Quiet Quitting—Let’s take a deeper look

Barb Krantz Taylor | September 8, 2022 | Blog | 5 minute read

You have likely heard the recent buzzword Quiet Quitting. As I've been reading about it, I find it has been defined in several ways. To some, it reflects a so-called "Gen Z approach to work" characterized by doing the bare minimum to get by and keeping your job. It's also been described as "setting boundaries"—assuring one has a life AND a job. This means leaving work about 5 and not logging in during the evenings, weekends and/or vacations. It's also been described as "just not stressing out" about work any longer…doing what you can and letting go of the worry and angst about unrealistic workloads and deadlines.

The historically low rates of employee engagement have been tied to this phenomenon as well. It is seen both as a cause of low engagement or the result of low engagement. And, it has been seen as perhaps the effect of the higher employer expectations and/or working from home due to the pandemic. That is, without natural boundaries of work and home—or the lack of oversight–some are working too much, and others slacking off.

What I find interesting is each of these definitions and views on this phenomenon are decidedly different—and nuanced. While it is perhaps simpler to define Quiet Quitting in a narrow way or attribute it to being due to one over-riding reason, I prefer to take a different view, looking at this as a continuum from positive to negative as well as a matter of individual differences in values about the meaning of work in one's life.

First of all, I don't like the insinuation that Quiet Quitting is necessarily a positive or negative thing. It depends on what exactly the behavior of "quiet quitting" looks like. It's quite a healthy thing to set boundaries between work and rest of life. That's positive! Choosing to "let go" or manage work stress that one cannot control is also quite positive! THAT kind of quiet quitting is long overdue for some of us. But, if an employee is truly doing as little as possible not to get fired, that is crossing a line.

I also find that the insinuation that everyone is overworking, or underworking is also short sighted. I know lots of people who set these boundaries between work and life—and manage to do both quite well. And I know lots of folks who spend (literally) 14 hours a day at work (and again on weekends) and it seems to work for them. Again, it's not about how much you work, its more about how you feel about that balance and how much choice you have. If you are burned out from overwork and do nothing to set boundaries, you may just quiet quit because you're exhausted. Or if you feel you have NO support from your leader to set boundaries, perhaps you need to seek a new leader, a new position, or a new organization. Organizational cultures and careers differ in what is expected or required. That is, some jobs can actually BE done in 40-50 hours per week and there is ample direct and indirect support for off-the-job activities. And there are organizations and careers where that is simply impossible. I could argue that organizations may need to re-think those kinds of jobs in the future but for now, it is what it is.

For some, work is like leisure. The word leisure is derived from the Latin word "licere" which means "to be permitted to be." In ancient Greek and Latin communities, leisure was the highest form of living, because it allowed individuals to pursue a life of purpose, enjoyment, and meaning. I know a lot of people who find that kind of purpose in their lives and work is an expression of their passions and even fun. Who's to tell those folks they need to find something else to do if their career is such a critical part of their "good life?"

It's more important to consider the "why" someone is working and how they feel about it. If someone is resentful of the hours they spend on work, do not feel appreciated/valued by their boss/organization, and do not feel a sense of achievement, meaning or purpose in their work, quiet quitting (or real quitting) might be a very good thing. What could be wrong in setting boundaries while still getting the job done?

But, if you are a person whose job is just a job, going above and beyond is not always required nor the only way to be successful. For some, work is like a social contract—You take a position that meets your needs (whatever needs they may be) and the organization pays you what it thinks that work is worth. If at any point, the work doesn't meet the employee's needs, they will hopefully choose to end that social contract. Or, if the employee doesn't think the employee is adding enough value, they may end that social contract. In this way, both sides have power and choice in this relationship.

I recognize that some individuals don't feel they have power—they may lack confidence in their abilities or lack a skill set in great demand. Or the risks of potentially being unemployed far outweigh the belief that they will end up employed somewhere else. Sometimes, the individual is being realistic but sometimes, they may be underestimating themselves.

The phrase "quiet quitting" is a complex issue that everyone needs to figure out for themselves, and hopefully make good choices about who they work for and how it feels to them to do so.

I do know lots of folks who do not like their work—or even HATE their work–but nor have they ever done much to find a better fit. They feel like victims of their leaders/organizations or the job market. IF that is you, I suggest you find some coaching to help you empower yourself to change what you can.

I also know lots of folks who work for "jerks" and that sucks the life out of any job they have. For you, I say you don't deserve anyone who treats you that way. Again, find some coaching to help you move on if someone is toxic.

The point is, there are many reasons why people work and how much they do. In the real world, our careers aren't all good or all bad, but a combination of both. Only YOU can determine what an appropriate balance is of the good vs bad. I find people tend to make choices that work for them, their beliefs, and their values. Sometimes, one's beliefs do not fit reality. If that is you, again, find a coach who can help you reflect on why you do what you when it comes to your career.

This phenomenon of quiet quitting is really tied up in our own sense of self efficacy, the value of the skills we have to offer an employer, the values about career/work that we hold, the expectations of the employers/bosses we work for, and the circumstances of our lives. It is way too complex to "blame" individuals for being slackers or applaud them for standing up for themselves. And it is way too complex to blame employers for creating awful places to work or having no soul. The truth is that both you and your leader/employer have needs/desires and wants—to the extent they overlap and are aligned—that is a good thing. When they are not, some renegotiation would be a good thing.

What I wish for you is you know yourself well enough to know what place work/career has for you and you find an employer who can provide that for you. I hope that the hours you spend working are commensurate with your view of the social contract, and/or enjoyment/sense of purpose it brings you. I wish for you the ability to make choices that fit for you and your family. As a former career coach, I know how we spend our working hours is a huge chunk of our lives. If you aren't spending yours as you'd like, I'd be glad to find you some resources who can help you.