boiling point. This was especially true for individuals from underserved populations - who have historically been stuck in low-wage, low-mobility, and/or toxic jobs.

Stacey asserts that the forced time off brought on by Covid-19 allowed many individuals the time and mental space to examine their relationships with work. This time off, plus added stimulus money, helped many obtain certifications for career advancements and “forced many employers to put more effort into offering flexible schedules and humane PTO to attract and retain talent.”

So what’s the current state of work in the US? Why are people feeling the need to quiet quit?

Unfortunately, over the last year, many organizations have decided to roll back the benefits they were offering during the height of the Covid pandemic.

With the pandemic in 2020, we saw an amazing trend toward offering more paid leave for families (53% of employers were offering paid leave), but, in a surprising, and counterintuitive, move from employers, that has dropped down to 35% in 2022. The US has no federal paid family leave policy, and only 11 states require employers to offer some level of paid leave, leaving many individuals to have to worry about what will happen if they need to take time off (Skimm: Show Us Your Leave).

Another big issue that individuals are contending with is burnout – boundaries between work life and home life were severely blurred by the pandemic, and we saw that hours put into work actually increased with the shift to remote work. With some return to office happening, employees need to set boundaries for when they’re working - and when they’re not - to avoid burnout. This can come in the form of opting not to do additional unpaid work.

Feelings of a lack of support from employers is also contributing to quiet quitting.

A June 2022 Gallup report shows that while half of employees reported feeling that their organization cared for their wellbeing in 2020 during the peak of the pandemic, that number has dropped down to 21% in the last 2 years. The BBC points to lower wages, soaring inflation, and cultural rifts as potential contributing factors to the “deepening disconnect” between employees and their managers and organizations.

Stress levels are up as well.

Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report, which collects data on how people are feeling about work, revealed in this year that “U.S. workers are some of the most stressed employees in the world.” Daily stress levels for the US and Canada land at 57%, while the global average comes in much lower, at 43%.

While stress levels spiked in the US, so did employee engagement levels (employee engagement dipped in the rest of the world). While high engagement levels may seem like a good thing on the surface, Gallup & CNBC warn that the combination of higher engagement levels and higher stress levels is a recipe for burnout and mental health challenges.

+ Intersectionality

If you live and work in the US or Canada, you’re already at a high risk of experiencing workplace stress (57%). But when we take an intersectional approach and break down this number by gender, Gallup’s data shows that stress spikes were “especially acute for women.” While 52% of men reported daily feelings of stress, that number for working women landed at a whopping 62%. Gallup points to “the lasting impact of gendered expectations for caregiving in the household, ongoing child-care challenges and women’s overrepresentation in low-wage service jobs most disrupted by the pandemic” as likely reasons for the 10% difference in daily stress experienced by women vs. men.

+ Intersectionality

Additionally, an intersectional lens within Gallup’s data shows that different age groups (under 40 vs. over 40) report experiencing significantly different levels of stress, with those under 40 reporting feeling stressed at work 58% of the time and those over 40 reporting feeling stressed at work 43% of the time.

And what do ~the people~ think about quiet quitting?

Lisa Gross, founder and CEO of Campus Sonar, says, "I don't think quiet quitting would be a phrase or something that we're talking about if we didn't have a widespread problem with corporate cultures of overwork, under appreciation, and frankly distant or ineffective managers and leaders" (Business Insider).

“The more I thought about it, the more I realized this was a commentary on managers and corporate cultures, not the actual employees who felt the need to quiet quit" (Business Insider).

“Isn't that just called 'working'? Like, doing your job properly with a healthy boundary?” (Skimm)

“When you describe doing work as quitting, I think it becomes very obvious to people how stupid that sounds" (Business Insider).

+ Intersectionality

We can’t forget the sad reality that not all individuals are treated equally in the workplace. One TikTok user warns that people of color need to “tread lightly” if they’re going to participate in quiet quitting, adding that, “unfortunately, in corporate America, minorities are held to a different standard” (Skimm).

How do we move forward? What can we do to fix the underlying issues that have led people to quiet quitting in the workplace?

How did Europe and the rest of the world decrease stress levels this last year? Gallup points to stronger safety nets for parents and other efforts to help prevent unemployment. Similarly, the Skimm recommends prioritizing tasks and setting guidelines like no work emails on weekends or after hours (like they did in France and Belgium).

HBR recommends team leaders take the following approach to assess and address team burnout:

Week 1: Gauge your team’s stress levels

Week 2: Learn why burnout might be happening

Week 3: Evaluate your team’s meetings

Week 4: Make a habit of empathetic recognition

Week 5: Share small weekly goals

Stacey Gordon outlines some other ways to keep us moving in a positive direction:

  • More flexibility in the workplace, including caregiving leave, PTO, and flexible schedules and workplaces

  • Increased awareness of the need and responsibility for companies to take action to reduce bias in their workplaces

  • A continued focus on improving workplace culture for all through education and talent management

  • Recognizing individuals’ humanity and respecting their identities, such as proper pronoun use

The Bottom Line:

Employers have a responsibility to prioritize employee wellbeing in their organizations. Ways to do that include providing equitable pay for the work being done, clear opportunities for upward mobility, acknowledging the good work that’s being done, offering equitable and comprehensive benefits, and showing interest in and commitment to the well-being of your employees.

If your organization is concerned about increasing engagement and feelings of well-being for your employees, we have some resources for you!

A DIY DEI guide to help small - medium organizations build foundations for a robust DEI program + a great company culture.

A customized DEI program that takes into account current organizational competency, existing initiatives, and company goals.

Diversity-specific hiring solutions for creating more diverse and representative teams.

Contact us today to discuss how we can support your employees and your organizational goals!

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