Updated: Dec 30, 2022
Britain’s new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, touched a nerve when she stated, in an audio recording leaked during the Conservative leadership race, that British workers need “more graft”. She will no doubt be disappointed by the current labour market trend that is “quiet quitting”.The term itself is somewhat a misnomer; instead of workers leaving their jobs, “quiet quitting” involves, amongst other things, workers making the conscious choice to reject the paradigm that work ought to be the focus of one’s life.
Critics see this definition as a thinly veiled justification for shirking duties; rather than a new phenomenon, they view ‘quiet quitting’ as the age-old practice of lazy employees hoping to coast on the efforts of others, whilst still being able to take home a pay cheque at the end of the day (The Wall Street Journal, 2022).
Others criticise the movement for implying a fictitious and harmful norm where “people have to perform extra, often undesirable tasks outside of their job description, and where not doing that additional work is considered a form of “quitting” your job.” (Bero, 2022) Indeed, to dismiss the movement as the capricious behaviour of lazy employees would be a careless oversight; the widespread nature of “quiet quitting” speaks volumes about a broader cultural dissatisfaction with work and should, for reasons we will explore later, act as a warning to managers and firms.
The causes of “quiet quitting”
For some, numerous Covid-19 lockdowns created a permanent shift in working habits to working from home, prompting a rethink of personal priorities. Some “quiet quitters” cite a want to prioritise time spent with family or to develop their own interests outside of work (Masterson, 2022). Choosing not to go ‘above and beyond’ what is expected of them allows these workers a degree of autonomy, letting them compartmentalise their work and personal lives.
Sceptics suggest that behaving in this way limits opportunities for career progression but, for this category of workers, this argument misses the point; choosing not to dedicate all waking time to work is a direct rejection of hustle culture. Perhaps the constant pressure to be productive and the tendency to compare success to others via social media during lockdown periods resulted in a decisive abnegation of materialistic values - these workers no longer seek nor wish to ascend through the ranks at work.
For others, the reasons for “quiet quitting” tell a far more disquieting story. A combination of a lack of recognition, growth, purpose and camaraderie in the workplace explain their disengagement from their jobs (Mery, 2019). The single most important factor that underlies all of these is poor management - data collected for the Harvard Business Review shows that the least effective managers (as rated by their ability to “Balance getting results with a concern for others’ needs”) have 3 to 4 times as many workers who are “quiet quitters” (Folkman & Zenger, 2022). This is an interesting revelation given most opposition to “quiet quitting” comes from managers. It is far easier for management to chastise staff for their perceived laziness than to admit their role in creating their plight and taking action to resolve it.
Whilst Covid-19 may have encouraged workers to silently protest against poor management, this new backlash in the form of quiet quitting is a consequence of decades of workers feeling unheard.
In the UK, Thatcher’s reforms to unionised labour resulted in the dearth of trade unions and created the biggest fetter on worker demands. Staff organised under an effective union leadership could present demands to employers and would, more often than not, be taken seriously. That is not to say trade unions were bastions of positive worker empowerment; unions could only be taken seriously as united workers had the capability to bring the country to a grinding halt, as demonstrated in the 1970s. Though the demands of employees need to be taken seriously, changing the dynamic between workers and managers needs to be on the basis of mutual respect and agreement, not threats.
Whether the destruction of trade unions was a necessary evil is an irrelevant and moot point; the fact remains that in the effort to enhance competitiveness and the flexibility of labour, workers were tossed aside and made aphonic, simply becoming another input into the production process.
Today, a new generation of workers are contending with the legacy of neo-liberalism and anti-union laws in the only way they feel able to - by disengaging and doing the bare minimum.
A warning to managers
With only 9% of workers in the UK feeling engaged at work (Webbler, 2022), productivity has flatlined with the OBR revealing in 2017 that their previous estimation for growth in UK productivity (1.6% in 5 years) was an overestimate and that productivity would be unlikely to grow in the following 5 years (Partington & Inman, 2017). A 2020 study by Gallup found that firms with demotivated and disengaged employees received 23% lower profits compared with companies with engaged employees (Harter, Schmidt, Agrawal, & al, 2020). These figures should act as a stark warning for firms and managers to act if they wish to improve their bottom line.
A note of caution for “quiet quitters”
It is not just firms who need to re-evaluate this trend. Despite the valid reasons for “quiet quitting”, workers need to be wary that the ability to slack off at work without concern for job security is likely to be untenable in the longer-term. Workers’ current power to implement boundaries at work will begin to erode as the labour market loosens and this trend will only be expedited as central banks take measures to alleviate inflationary pressures. Far from empowering workers, employers are the ones with the upper hand; they can choose to lay off those who are “quiet quitting”.
Additionally, “quiet quitting” may have a detrimental effect on feelings of personal fulfilment. For some, dedicating more effort to working gives the job value and disengaging in this way would risk losing their sense of purpose. Studies have shown that low motivation and engagement at work can result in higher levels of depression amongst workers (Stokes, 2022) and this will further be compounded as “quiet quitting” risks undermining good relationships with other colleagues.
Equally, it is important to acknowledge that some workers are unable to exercise the liberty of quiet quitting. Women, for example, are disproportionately burdened with unpaid, ‘Non-promotable Tasks’ (NPTs) in the workplace, including planning office parties and taking notes at meetings. A refusal to complete these (undeniably important) tasks due to their being ‘extras’ may result in workers being fired (Babcock, Peysa, Vesterlund, & Weingart, 2022). Low-income workers in unskilled professions will also struggle to implement boundaries at work - their situation of financial precarity means that the cost of being fired is too great.
A disparity in ability to “quiet quit” signifies that this is not an empowerment for the labour force as a whole, simply a self- serving action. If employees want to be taken seriously, action needs to be collective and change needs to happen for all.
For reasons outlined above, “quiet quitting” is unlikely to be a long-term panacea for the discontent felt by workers. For the culture of dissatisfaction to end, managers must pay heed to workers’ needs. In his book ‘Leaders eat last’, Simon Sinek proposes that managers prioritise their subordinates’ needs ahead of immediate profits to create a “circle of safety” i.e an environment in which workers feel supported by their managers and co-workers. This creates and empathetic relationship with these workers, reassuring them that they are seen as people – not inputs. As a result, workers become more productive and willing to go the extra mile as they are confident in the knowledge that their managers are invested in their success in addition to the success of the business (Sinek, 2014).
Workers control the most important input into the production process, but this knowledge is difficult to reconcile with the current structure of management across many countries in the West where workers continue to have no representation on most corporate boards and no say in decisions concerning them. For some industries, true worker power would entail giving employees a say in business operations, whether this be through a system of co-determination (as in Germany) which gives workers representation on corporate boards or through allowing workers to have seats on boards (as in Denmark, Austria and Norway – all countries with some of the happiest workers in the world (Coker, 2021)).
On an individual level, the decision to “quiet quit” should not be taken lightly. Before making this commitment, individuals must consider how fulfilling it will feel to do the bare minimum and to weigh up other personal values. Where possible, communication with management about workplace boundaries is key.
For those who are able, a more sustainable alternative would be to switch careers. Given that the average person spends 1/3 of their lives working (Reference, 2020), it is crucial for an individual to devote time to searching for meaningful work in workplaces they will feel heard, valued and respected.
Babcock, L., Peysa, B., Vesterlund, L., & Weingart, L. (2022, April 26). Are You Taking on Too Many Non-Promotable Tasks? Retrieved from Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2022/04/are-you-taking-on-too-many-non-promotable-tasks
Bero, T. (2022, September 8). ‘Quiet quitting?’ Everything about this so-called trend is nonsense. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/sep/08/quiet-quitting-not-real-work-culture
Coker, D. (2021, November 27). Here Are Countries With The Happiest Workers. Retrieved from The HR Digest: https://www.thehrdigest.com/here-are-countries-with-the-happiest-workers/
Folkman, J., & Zenger, J. (2022, August 31). Quiet Quitting Is About Bad Bosses, Not Bad Employees. Retrieved from Havard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2022/08/quiet-quitting-is-about-bad-bosses-not-bad-employees
Harter, J. K., Schmidt, F. L., Agrawal, S., & al, e. (2020, October). The Relationship Between Engagement at Work and Organizational Outcomes. Retrieved from Gallup: https://hbr.org/2022/04/are-you-taking-on-too-many-non-promotable-tasks
Masterson, V. (2022, September 2). What is quiet quitting? Retrieved from World Economic Forum: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/09/tiktok-quiet-quitting-explained/
Mery, K. (2019, December 10). What Makes a Great Employee Disengage? 5 Enemies of Engagement to Avoid. Retrieved from FOND: https://www.fond.co/blog/what-makes-a-great-employee-disengage/
Partington, R., & Inman, P. (2017, October 10). UK productivity estimates must be 'significantly' lowered, admits OBR. The Guardian.
Reference. (2020, March 24). What Percentage of Our Lives Are Spent Working? Retrieved from Reference: https://www.reference.com/world-view/percentage-lives-spent-working-599e3f7fb2c88fca
Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders Eat Last. PneguinRandomHouse.
Stokes, V. (2022, August 29). Is ‘Quiet Quitting’ Really Good for Your Health? What Experts Think. Retrieved from healthline: https://www.healthline.com/health-news/is-quiet-quitting-really-good-for-your-health-what-experts-think
The Wall Street Journal. (2022, August 25). The Backlash Against Quiet Quitting Is Getting Loud. The Wall Street Journal.
Webbler, A. (2022, June 14). UK among worst in Europe for employee engagement. Retrieved from Personnel Today: https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/employee-engagement-levels-uk-gallup report/#:~:text=Employee%20engagement%20levels%20in%20the,the%20European%20average%20of%2014%25.