Quiet quitting isn’t quite what you think

Talent leaders must take actions to re-engage workers in the increasingly disconnected world of work.

Over the past few years, myriad employees have reflected on the role of work in their lives. Many have decided to resign and switch careers, while others are seemingly repositioning the role of work to their personal wellness and a work-life balance. With a Gallup estimate of at least 50 percent of the U.S. workforce engaged in quiet quitting, its paramount talent leaders take actions to re-engage workers in the new, increasingly digital world of work. 

Why quietly quit?

Much of the conversation around quiet quitting began when a 24-year-old engineer, Zaid Khan, posted a TikTok detailing his new perspective on work-life balance, ending the video by saying, “your worth is not defined by your productive output.” 

Essentially, the idea is simple — quit going above and beyond and unsubscribe from the hustle culture mentality. With more than 3 million views in the first two weeks, the term exploded into headlines and claims of quiet quitting across the internet, all from one video. In his next video, Khan responded, providing better names for the trend, from boundary setting to work-to-rule. “That would have been nice to know before I made a viral video about it,” he said. 

“This movement is a little bit about young workers checking out, Gen Z rejecting the hustle culture and this notion of working to live, not living to work,” says Heide Abelli, adjunct professor of management and technology strategy at Boston College and co-founder of SageX. “Don’t leave, but just do enough to stay on the payroll while focusing on having a great life outside of work.” 

But why does this trend seem to be amplified in headlines and why are workers quiet quitting? Some say it’s a natural response to burnout in the wake of COVID-19 or simply a response to the stress and responsibilities of the boundaryless 24/7 responsibilities of a job. Others say young workers just aren’t getting the necessary support they need in the flexible work environment. 

“Quiet quitting isn’t laziness. Doing the bare minimum is a common response to bullshit jobs, abusive bosses and low pay. When they don’t feel cared about, people eventually stop caring,” wrote Adam Grant, organizational psychologist at Wharton. 

In the world of remote work, Abelli says young people are not getting the two things they need from a job. “One is this sort of esprit de corps with your peers just starting their careers, and the second is mentorship,” Abelli says. “If they’re not getting peer help or getting mentorship, they become disengaged.”

Exacerbating all this is the role of social media as an outlet to express job dissatisfaction. Fueling the fire on quiet quitting, while not the root cause, has made it possible to untangle the role of social media and disengagement at the workplace — physical or not.

Does remote work?

Over the decades, managers have certainly encountered workers who were unmotivated or underproductive. But part of their duty has always been to help re-engage and increase the productivity of their teams. In a familiar position, managers must figure out how to put the right people on a engaging path in their work. 

“I’ve long believed that we need to hire and promote people that have conscientiousness as a trait,” Abelli says. “There’s been a lot of studies on the traits of a conscientious individual – and the polar opposite of that is the quiet quitter.”

As much as remote and flexible work have brought countless well-being benefits, some claim the increased flexibility of the workplace over the last two years has been an enabler for quiet quitting. Despite all the reported positives, Abelli says she has noticed people are reluctant to get into conversations about the downsides of remote work. Without a physical workspace and decreased interactions with coworkers, some workers are simply losing purpose in their work and burning out. 

“Talent leaders need to think about work-life balance and make sure that they are putting in place a culture that doesn’t lead to quiet quitting,” Abelli says. “They need to be thinking about how we put in place mentorship for all these remote, young people; and do things that help them build social connections.”

So what?

The people who often experience the brunt of burnout in the office — women and people of color — can’t afford to disengage like everyone else. According to a Gallup Poll, working U.S. women experience higher rates of burnout than men, and even more significantly among women of color. 

It’s likely these groups are also bearing the weight of an increasingly disengaged, quiet-quitting workforce. The resulting overall loss of productivity from quiet quitters can cause an undue burden and increase stress for other team members.

“People want to believe that where they work is a meritocracy,” Abelli says. “As leaders, you don’t want to lose your best people because they feel like they have to pick up the slack of quiet quitters. If good workers are in environments where quiet quitting is allowed or enabled, willingly or not, these people are going to get frustrated and leave.”

Talent leaders need to care about this quiet quitting “movement” for two main reasons, says Abelli. One, “people disengaging from their work is bad for the worker and bad for the organization.” And two, “this kind of disengagement decreases productivity, decreases the quality of work performed, decreases employee loyalty and commitment [and] increases turnover… all of which results in lost revenue and profits for the organization.”

What should be concerning to all talent leaders is that “these folks who are quiet quitting are giving up on developing themselves. They’re not building careers,” Abelli says. “They’re just logging hours and collecting a paycheck.” 

When we spend 40 to 50 hours a week at work, if you’re quiet quitting, “that’s a lot of wasted time,” Abelli says. “For most of us, in order to go the duration, we have to find that passion in our work, we have to find that calling. For all of those reasons we have to care about these employees that are expressing this.”

Leaders must help employees “connect the dots from an organization’s purpose and mission to an individual’s personal purpose,” Abelli says. “That is the job of leadership at the end of the day.”