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Why “Quiet Quitting” Isn’t Empowering Workers

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.

Historical trends

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”