Quiet Quitting: A storm in a tea cup? Or a brewing crisis?

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Quiet Quitting – 
The latest buzz word and yet another worry for employers to add to their ever-increasing risk register, no doubt including; COVID, cost of living/energy crisis, political uncertainty, the great resignation, a rapidly unfolding environmental catastrophe, burnout …

Tiktok has a lot to answer for and ‘quiet quitting’ is one of them. American TikTokker @zaidlepplin recently posted a video in which he made the simple point that “work is not your life“. It wasn’t a new or profound observation but the video went viral.

Quiet quitting is doing the bare minimum to keep your job, because your fulfillment and priorities lie outside of work. Essentially, do the basics to get paid (and keep getting paid) but do no more because why should you? Put yourself first for a change!

According to a recent Gallup study, the trend affects over half the U.S. workforce and the problem is allegedly getting worse (pause for panic/hysteria). But wait a minute: Quiet quitting isn’t new.

There’s always been a percentage of employees who just complete their contracted hours, get paid and head for home. Going the extra mile isn’t on their radar because their passions/dreams/headspace are elsewhere. But if they’re doing their job to a moderate standard, is quiet quitting really an issue?

Reflecting on my 25 years’ HR/leadership/coaching experience (including my own ups and downs at work) I believe there are two types of quiet quitting, one which is healthy (for everyone) and one which is less healthy (for everyone):

1. Restorative (healthy):
You define new boundaries to safeguard your wellbeing. You know your sanity and health can’t sustain your pace of life and you’re stretched in too many directions. Your boundaries enable you to take back control and restore a more manageable pace. If your work environment fosters positive and open communication, then both employer and employee can benefit from a restorative change. In fact, it’s neither ‘quiet’ nor ‘quitting’, but you have definitely transitioned from ‘extra mile’ to ‘contractually-obliged distance and no further’.

2. Rebellious (unhealthy):
You’ve had enough and you’re dissatisfied with how your working life has unfolded. Rather than talk it through with your employer (you may have previously tried) you give up and disengage. At the same time, you privately commit to doing just enough to keep your job because currently, there are no obvious alternatives.

Rebellious, quiet quitting is a problem, both for employer and quitter. Here’s why:
– Rebellious, quiet quitting leads to corner cutting and mistakes, it intensifies boredom and deteriorates working relationships, all of which creates more disengagement for the quitter: a negative cycle is rapidly spinning.
– Rebellious, quiet quitting increases the pressure on the rest of the team and with no communication having taken place, it can create misunderstanding, becoming infectious and fueling collective apathy.
– Rebellious, quiet quitting when prolonged, increases the risk of ‘milestone anxiety’, where the quitters sense they’ve fallen behind.

If you’ve been in a rebellious state of quiet quitting for a while, just check out LinkedIn to feel really bad. Everyone else is posting about getting promoted, receiving awards or abseiling down the shard to raise money for the local donkey sanctuary, whilst you’re festering in a place you don’t want to be.

Should employers be worried about quiet quitting?

Quiet quitting is a new label for something which has always existed (doing the basics but no more) but if it’s the rebellious form of quiet quitting rather than a restorative form, it’s a problem which needs talking about.

It’s clear that since COVID, our expectations and attitudes around employment, work/life mix and priorities have shifted. With many UK employers struggling to attract and retain the staff they need, it’s in everyone’s interests to create psychologically safe workplaces, where people feel comfortable to be open about how they feel and what they want, without the fear of being penalised, belittled or judged.

When people can be open because it’s safe to do so, then quiet quitting is more likely to be of the restorative type than the rebellious type, which is more constructive for employer, the quiet quitter and the wider team.

In order to create a safe psychological spaces, leaders can dare to be vulnerable about their own challenges, mistakes, dreams, so it signals that it’s ok for everyone else to do the same. Practically, leaders could also trial local initiatives in the workplace which encourage transparent communication and the building of safe spaces:

  1. Grumble and celebration time: where the first 10 minutes of the weekly team meeting is ring-fenced for people to voice their high and low points of the week, (with general agreement that ‘low points’ shared do not personally implicate team members!)
  2. ‘Mistake & Cake’ meetings: where people come together each month to share a cake, with several parameters for meeting: a) the cake is a truly sumptuous offering, b) the purpose (other than eating cake) is to openly discuss mistakes/near mistakes made in the previous month, c) the mistakes discussed must be real issues (not trivial) d) no one is judged or penalised, e) learning is shared.
  3. Meaningful conversations: where leaders take time out of their busy schedule to have meaningful conversation with their team members, not just about what needs to be done and where things are going, but about how that person is doing. These could be brief/informal conversations which leaders stick to as part of their weekly/bi-weekly schedule, regardless of what else is kicking off.

It’s easier said than done, but people’s happiness, motivation, engagement are driven by complex factors such as: relationships at work and home, finances, physical/mental wellbeing, pursuit of inspiring goals, physical spaces (our car/office/home/community), autonomy, feeling in control and self-confidence etc. Therefore, until you ‘know’ a person, you can’t easily know whether someone is in a period of restorative, quiet quitting or rebellious, quiet quitting.

Quiet quitting as a buzzword isn’t a storm in a tea cup nor is it a brewing crisis. It’s an ongoing challenge with a new label, where the root causes constantly shift and evolve. With compassionate, effective leadership however, we can reduce the risk of rebellious, quiet quitting taking hold of the people we lead, and make restorative change a natural and healthy cycle for those involved.

 –  Authored by Andrew Pain

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