Ask Alto : What is quiet quitting?

September 13, 2022
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“I think it’s quite clear my spark has gone, and I just get by doing the minimum. I used to be online hours before I started work; now, I don’t log on until after 0900. I used to work so late that I didn’t have time for myself; now, I close all work apps at 1800 on the dot.” – Gemma, London-based PR worker

News outlets everywhere are covering something called “quiet quitting”, which has been trending on social media for several weeks.

The term doesn’t actually mean quitting a job, though. Rather it describes situations in which people show up for work but stay strictly within the boundaries of their job requirements. That means no helping out with additional tasks or checking emails outside of work hours. Being a quiet quitter is seen as rejecting the idea that work should be the central focus of life and workplace cultures where “going the extra mile” is not only expected but required.

Why is it a thing now?

Reports are that online discussions around the topic started when American TikTokker @zaidlepplin posted a video that went viral, saying, “work is not your life”. Because of TikTok’s young user base, the phenomenon is also being characterised as particular to Gen Z, a generation of people born during and after the mid-1990s.

Gen Z is seen as particularly focussed on the concept of work-life balance, and the quiet quitting movement is centred around self-preservation and “acting your wage”.

It isn’t a new phenomenon, though. People who clock in-and-out of a job while doing the bare minimum have long been found in workplaces everywhere. But, as the Jerusalem Post points out, the current trend can be seen as building off the Great Resignation. Anthony Klotz, associate professor at University College London’s School of Management, believes that the idea of quiet quitting resonates as part of increasing conversations around mental health.

Why are people quietly quitting?

High workloads, low salaries, inflation, little or no prospects for advancement, feeling disrespected and undervalued by management: all these make for a toxic cocktail that can lead to burnout. Indeed, Harvard Business Review says data indicates that quiet quitting is usually less about an employee’s willingness to work harder and more creatively and more about a manager’s inability to build a relationship with their employees.

While it’s true that some people might simply not like their jobs, there are aspects of workplace culture and leadership that can push people to cut back and hold back on their contributions to the team:

  • Biased or inappropriate behaviour by managers, including rudeness and abuse of power;
  • High expectations accompanied by little support;
  • Being expected to continue to meet targets when resources have been cut; and
  • Blurred boundaries between personal and professional lives.

People taking part in the debate point out that these dysfunctional aspects of organisational life can also be seen as quiet firing, when employers demoralise workers so that they decide to leave on their own.

How can leadership help?

Managers and leaders, especially those facing staff shortages, could view the concept less as a threat and more as an opportunity to re-engage employees. Ways to do that include:

  • Asking staff what interests them in their work and letting them prioritise their efforts accordingly.
  • Better prioritising what is essential for teams to be doing and what isn’t.
  • Aiming for open and honest dialogue about the expectations each party has of the other.
  • Making sure that people can take leave, sick days or personal days as they need.
  • Setting realistic deadlines and targets.
  • Being flexible ─ allowing employees to work remotely from home, have flexible hours or share some of their responsibilities with others.
  • Creating opportunities for employees to grow and advance within the company.

Harvard Business Review has the last word: if leaders cultivate positive relationships with staff, lead with consistency and demonstrate expertise, they create an atmosphere of trust. “When we analysed data from more than 113,000 leaders to find the top behaviour that helps effective leaders balance results with their concern for team members, the number one behaviour that helped was trust. When direct reports trusted their leader, they also assumed that the manager cared about them and was concerned about their wellbeing.”