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Quiet quitting: Why the ‘quiet’ part is concerning and what employers could be missing out on

Aug 26, 2022

worried young man head in hand at laptop

What exactly is quiet quitting, and why should employers pay attention?

The latest trend to hit the workplace is “quiet quitting,” a term that exploded into the popular lexicon after a TikTok video describing it went viral. But what exactly is quiet quitting, and why should employers pay attention?

Chris Zatzick, a professor of management and organizational studies at SFU’s Beedie School of Business, explains what the term means and why it’s resonating with employees of all ages and industries—and the consequences of quiet quitting for both the employer and the employee.

“The ‘quiet’ part means that an employee is making a change to the way they do work without talking to their organization, supervisor, or colleagues about it,” says Zatzick. “And the ‘quitting’ part just means quitting parts of the job that are too stressful or are uncompensated by the organization. You’re not quitting the job itself, but you’re reducing the amount of work or effort you’re putting into your job.”

Quiet quitting may be particularly prominent among salaried workers whose hours can increase and result in burnout, as opposed to more transactional service workers who get paid for overtime and experience a clearer distinction of work versus personal time. The initial TikTok video comes from the perspective of a knowledge worker—an engineer—who was stressed and overwhelmed by work, expressing a need to set boundaries to avoid burnout.

This is distinct from the other way quiet quitting is being discussed in the media, which is in the context of workers who are refusing to do anything beyond their job description. The latter context has existed long before quiet quitting rose in popularity—in unions, it’s known as work-to-rule, and is a much more transactional approach. Quiet quitting that involves employees doing the bare minimum at work suggests there might be a misfit in the job match with the individual or the incentives might be misaligned, and is different from true quiet quitting, which is when a worker still wants to be engaged in their work but simply wants clear boundaries around work-life balance.

“In its best form, quiet quitting would involve someone who is still engaged in their work, motivated, and helpful to others in the organization,” says Zatzick. “They actually will go beyond their job description, but not outside of work hours. And to me, that is what organizations actually want. The problem is when it spills over beyond work hours and results in burnout, which is much more common now that many people work from home.”

Another issue Zatzick brings up is the idea that many workers have an identity built around their work and profession. When their work is a major part of their identity, workers could experience cognitive dissonance from wanting to contribute more but feeling that contributing more would cause harm to themselves.

“That could be a disadvantage of quiet quitting for the individual,” says Zatzick. “For example, let’s say a major part of my identity revolves around being an excellent teacher who’s available for my students. If I limit my availability to just office hours, it may improve my work-life balance but may harm my self-perception as a committed teacher who cares about my students.”

From an organization’s perspective, if workers are only doing the bare minimum, the employer is losing a lot of potential value. Research shows the extra role behaviour going beyond merely the job description is important for creating value in an organization and establishing the collaboration and interaction needed to be innovative. If workers withhold that behaviour, the employer loses out. But if workers are overly invested leading to burnout, the employer also loses out.

“It’s about trying to find that happy middle ground where workers are engaged and motivated, invested in doing a good job, and adding value for the organization,” says Zatzick. “The biggest concern to me is the word ‘quiet’ in quiet quitting. For an employer, that would be concerning because that means nobody is talking to you and there’s not effective communication.”

But establishing a good work-life balance as an organization may present other challenges. Zatzick points out that some workers will always be workaholics who may be willing to work extra hours. In contrast with an employee who has set clear work-life boundaries, the worker displaying extra commitment to the organization may experience more positive outcomes.

“There’s some research showing that the worker who’s putting in all the extra time and effort is probably going to get the promotions and less likely to be laid off, after accounting for job performance,” says Zatzick. “Further, research shows that ‘engaged workaholics’ don’t experience the same negative health effects as workers required to work long hours but aren’t engaged in what they are doing. So, the organization really has to be clear about what they’re going to reward and incentivize and how they design work to keep employees engaged.”

Learn more about Chris Zatzick and his work at SFU Beedie.