‘Quiet quitting’ is the Latest Buzzword in the Workplace

By now, you are probably familiar with the term ‘Quiet quitting.’ This term first emerged on social media in mid-2022. It gained popularity and grew into a movement on TikTok, especially among Generation Z and Millennial professionals.

Despite its name, it's not about quitting a job outright, but rather about giving up the idea of going above and beyond the call of duty and constantly exceeding work expectations. It means no longer prioritizing relentless productivity and efficiency over personal well-being. It’s rejecting a lifestyle dominated by unbridled ambition and worldly success: the belief that our work is our life and that it determines our value as a person (myths about overwork persist: see workism).

As remote work has become more prevalent, the boundaries between work and personal life have become increasingly blurred, and burnout from lack of downtime has increased. While no one is on site, everyone feels compelled to stay plugged in, so the workday never really ends.

Throughout this pandemic, many of us have come to realize the value of a life outside of work and noticed that our best efforts to improve our performance did not necessarily earn us greater professional recognition or higher pay.

Definition of ‘Quiet quitting’

There are numerous definitions of the term ‘Quiet quitting’.

Quiet quitting - as I understand it - simply means reclaiming a healthy work-life balance. In a sense, this approach amounts to ‘working by the rules’- doing what the job description says, leaving on time, avoiding overtime, not checking email on weekends or after hours, or taking on extra work outside of expected hours without extra pay. 

Establishing a clearer division between work and personal life leads to significant productivity gains, while boosting mental and emotional engagement with work, thereby reducing the risk of burnout. All these beneficial by-products are rooted in clearer lines of demarcation.

Sometimes it is necessary to devote a few extra hours or units of energy outside of normal working hours to complete certain projects. However, having to consistently go above and beyond the call of duty should be the exception, not the norm. Such practices are unhealthy and unfair.

‘Quiet quitting’ is just about setting healthy work-life boundaries

As Rahaf Harfoush points out, the term ‘Quiet quitting’ is strikingly evocative of the inner conflict people feel when attempting to set boundaries between their work and personal lives. The term almost conveys a sense of shame, for if it didn’t, it wouldn't be called quiet quitting. 

If anything, this emerging trend is really a response to feelings of overwork, burnout, confusion, and stress. It reflects a deliberate effort to preserve a greater sense of well-being by carving out time for self-care and personal growth, connection with nature, travel, etc. In other words, it is a move by workers to reclaim control over their lives by setting boundaries with their employers.

I suspect that for a very long time, frustrations, anger, and fatigue built up to record levels, exacerbated by the disruption of work-life patterns and the breakdown of routines. We were constantly challenged to explore new roles and assignments while fighting for greater equity and meaning in our work, unsure of what level of ambition to strive for. Any sense of community and connection we were accustomed to, both at work and in life, vanished. The result: a massive collective burnout.

The emergence of new social, cultural, and environmental realities requires a transformation of our work practices.

The pandemic, in conjunction with the socio-cultural and environmental challenges we experienced globally, had a profound impact on how we think about our role in the world, what is meaningful to us, and how we engage with our communities.  

The Great Resignation - commonly referred to as the Great Quit -  describes an emerging trend in which an unprecedented number of employees decide to voluntarily leave their jobs beginning in late 2020 and early 2021. 

The high death toll and serious illnesses caused by the pandemic reportedly led many people to rethink the role of work in their lives and seek a better work-life balance. This questioning likely prompted workers to leave their jobs, particularly those whose frontline work was exhausting and interfered with their ability to care for their families. The impact was greater for women – given their disproportionate burden of family obligations – and younger age groups.

For example, junior staff in finance and consulting were particularly affected by burnout. They faced heavy workloads, with limited training, no mentoring and little customer interaction that once made these jobs so rewarding. The declining tolerance level for this type of work likely contributed to their departure.

The great resignation didn’t start with the pandemic

While the great resignation was accentuated by the Covid pandemic, it is really a continuation of the natural attrition that began more than a decade ago, according to Joseph Fuller (The great resignation didn't start with the pandemic, HBR, March 2022).

Academic studies and online surveys suggest that the great resignation is best described as the great retirement. In 2021, seniors left their jobs at an accelerated rate, and they did so at a younger age, driven by soaring stock markets and strong housing markets. In addition, the increased vulnerability of seniors to serious Covid-related health risks also played a role in their departure.

The generational divide and the significance of recognition and pay

There are real generational differences between baby boomers and younger generations of Americans who tend to favor a better work-life balance, according to Deloitte's Generation Z and Millennials 2022 Global Survey.

While previous generations were often raised to believe that anything was possible with hard work and commitment, today's young adults rarely share that belief. They are forced to admit that they will be among the first generations of Americans to perform worse economically than their parents. 

Deloitte’s survey found that one of the top concerns of Generation Z and millennials facing downward economic mobility is financial. Indeed, pay was cited as the number one reason by this demographic for leaving their jobs in the last two years.

However, bear in mind that while hybrid work, flexibility, and compensation are essential to young Americans, this does not mean that they are insensitive to recognition of their efforts and sincere attention from their supervisors. Recent surveys underscore the critical importance of good relationships with supervisors in employee job satisfaction.

Final thoughts

This shift in work-life focus from relentless productivity to human-centered values of wellbeing indicates that the challenge we face is human in nature rather than just a business problem. Perhaps the most effective way to deal with this crisis is to view it as a human challenge rather than a business one.

In a recent interview with McKinsey Quarterly's Aaron De Smet on the great resignation, U.S. veteran Adria Horn likens the feelings and emotional reactions she experienced upon her return from Iraq and Afghanistan to the challenges employees are facing in restoring a new normal at work after a long crisis created by the global pandemic, which compelled them to alternate between being in and out of the office on a whim.

“I think we’re actually in the beginning of a longitudinal study in human behavior. The employee response we’re seeing is a normal response to a traumatic period. If employers truly acknowledge this, they can empower employees to find their way. I think employers should stop trying to aggressively retain employees. If ‘the thing is not the thing,’ then set them free professionally and welcome them back if and when it’s right for them again. Employers should start tracking the number of return hires they have. This will be the better long-term gauge of how they’ve treated their employees after a traumatic event.”- Adria Horn, U.S. Army Veteran

In closing, I would say that there is nothing wrong with working hard or going above and beyond expectations, especially if you want to land your dream job or promotion – but it should not be a requirement. For many of us, our careers provide us with a real sense of purpose and accomplishment that contributes to our mental well-being – but we must also remember to make time for ourselves. There is a way to be fully committed to our work while setting clear boundaries. This way, we improve our chances of avoiding burnout.

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