The ‘Quiet quitting’ Phenomenon: Re-naming something doesn’t mean we are better at understanding it.

By Dr Jenny Gale, Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management

Photo by Alan Cleaver licensed under CC BY

I’ve been thinking about ‘quiet quitting’ (the topic, more so than the practice!).  Seeing many articles and posts on social media over the last few months, I thought I would add my own thoughts to the mix. 

‘Quiet quitting’ is described by HR Grapevine as:

‘…a range of behaviours that correlate with disengagement. That is, when an employee feels like they’re no longer valued, feel burnt out from prolonged periods of heavy workloads, or are generally unhappy with their job and terms, they begin to dial down their efforts and mentally check out.’  

Simpson (2022) utilizes another term ‘acting your wage’, fulfilling duties and responsibilities, but not going ‘above and beyond’ while guarding personal-professional boundaries.  It is often attributed to experiencing a global pandemic which afforded people an opportunity to reflect on their lives and what was important, including work-life balance and well-being.

‘Quiet quitting’ is bad news for employers, particularly those that rely on employees ‘going above and beyond’.  Some articles offering advice often frame it as something to be ‘curtailed’, ‘combated’, and ‘stamped out’.  However, it should be noted that many employees would not envisage ‘quiet quitting’ as conducive to their growth and advancement, and even detrimental to their professional ethic and job satisfaction. Therefore, workplaces tend to consist of those who continue to give generously alongside quitters of both ‘quiet’ and ‘loud’ varieties. 

Some would recognize ‘quiet quitting’ not as something new, but rather a fundamental contradiction characterising employment relations.  We don’t all want the same things, hold the same values, or share the same objectives all the time, harking back to that old managerial dilemma – how to persuade workers to work (the ‘labour problem’). The problem framed in the 21st Century, post-pandemic world is ‘quiet quitting’ rather than being ‘not engaged’ or ‘disengaged’ (Gallup, 2006), or ‘working to rule’ (adherence to contracted duties).  We are good at inventing new terms for this phenomenon and that helps to keep things current and meaningful in a changing context, but understanding is comparatively lacking.  This makes it easier to label those who attempt to claw back some balance in their lives as ‘trouble-makers’, ‘uncommitted’, and ‘letting co-workers and the organization down’, than to address the issues that make employees want to ‘quiet quit’ in the first place.

To suggest that people who prioritize their well-being are quitters is insulting (Personnel Today, 21st October, 2022).  People cannot increasingly give ‘more for less’ and it is not unreasonable for work to be decent, fulfilling at least some expectations around life and work. Work evolved as an expressive and meaningful activity for humans that later became appropriated by employers for producing a profit or service.  Consequently, many workers end up giving too much of something an employer values (time, effort, commitment) but receiving less of something that they value (decent pay, work-life balance, avoidance of overwork).  This can feel unreasonable and even unacceptable initiating individual and collective action to improve working lives.

Flexible working, employee well-being, progressive HR policies, and moving to a four-day working week are all steps in the right direction but, sadly, attitudes are ingrained. The ‘labour problem’ will persist, but an acknowledgement that it is endemic to work relationships rather than simply pathological would increase our chances of understanding and managing it.  In many respects jobs are more decent than in the past, but some (including professional jobs) are worse according to some indicators. While there are those on both sides of the employment relationship that promote decent work for all, it is sad that the ‘race to the bottom’ is stubbornly resilient.  ‘Quiet quitting’ (or whatever you want to call it) may not be desirable but it remains a rational and legitimate response.

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