Does this buzz term reflect a shift in thinking about work culture and engagement?
“Quiet quitting” is a term that has sprung up in recent months and has seen plenty of commentary on various forums from TikTok to major news platforms such as The Economist and NPR. Since most of these sources are based in the US and Europe, one wonders whether and how this phenomenon is playing out locally and whether it is a global trend. Is it simply a buzz term? Even if it is, what are the underlying issues and what should leaders and human capital be doing about it?
What is quiet quitting?
In short, it means doing your job without going above and beyond, mainly because circumstances do not allow you to leave. When quitting your job is not an option, you do the minimum: enough not to get fired or noticed.
Why is it happening?
Two main factors stand out: economic, and social or cultural. On the one hand, quiet quitting could be a sign of tough market realities: people are unable to quit a bad job because there simply are no other options. The other perspective is that quiet quitting is a reaction to working culture as a whole. According to this view, there is growing resistance to the notion that you need to always stand out by doing more than your job requires (also known as “hustle culture”).
Quiet quitting has largely been attributed to Gen Z’s and Millennials, who are known to place a higher value on work-life balance. In this article on the platform Worklife, a 24-year-old interviewee said: “If they expect me to not have a life outside of work […] it will never be worth it.” More than simply wanting more free time, though, the new generation appears to be subscribing less to the notion that work must define your life.
Quiet quitting, then, is about employees taking ownership of their work-life balance and avoiding burnout. More importantly, it is about seeking meaning – and about employees realising they can find meaning outside of work. If they don’t identify with the values of the organisations they join, the younger generations may be perfectly happy to see their work as “just a job”.
How do we approach this?
The broad issue appears to be employee engagement, and more importantly employee thriving. These are real bottom-line concerns – Gallup estimates that business units with engaged employees have 23% higher profit compared with business units whose employees are miserable. And research by the McKinsey Health Institute apparently also found that workers experiencing burnout are six times more likely to report they intend to leave their employers in the next three to six months.
If people are quietly quitting because they are quietly approaching burnout, organisations may respond by focusing on wellbeing as a minimum. They might also look at redesigning work to allow more flexibility or simply spread the load. But here are some other solution ideas, which consider not only the work itself but also how we frame the problem.
1. Prevent disengagement by focusing on growth, motivation and meaning
To have a real chance at attracting and engaging the best staff, organisations should be able to offer meaningful work with real growth opportunities. The aforementioned Worklife article also suggested hiring employees who are motivated by learning, rather than by financial rewards or job perks. The idea here is that people with a curious mindset may be less likely to “sit back” when job conditions change or get tough.
Leaders need to clearly articulate the meaning and purpose of an employee’s role and their work and link it to the purpose of the organisation.
2. Rethink productivity
It may be easy to view quiet quitting as employees simply slacking off. But perhaps we should reflect on our expectations and assumptions around productivity and what makes an effective and engaged employee.
- Just because an employee is not going above and beyond, does not mean they are unproductive, i.e. not delivering what is required of their role.
- Just because they are doing less, does not mean that they are “lazy” or unambitious.
- Having employees give it their all, all of the time, is unsustainable and can even damage productivity in the long run.
On the latter point, an article in The Conversation suggested that quiet quitting might actually be beneficial not just to employees, but also to their employers. Among other things, they point out that when employees’ sense of self-worth is not entirely derived from their work, they enjoy not only better mental health but better self-esteem, which can make them more effective and resilient. They also highlight that if quiet quitting does lead to some losses in individual productivity, these are likely to be less than the cost of having to replace people once they’ve burned out.
In short, when employees are well, and have well-balanced lives, business benefits.
3. Connect with employees
If employers want engagement, they first need to consider whether they are setting up workplaces that people want to engage in. Culture is of course a major part of this, but for now let’s consider the individual employee and the role of the leader.
Leaders should firstly be paying attention to individual needs around work-life balance, as this can mean different things for different people. They should secondly be having conversations with employees to understand what motivates and engages them. But perhaps more importantly, leaders need to make it OK for employees to relate how they’re doing on the job with how they’re coping in their personal lives.
Perhaps the bigger issueis for employers to consider whether they are showing that they care enough about their employees to warrant them caring enough to put in discretionary effort. Put differently: if you want engagement, you need to engage with your employees – genuinely and on a personal level.
This is an opportunity to listen and understand, rather than fix.
We need to:
- Set up workplaces that people want to engage in;
- Learn what our employees need to be engaged;
- Support employees through seasons when they are struggling.
About the Author:
Angela de Longchamps is the founder and CEO of Inspired Leadership. She works across organisations with managers and emerging leaders to help them create a culture that fosters the best performance in themselves and in others. This balanced and human-centred learning and development approach is designed out of 20 years experience within the corporate world, both as a consultant and in various line positions.
Talk to us to find out how we can help your leaders create the environment that fosters employee engagement.
Further reading and references
- WTF is quiet quitting (and why is Gen Z doing it)? (Worklife)
- Why doing less at work could be good for you and your employer (The Conversation)
- Gallup’s 2022 State of the Workplace Report