burnout

Understanding the Noise Around Quiet Quitting

Chinmay G. Pandit

Chinmay G. Pandit is a student at Harvard Law School.

“Quiet quitting” catalyzed one of the biggest internet trends of 2022.

Popularized by a summertime TikTok video posted by a 24-year-old New York engineer, the alliterative term generated over two billion impressions across major social media platforms in August alone, as it experienced a 14,000% volume increase in online engagement. By now, the expression has embedded itself into the daily workplace lexicon, broadly symbolizing employees’ shift away from “hustle-culture mentality” and towards clearer boundaries between work and life. Rather than advocating for actually resigning from a job, quiet quitting encourages workers to stop going above-and-beyond in their careers. Altogether, the trend has prompted business news media outlets to publish several articles seeking to understand the long-term implications of this “new” phenomenon on office culture, employee retention, and employers’ bottom line.

But quiet quitting is not new. The philosophy underlying quiet quitting — that employees should de-prioritize work and cultivate a rich life beyond the office — has existed for as long as employment has been around. As Derek Thompson of The Atlantic framed it: disengagement among workers is as abnormal as “cubicles, lunch breaks, and bleary-eyed colleagues stopping by your workstation to mutter, ‘Mondays, amirite?’” In other words, “quiet quitting” is nothing more than “business as usual.”

And the data agree. In September, Gallup’s annual “employee engagement” poll revealed that, despite a slight decline in 2022, employee engagement is currently higher than at any point between 2000 and 2014 and has remained roughly stable over the past decade. However, the headline broadcasted after the poll results came out — that “quiet quitters make up at least 50% of the U.S. workforce” — further fueled the quiet quitting trend while ignoring the historical evolution of the polling data. Half of today’s workforce might be disengaged from their jobs; but employers from 10 years ago would view that as a success.

Several commentators have offered explanations as to why this ordinary concept of worker disengagement has captivated the attention of employees and employers alike. Some cite the super-tight labor market that has shifted bargaining power to employees, emboldening them to now vocalize their pre-existing workplace frustrations without fear of losing their job (or of finding a new one, if needed). Other experts note the lasting ubiquity of remote work, despite repeated efforts by employers to reinstitute in-person schedules, and the weaker workplace connectivity that may yield. Some believe that workers are sharing a moment of collective introspection in the wake of the pandemic and are in turn recalibrating their relationships with work culture. And additionally, some simply argue that spawning a new global trend is expected when pairing catchy alliteration with the world’s fastest growing social media platform.

What Even is Quiet Quitting? Depends on Who You Ask.

Although these hypotheses present helpful frameworks to untangle the drivers of the quiet quitting phenomenon, they fail to address the crux of why the topic has produced a considerable supply of water-cooler chatter: very few people agree on what exactly quiet quitting means in practice. In fact, quiet quitting has taken on a myriad of definitions, ranging from a self-empowering reclamation of employee work-life balance to a worrisome practice fracturing workplace camaraderie. In certain circles, quiet quitting has become a unifying movement to erect healthy work-life boundaries, which blurred during the initial wave of remote work. Conversely, to some groups, quiet quitting reflects the crystallization of a pent-up frustration that the younger generation refuses to work hard. And for others still, quiet quitting stands for the principle that even during standard work hours, employees should detach from their responsibilities and put in only the bare minimum to collect a paycheck as a form of resistance against greedy corporate conduct. In essence, the term “quiet quitting” has become a linguistic crutch to articulate a diverse litany of workplace complaints.

Unsurprisingly, the preferred interpretation tends to fall along the employee-employer divide, with employees underscoring the importance of clear work-life boundaries and employers focusing on the damage inflicted by deliberately under-performing employees. According to a September study conducted by the SHRM Research Institute, more than half of corporate HR professionals are chiefly concerned about the negative consequences of quiet quitting on company morale and productivity. Of those employers that have observed quiet quitting within their organizations, nearly 75% say that their Millennial employees (26-41 years old) are the primary culprits, leading to “big concerns” about lagging worker productivity even during normal work hours.

Meanwhile, employees — 80% of whom reported being burnt out in a recent survey — argue that setting firm boundaries at work is necessary to preserve their personal lives, attend to family responsibilities, and sustain their physical and mental health. Approximately four million people have voluntarily left their jobs since April 2021 in search of more sustainable work-life balances, and roughly one in five employees today claims to be “downright miserable.” Quiet quitting, in the form of establishing stricter boundaries between work time and personal time, offers an alternative for these employees to tolerate their current work environments.

Employer Responses

Due to the wide spectrum of quiet quitting definitions, employers have adopted a similarly wide array of responses to address the phenomenon. Highly concerned employers have resorted to monitoring their employees’ behavior by implementing tracking technology that knows when employees step away from their computers, which websites they visit, what they write in emails, and more. Select systems can even watch employees from their laptop’s camera. Other frustrated managers have tried to flip the perceived quiet quitting mentality back onto their employees. Through a process dubbed “quiet firing,” some managers seek to make the work environment unpleasant for their disengaged employees by urging them to quit, neglecting their needs, and failing to provide feedback. A recent poll found that 48% of employees have witnessed quiet firing in their workplace; meanwhile, 91% of managers claimed to have taken some action — quiet or otherwise — against supposed quiet quitters, such as terminating them or denying them raises and promotions.

However, a Microsoft executive argued in September that these intrusive and (passive-)aggressive employer responses will only stoke negative employee sentiment and accelerate workers’ burnout. After an internal report revealed a stark divide between managers’ and employees’ assessment of worker productivity, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella warned employers against reacting to their “productivity paranoia” with monitoring systems and other invasive and harsh practices. Rather, Nadella and others advise employers to recognize their own role in instigating the quiet quitting trend and to adapt their workplaces to cultivate more sustainable, flexible, and positive environments. For example, companies embracing this approach have banned work-related emailing on weekends, reduced the frequency of work-related meetings, and even switched to a four-day work week to institute firmer work boundaries. Others have increased compensation and added job perks that promote mental and physical health. The obvious success of these strategies signals that the quiet quitting “problem” is, in actuality, a failure of management to meet employee needs. Thus, focusing resources on supplying personnel with support, flexibility, and appropriate compensation may ultimately be employers’ best option to cool their employees’ need for the quiet-quitting trend.

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