Every human resources professional has heard the term by now. And, for many, the concept rings true.
But, just as many HR professionals scoff at the idea of quiet quitting — or at least at the idea quiet quitting represents a novel trend. After all, a certain percentage of employees have been phoning it in and contributing the bare minimum for almost as long as there have been employees.
So, what’s the truth? Is quiet quitting real? And, if so, is it something to worry about? How should your organization respond to this latest workplace disruption (or non-issue, depending on who you ask)?
To get to the bottom of quiet quitting, we reviewed the evidence and spoke with Dustin Keller, Ph.D., the Vice President of Clinical Strategy at Pathways, a leading provider of behavioral and mental health services in the United States. He’s also a Licensed Professional Counselor-Mental Health Service Provider and National Certified Counselor.
Our conclusion: Quiet quitting exists. But, as you’ll learn, it’s neither all that new nor the only sign of changing attitudes toward work and the workplace. Quiet quitting and the so-called Great Resignation are pieces of a larger trend in which workers seek to rebalance their work and personal lives.
Organizations helping their employees achieve this balance will see greater engagement and less turnover and find it far easier to attract talent in a saturated labor market.
What Is Quiet Quitting?
As with so many trends these days, the term quiet quitting seems to have originated on TikTok. Specifically, a video posted by engineer Zaid Khan.
Khan says, in quiet quitting, “You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life. The reality is it’s not — and your worth as a person is not defined by your labor.”
Most definitions of quiet quitting position it against the work culture of going above and beyond to please bosses and customers, answering emails at all hours of the day, and generally allowing work to dominate your life.
Is Quiet Quitting Real?
The most-quoted study of quiet quitting is a September Gallup report claiming “‘Quiet quitters’ make up at least 50% of the U.S. workforce — probably more.”
According to Gallup’s data, 50% of American workers are “not engaged” at work. Gallup’s definition of “not engaged” — “people who do the minimum required and are psychologically detached from their job” — lines up with the typical understanding of quiet quitting.
So, yes, quiet quitting is real. The question is, is quiet quitting new?
An Atlantic writer notes, according to Gallup’s own data, disengagement among American workers has hovered around the same level for the past two decades:
As a workplace phenomenon, workers’ mild disengagement is about as novel as cubicles, lunch breaks, and bleary-eyed colleagues stopping by your workstation to mutter, “Mondays, amirite?” What the kids are now calling “quiet quitting” was, in previous and simpler decades, simply known as “having a job.”
However, as many experts have observed, the COVID-19 pandemic shifted how countless people relate to their work.
Prior to the pandemic, Keller estimated, the typical worker derived about 80% of their sense of purpose from work. (For example, a real estate agent may feel a sense of purpose from helping people find homes. A teacher may feel their purpose is to help shape young lives.)
Working from home during the pandemic got many people thinking differently about their purpose. Some realized they would like more time with their family. Some developed a passion for a new hobby.
Many workers have outright left their jobs for less stressful positions — fueling the Great Resignation. But others have chosen, instead, to dial back their commitment to work.
“These folks who would burn the midnight oil and stay up til 2 a.m. working aren’t as willing anymore,” Keller said. “And they’re using this research and hearing this term and going, ‘Yep, that’s what I’m doing. I’m quiet quitting. I’m not going to work outside the lines.’”
Assessing the Impact of Quiet Quitting at Your Workplace
Keller sees quiet quitting as fundamentally different — and less worrisome — than presenteeism. Whereas presenteeism concerns employees who may or may not physically come to work and are failing to meet expectations, quiet quitting involves “setting healthy boundaries” between work and personal obligations and interests.
So, in this sense, quiet quitting is not necessarily a problem as long as your employees are completing their tasks.
“I think the question is — and I say this to leaders regularly — do you want an employee that’s there from eight to five to meet your need of them being there from eight to five? Or do you want an employee who’s getting the job done?” Keller said.
Quiet quitting may be best viewed as a “canary in the coal mine.” If several of your employees have begun to use the term, it may be time to evaluate whether your company is promoting a healthy work-life balance or if you are putting pressure on employees to dedicate too much of themselves to work.
Doing so is in your organization’s best interest. Workers who achieve a healthy work-life balance tend to stay with the same employer longer, engage more with their work, and have fewer mental and physical health issues.
Quiet quitting, then, may only become an issue at your workplace if it is a precursor to negative feelings about work, burnout, and actual quitting.
How to Respond to Quiet Quitting
If you are concerned about quiet quitting at your workplace, invasive measures are not the solution.
“A great example of what not to do is to make your people attend an 8 a.m. meeting just so you can see they’re up and ready to work,” Keller said. “That erodes trust in your team. The more that you can show your employees you trust them, the harder they’ll work.”
Similarly, Keller said, “Don’t start encouraging people to come back to the office five days a week if that’s not mission critical or necessary for your business.”
Problems with employee motivation are best confronted on an individual level. Performance reviews present an opportunity to discuss work-life balance with employees one on one.
For example, if an employee fails to hit productivity measures, “It might be time to have some conversations,” Keller suggested. “Are those measures realistic?”
However, there are also some strategies you can enact at the organizational level to address employees’ work-life-balance concerns:
Realign Expectations Around Email and Other Forms of Messaging
Employees need to hear from management about how quickly and with what depth they’re expected to respond to emails, chats, or text messages. This can be as simple as saying, “Hey, just every hour on the hour, check your email and respond to whatever needs to be responded to immediately,” Keller said.
Dustin also suggested encouraging people to eliminate time-wasting pleasantries from their emails.
“We don’t have to start every email with, ‘How is your day?’” he said. “If we’re a high-functioning team, we shouldn’t need all of those pleasantries.”
By the way, leadership sets the tone. If managers are emailing employees at 10 p.m., employees feel obligated to respond in kind.
Don’t Make It Just About Work
As you talk about work-life balance at your workplace, recognize “life” is part of that equation. Issues from outside of the workplace may be bleeding into your employees’ mental state during work. This was certainly true during the pandemic.
“What we need to determine is, are they dissatisfied with just life in general? Well, that’s a different conversation, and a leader should lean into that: “Hey, how can I help you? You know, there are benefits we provide that will help you with this?” Dustin said.
Mental health resources, such as those Pathways provides, can help employees manage stress and find healthy ways to deal with depression, anxiety, addiction, and other issues in and out of the workplace.
Open Up the Lines of Communication
Employees should feel comfortable voicing their work-life-balance concerns. Anonymous surveys work well for this.
“Surveying your folks, providing a feedback loop, and increasing communication have always been good business ideas,” Keller said.
It’s equally crucial management understands quiet quitting is nothing to panic about.
“Talk about work-life balance, and work with your leadership to help them feel comfortable letting go of some of their stress and anxiety around work-from-home arrangements or how to manage quiet quitters,” Keller advised.
The focus, he said, should be on how to support and encourage employees as they bring their lives and work into equilibrium, setting the stage for their success, health, and satisfaction. Those organizations embracing the need for a readjustment will find themselves in a much better position in the long run.