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Quiet Quitting: why it is happening now and implications for the future

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A few years ago, I was heading into work, to the large open plan office where I knew I’d see my colleagues and friends and do a job I’d strived for, wanted to do since I was at primary school. But I was not bounding in full of vigour and enthusiasm. I was at the desk, doing my duties, checking the clock, not underperforming, certainly not over delivering. It was a short period of time. But it is one that was brought back to me recently as the phrase ‘Quiet Quitting’ has been talked about so much.

Quiet quitting has been dubbed this new workplace phenomena since Tik Tok user, zaileppelin (@zkchillin) talked about it in a video that subsequently went viral. It is less about quitting a job and more about not going above and beyond in the role you do. As the video explains, it is: “Not subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life.”

It is a buzzword that has taken off and seems to be resonating with people, sparking different theories about why people are no longer clamouring to work longer hours and no longer placing more importance on work in the work-life equation.

Why quiet quitting is not new

But haven’t people always had periods where they have not felt willing to work unpaid overtime or voluntarily add to their task load? Whether you have called it withdrawing, coasting, disengaging, or stepping back, quiet quitting is not new. Indeed, people have been ‘working to rule’ as a form of industrial action since at least the 1970s. This is where employees do the bare minimum to fulfil their employment contract. They do what is required. Nothing more. Nothing less.

If employees ‘working to rule’ has a negative impact on productivity and profits, then it shows how much goodwill is relied upon in a business.

“As an ex-NHS worker, I know myself just how many business models rely on people going the extra mile,” says clinical psychologist, Dr Stephanie Fitzgerald. “Companies need people to stretch beyond their role, cover shortfalls and work additional hours when crunch time hits. Quiet quitting is a sign that people are all out of the goodwill that companies have come to take for granted, and it may have nothing to do with work.”

Why quiet quitting may have nothing to do with work

In recent years, we have been through huge amounts of change and uncertainty. There has been Brexit, significant changes of world leaders, a global pandemic, war in Ukraine – and the fear and fallout of the wider implications. We are experiencing a cost of living crisis, escalating energy prices, and even the death of the UK’s longest reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, has left some people feeling a constant in their lives has been taken away.

“Many of the issues we have faced over the last couple of years remain unresolved. Covid hasn’t disappeared. Black Lives Matter did not, sadly, end institutional racism. The war in Ukraine rages on, and around the world we are grieving the loss of our Queen, all whilst wondering if we’ll have the resources available to heat our homes this winter. We are tired. We are questioning and we are having to stretch our limited energy further than ever,” explains Fitzgerald.

“With so much to think about, so many additional pressures and so many demands on employees, they may have nothing left to give. Quiet quitting does not mean that people are disengaged or unwilling to work hard. They just aren’t going to do more than that. They can’t. They have nothing left in the tank.”

Readdressing the balance

Covid and the pandemic have also caused people to reassess their priorities, and place more importance on family and personal life than work. With mental health firmly in the spotlight, workers are more mindful than ever of the impact of stress on their overall wellbeing and happiness.

“The last two and a half years have created a kind of enforced fire-break in our lives. For many people it’s been a time of evaluation and even complete over-haul, driven by a desire to establish more balance between work and their personal lives, and for others, it’s been a silent revolution – quiet quitting,” says psychologist, Geraldine Joaquim.

“It’s a gentle stepping back from that kind of over-investing in the job, that takes over our lives, not only in terms of time spent at work or at the laptop or checking phones, but also the amount of headspace we’re prepared to allocate to it.”

quiet quitting, relaxing at desk, working from home
Tartila/Shuttterstock

Taking back time

Joaquim believes the impact of the last few years has also robbed us of free time, which has exacerbated the need to quietly quit to regain precious moments.

“The last couple of years have whizzed by in the blink of an eye, and that is scary! There is a reason for that: when you don’t focus on the moments, they pass you by and before you know it, another week, month, year has disappeared.

“We have spent so much time in our heads, worrying about the pandemic, about loved ones, about other people’s behaviours, about what’s going to happen, about the vaccines, also a little bit of ruminating on the past, perhaps some grieving over lost freedoms. We weren’t taking notice of the moments, and that means we haven’t laid down the memories that create the past. Added to which, the days were very monotonous – no going out, no difference between weekdays and weekends, no celebrations or marking milestones, slogging through home school and working from home, wearing the same clothes day in, day out. So, time has felt like it’s slipped away… and the Queen’s death reminds us that we all have a finite time on this earth, so we’d better start enjoying it!”

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Acting their wage

For some, their reasons behind quiet quitting might be about pay and conditions; it might be a form of defiance or rebellion.

Half of under 30s are vowing to ‘act their wage’ according to a poll by global recruitment consultancy, Robert Walters.

With the recent dramatic rise in the cost of living due to rising inflation and soaring energy prices, young workers in particular are quietly quitting due to pay, suddenly feel heavily underpaid for their role.

“In all cases of economic hardship it is young workers who are on lower salaries who feel the financial burden more. Their lack of experience – exasperated further by the pandemic – puts them in a much weaker position than their older, more experienced counterparts when trying to bargain for higher pay,” says Toby Fowlston, CEO of Robert Walters.

“Employers will be unable to increase pay at the same rate of inflation – that’s a fact, so this is where softer perks and benefits really do have a chance to make a difference. Increasingly we are seeing utility vouchers, travel cards, and streaming subscriptions all being offered to prospective employees.”

Workplace Culture

But theories about why quiet quitting is such a recent concern include workplace cultures that range from toxic to simply not engaging or supporting their employees adequately. Employees who feel not listened to or undervalued are certainly less likely to be willing to work above and beyond normal duties.

Adam (name changed to protect work identity), a senior project manager, says he has felt more of a sense of withdrawal and quiet quitting due to a lack of motivation. “If you feel the problems are too big and what you can do is going to make little difference, there comes a point where it all feels a bit pointless.”

His experience highlights how influential the work culture, a sense of safety, and robust communication can be on a worker’s sense of belonging and motivation.

Sharon Aneja, a positive psychology coach and consultant says employers can help prevent the quiet quitting trend by doing more to listen to them. She encourages what she calls a ‘stay interview’ in place of just exit interviews. “This helps you to pick up on dissatisfaction before it’s too late,” she says. By finding out why people stay and what they love about a business, employers understand what to do more of.

Aneja has found these have improved employee retention. These kind of initiatives also help employees feel more valued and that their opinion matters. They can help foster a genuinely positive and compassionate culture, rather than one which pays lip service to employee wellbeing.

“Over the last few years there’s been a focus on wellbeing, and yet in practical terms it hasn’t really filtered through,” notes Joaquim. “Over the lockdowns the ‘lunch and learn’ market exploded with a plethora of online wellbeing talks but an hour’s talk does not change a poor work culture! And the wholesale move to working from home meant many people over-worked as the boundaries between work and home dissolved even further (they were already pretty unstable with smartphones making checking and responding to emails outside the ‘office’ all too easy), and people felt less visible so put in even more hours and effort.”

Quiet quitting or healthy boundaries?

In a conversation with The Homeworker, careers coach, Della Judd agreed that homeworkers need to recalibrate their working patterns. “I think there’s a danger that at home, you over compensate and you do more.”

She suggests one form of quiet quitting is simply putting in healthier boundaries around work. If somebody is deemed to be quiet quitting because they are no longer answering calls or responding to messages late at night, it may simply be their way of boundary setting rather than an unwillingness to go above and beyond.

“Do what you need to do to protect your health and your boundaries but do it openly… This is more empowering for you,” says Judd who suggests informing colleagues and managers of when your notifications are off to manage expectations.

In recent months, a few people have spoken out against homeworking, even calling people who work away from the office ‘lazy’.

Judd believes it is important not to confuse this misperception of homeworking with quiet quitting. “Some people have a perception that people are at home, putting the laundry on, having a nap, watching Netflix, not working but ‘shirking from home’.”

In reality, many remote workers find they need to find ways to switch off as their level of output is unsustainable. “Part of this quiet quitting may well be a re-establishing of ‘normal’ work commitment,” says Joaquim.

Listen to the full conversation with Della on navigating the jobs market, the Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting in our Subscribers Lounge.

Quiet quitting to enable higher performance

I don’t know if my own spell of not putting in extra effort would have been deemed ‘quiet quitting’ but when I look back at it, I believe much of my experience was down to feeling drained and exhausted.

When you feel sapped of energy, it is hard to find capacity to work harder. With better boundaries, it may be that people can recover and recoup the energy to put in extra effort but within those parameters.

Naiyer Qureshi, a certified neurocoach says, “When we feel anxious and overwhelmed, that’s taking away precious energy in the form of glucose and oxygen from our higher level thinking brain so we aren’t performing at our best… Our critical thinking, forward planning, assessment, morale, cognitive bias, all of these things are affected.”

Where employers can help is by becoming aware of how they are affecting wellbeing and as a result, performance.

“Employers may not be aware that in some of the ways they behave or language that they use they could be causing a subtle degree of anxiety within their teams.”

She says, it is important they are not offering a carrot and stick scenario, she says, with “the implication being if you don’t stay behind for that meeting or take part in that activity, that could have an impact on promotion.”

As workers, we have a responsibility to ourselves and our health. “Yes, we have a contract with our employer but is it time we have a contract of self-care, for ourselves?”

The implications of quiet quitting

Within a business, quiet quitting also has wider implications.

“It is easy for managers to pull their employees up on lack of productivity, but unless they get to the bottom of the ‘why’ their motivation has dropped, then quiet quitting could well become a silent movement that has a damaging effect on businesses productivity and profitability,” says Fowlston.

Fitzgerald also sees more engrained issues. “In order to build our confidence and sense of psychological safety, we need to be able to try and fail. When we don’t have a lot of energy, we are less likely to risk wasting it on projects without a guaranteed win. This has implications for innovation and development for employees and businesses alike. We need employees to know that no effort is wasted and that we value and appreciate their efforts more than ever, recognising that energy and motivation may be low at the moment.”

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Dedicated to helping you thrive when you work from home, The Homeworker publishes articles that are designed to keep you healthy, happy, and more productive in work and life.

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