Quiet Quitting - what it is and why it's happening
In the running for "word of the year" - What is "Quiet Quitting"
I spent a summer working as a trainer in a job centre where there was a running “joke” that “EVERYONE there was looking for a job”…when people are not happy they do tend to the bare minimum. When people come into work and “keep their head down” – it is likely they are looking for another job. “Quiet quitting” is a great way to describe the gradual withdrawal from a work relationship, and even if it’s not a form of protest, it is likely to happen when people are working through their notice or have made the decision to leave…once you’ve “quietly quit”, often the physical act is a case of when not if.
“Quiet Quitting” sets boundaries which is never a bad thing. There are some times in which a gradual withdrawal from work responsibility makes sense – if there is a departure date due, it is not fair on colleagues nor clients to take on a new project which then has to be given up mid way. There are also some aspects of a job eg: “the person who buys the birthday cards” – that are perhaps NOT as vital and if you did want to “pass on the mantle”…or simply draw back and see if it’s missed (sadly, and it can be a little hurtful when it happens, this may be something people didn’t need although it was nice!). And, of course it is important not to confuse “quiet quitting” with laziness or being deliberately obtuse.
In many ways it is arguable that if you are doing what your job description* requires of you (which formed part of your contract and thus commitment), why would you be doing more in the first place!?
*note if job descriptions changed, it is always appropriate to request a new one to be signed off as some things simply cannot fall under the catch all “…as well as additional responsibilities that may be required from time to time”!
However, the situation is a little more complex.
When "quiet quitting" is not because of demands imposed by work!
In the first instance “effort” cannot be measured. Someone who stays up all night to finish a report (without being asked to) and produces something which is accepted as a similarly high standard as the person who hammered it out in an hour is going to feel far more exhausted and likely less appreciated than said “hammerer”. BUT that doesn’t mean to say that the quality of the product is not the same. As such we DO need to ask some questions over WHY people may be wanting to “quietly quit” – ie. Who demanded the “overwork” in the first place. This person may need to engage in self reflection if their behaviour isn't to lead to quiet quitting every job!
...and when it is
It is a clearer situation if your job role suddenly changes, or a “short term” additional responsibility becomes a long term one, and/or in the cases of change or pressure you’ve raised the point and it’s not been addressed adequately…it is less clear when you might be choosing to do more (perhaps even for little improvement – and sometimes even against the explicit instructions of managers!)
Another aspect of work which has huge potential to cause the sort of feelings which often lead to “quiet quitting” if not burnout, are jobs which require “emotional labour”.
Emotional Labour was defined by Arlie Russell Hochschild in 1983 as a socially constructed behaviour where a professional manages his or her “…feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display…” Hochschild proposed, those ‘norms’ are defined by “display rules” that performers of emotional labour might share (eg. a nurse’s “display rule” may be presenting as an approachable and sympathetic person – even if s/he’s just been shouted at by the person s/he’s trying to help). One of Hochschild’s strongest claims is that emotional labour causes emotional strain for those who perform it, because such “display rules” (eg. a tired teacher needing to be energetic for the after school club s/he has been asked to cover) may be at variance with one’s true feelings. AND, it takes a lot of effort to perform emotional labour in the first instance and it is an element of the job not often directly remunerated…nor appreciated as “extra”!!
As such – may thing may have contributed to the burnout people are feeling, causing them to withdraw, but not all can be resolved by “quiet quitting”.
Does "quiet quitting" help protect wellbeing?
On the face of it, as long as one is doing their job competently as required, I would ask if anything further is even required…however, of course, based on the emotional aspects, that is way too reductionist a statement.
Positive psychologist Martin Seligman proposed that there are 3 routes to happiness – a sense of purpose, a sense of flow, and healthy relationships. When one “quietly quits” – these can be disrupted. We WANT to do well, we WANT to try hard, we WANT to grow and achieve…and withdrawing also takes the opportunity to do that away from us – unless we actively channel it into out home life when we leave at 5pm on the dot. Some people ARE able to do that, and if that is the case, then I return to as long as the job is done, it’s a great way to prioritise your values.
However, to return to emotional labour, for some, their sense of purpose comes directly from engagement with the job, and doing the “bare minimum” is in fact less pleasurable than taking on extra demands. A very old example of this comes from Isabel Menzies Lyth who case studied an attempt by a hospital to address why nurses were so burnt out, with the conclusion it was because they struggled to set boundaries and were “too close” to patients. As such, the hospital tried to depersonalise the patients eg referring to them as “the broken leg in bed 2” and rotating shifts so nurses would see different people. This study is seen as a classic example of misunderstanding both the emotional labourer, and what they need in terms of support – nurses didn’t want to be protected, nor “withdraw” from the pressure, they found their fulfilment in the connections they made with patients…but it was other aspects eg: relationships with their managers, or extra demands being placed on them, and long hours without respite that were causing the strain.
So, if “quiet quitting” enables you to set boundaries which you are happy with, then perhaps it isn’t even “quiet quitting”, it’s just doing your job; but if it causes you more distress because you want to engage and it hurts you emotionally not to, then different wellbeing support and intervention is required.
When I wrote my PhD recommendations in 2012, I made the point that it is NOT up to the worker alone to deal with the stresses and strains of a job. YES, there ARE things that individuals can do, and setting boundaries is part of that, as well as asking for help or other support if needed, and certainly raising concerns at the very least so there is a record; BUT the organisation (and in some cases the client too) plays a role in wellbeing. (In my own work I always say – of course I can give individuals tips and tools (including boundary setting) to manage their wellbeing…but if I then send them back to an unchanging toxic environment, is wellbeing any more than a tick box!?) As such, I don’t think quiet quitting is the solution to the question of wellbeing, but being able to change a toxic environment to one of psychological safety so that “quiet quitting” isn’t even a factor, is!
Should we just stop going "above and beyond"?
If someone is choosing to go “above and beyond” and they have the energy and time to do it, then in one regard it isn’t a problem – for them. HOWEVER, what organisations have to be mindful of is the person who is going “above and beyond” having specific circumstances which are driving him or her to do that, and NOT expecting nor demanding (explicitly or passive aggressively) that it be the norm. It is the same as urging people not to work for free because this can unfairly askew opportunity to those with the means to do it – and in turn could affect the business because those with the means may not actually have the aptitude nor work ethic.
If an organisation is demanding people go “above and beyond” – and this can come through the “political” emails sent from management with a time stamp of midnight; or “disapproval” when people don’t attend something which is voluntary; or a straightforward demand that “this is what we are doing” (with no end to the request…which happened during the pandemic, and can happen in restructures ie. People take on more work and then the job is not replaced because the work is being done), then there is a problem…largely being that your best staff will quit (and by the same token it is your best staff who, if they are looking to leave, WILL get other jobs!); or worse, your best staff who may not want to complain, simply buckle under the load.
I also still believe that not recognising the pressure of emotional labour/the emotional aspects and demands of a job is also a huge problem because often even if these staff members choose to simply “teach their classes” (with no extra curricular) or “do their ward rounds” (with no overtime) – they still want to give emotionally to those they support. Simply giving emotional labourers permission to stop caring for a moment (because you have others who can hold the fort, or simply because they deserve some time off) can be far more beneficial…along with perhaps some support in setting acceptable boundaries, or engaging in self care that works for them…AND the actual physical provision of a space where they can relax and be themselves (in my own research, one of the issues was with “staff rooms” that were accessible to the client/customer/patient/pupil – which gave the emotional labourer absolutely no place to “break character”…even actors get an interval!
If you are "quiet quitting"
-Ask yourself if you simply need to quit!?
-Reflect on your own actions regarding whether your feelings are burnout placed by work or self imposed
-Speak to someone who might be able to change the demands placed on you
-With regards to the last point - know what changes you would like - while the change may come too late for you, it might help others who come after you!
Ultimately work is a place where people can succeed and feel appreciated and put in effort and see the fruits of their (literal) labour – and when someone is “quietly quitting”, that’s a whole opportunity for someone to feel great, gone.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the practical "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; or her Radio Show "The Wellbeing Lounge", and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt