Quiet Quitting Part 1: What it is and why it Happens
In Part One of our series on quiet quitting, we explore the concept as a cultural phenomenon and consider what causes an employee to quiet quit.
Throughout 2022, the media phrase ‘quiet quitting’ has been gathering momentum. While some doubt its validity as a notion and others argue that it is actually a good thing, there’s no doubt that the concept of quiet quitting has entered the cultural zeitgeist.
What is Quiet Quitting?
Despite what the name might suggest, quiet quitting does not actually involve people leaving their jobs. Instead, it refers to employees choosing to work strictly within their work hours and only doing precisely what the job requires. You may know it as ‘working to rule’.
In a broader sense, quiet quitting alludes to a trend of people silently disengaging from their work. When a worker quiet quits, they limit their output, only assigning the effort required to meet their duties and not associating any self-worth with the success of their professional lives.
Research from Gallup suggests that, in the US, at least 50% of the workforce has ‘quiet quit’, with the proportion of actively disengaged employees increasing to 18% in 2022.
Quiet Quitting – a Social (Media) Phenomenon
The profile of quiet quitting has certainly been raised by its popularity as a social media trend. Driven mainly by TikTok, a video-sharing platform favoured by Gen Z and younger millennials, social media has fostered discussions of quiet quitting amongst social media influencers and the workers themselves, rather than being confined to think pieces created by observing journalists and with the most popular videos gaining millions of views.
Some are clearly tongue in cheek, (although sentiments such as “I’ve done so little at work before it wasn’t even ‘quiet quitting’, it was ‘technically robbing'”, may strike fear into the heart of any performance manager) but the popularity of this content does suggest potentially widespread dissatisfaction amongst younger people.
In fact, it’s clear that for some, quiet quitting is considered something of a passive rebellion – a means of revolting against the perception of shrinking opportunities and fewer rewards for hard work, both in the workplace and society in general. Some videos describe a sense of alienation in the workplace (“we are working jobs that do not care about us as people”) while others are a repudiation of hustle culture (“your worth as a person is not defined by your labour”).
Why People Quiet Quit
Quiet quitting is, at its heart, about disengagement. Some analysts believe that the shift in thinking may have occurred during the pandemic. During lockdown, many people found themselves losing jobs which they may have poured huge amounts of effort into and tied to their sense of self, contributing to an overall feeling of disillusionment.
It may also relate to disappointment where hopes of an expected societal shift didn’t materialise. Despite it becoming clear how important ‘key worker’ roles are (such as shop assistants, cleaners and carers), this awareness failed to translate to greater appreciation or higher wages. Other workers may simply have exhausted themselves under the pressure of a highly stressful two year period.
Some of the workplace factors that are thought to contribute to quiet quitting include:
Overwork and burnout
According to a study by Deloitte, 77% of people have experienced burnout at work, which can have a wide-ranging and highly negative impact on their wellbeing. In these circumstances, quiet quitting is asserting the ‘right to switch off’ and drawing healthier boundaries.
This is particularly true when the lines between personal and professional lives have become blurred and have worked more hours and been more available through email and phone contact than is sustainable. In these cases, one might roll back their involvement in order to protect their mental health.
People can become disillusioned in their job role if they believe there is a lack of reciprocity from management for the extra efforts they put in. For example, if an employee is happy to stay late when needed, but is refused similar flexibility on the occasions that they ask for it.
Another scenario is when one person looks after all the ancillary tasks that keep the workplace functioning (such as organising birthday or leaving gifts, keeping kitchen supplies topped up, writing up minutes and holding information on company credit cards) whilst not being acknowledged for the time and labour this requires.
The way unpaid labour is distributed at work can also be tied to unconscious biases. It is thought that women are more likely to carry out unseen and unrewarding workplace housekeeping. Studies show that women of colour, in particular, do more office ‘housework’, while having less access to the kind of ‘glamour work’ that gets people noticed by those higher-up in the organisation.
Perceived low pay
A common refrain amongst people discussing quiet quitting on social media is ‘work your wage’. A sense that they aren’t well recompensed for their time and efforts can lead employees to restrict their emotional, intellectual and physical investment in the workplace. It can also be a response to a pay cut or lack of pay rises.
Being passed over for promotion
If someone has worked relentlessly but starts to realise that this isn’t resulting in any tangible rewards or career progression, or that their ideas and work are not valued, they may withdraw from full participation. This is something employers need to be especially mindful of. Continually ignoring an employee’s contributions and failing to consider them for promotion without cause could form the basis of grievances, resignations and ultimately a constructive dismissal claim.
There is no doubt that quiet quitting as a phenomenon is complex and involves many different threads and motivations. But for employees who feel unmotivated and unengaged at work (which is not a scenario most people want to be in) and employers who hope to improve both employee wellbeing and productivity, finding solutions to the issue is a priority.
In the next part of this series, we explore how employers can both recognise and manage quiet quitting in the workplace and foster the conditions required to create a happy and engaged professional environment. Then we consider the latest phenomenon of ‘Quiet Firing’.