How ‘quiet quitting’ may be a generation’s response to hustle culture

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Employers who recognise signs of ‘quiet quitting’ may help their employees and business limit its impact.

It’s not like in the movies. They’ve not put on their walking boots and stormed out. Or left in huff after throwing their resignation letter dramatically at their boss.

Instead, these employees have quietly shut down.

And they’re seemingly part of a movement. It may look like a timecard punched to the nanosecond of their working hours or casually eating lunch with no rush to return.

Nevertheless, it may feel like employees are disengaging. This is ‘quiet quitting’ – a mentality to perform no more or less than what’s contractually obligated of the role. [1]Footnote 1 And, unlike the thrash metal of hustle culture, quiet quitting’s soundtrack is that of white noise.

With more than 7 in 10 (74%) employees now simply viewing work as a way of earning enough money to be able to do the things they want in life, according to the Mastering the Age of Ambiguity report, and 1 in 4 (26%) unable to afford changing jobs, quiet quitting may seem appealing.[2]Footnote 2

Under the surface of quiet quitting lies not only employee motivation and wellbeing, but also job satisfaction and retention. Recognising and understanding the complexity of quiet quitting could help employers limit its impact across the business. [3]Footnote 3

The who and why of ‘quiet quitting’

Quiet quitting isn’t a new idea, but it’s evolving to reflect modern employee frustrations. With a nod and wink to effective collective bargaining tools like ‘work to rule’, quiet quitting calls on individual employees to review their relationship with work; in China, this is called the ‘quiet awakening.’[4]Footnote 4

And not just any individuals – it seems this is most popular with Gen Z. “There is a marked generational difference,” according to a YouGov poll of British workers “in the effort people are devoting to their jobs, with younger people notably less likely to say they are going the extra mile than their elders.” [5]Footnote 5 And although only 3% of workers describe themselves as “largely checked out” or “doing the bare minimum”, there’s something about quiet quitting that’s stirring Gen Z as they “are the most likely to embrace the trend.”[5]Footnote 5

Based also in a movement in China called ‘Tang Ping’ (lying flat), which started in April 2021, quiet quitting rejects societal pressure to overwork at the cost of mental health and personal well-being.[4]Footnote 4

At its core, quiet quitting is a rejection of hustle culture. If hustle culture largely defined our collective working lives for decades, then quiet quitting may be jarring to both employers and businesses. [3]Footnote 3 If the baseline expectations were to put work above all else, as explored in our article on ‘hustle culture’, then it’s no wonder quiet quitting may be seen as ‘giving up’ rather than strategic disengagement.[4]Footnote 4

Quiet quitting is seemingly the pendulum swinging away from an aggressive ‘grind’ mentality to a more passive, middle space in employees’ relationship with work.[2]Footnote 2

The now of ‘quiet quitting’

Our Age of Ambiguity findings show that 1 in 4 (23%) people don’t have enough time to look for a new job and more than 2 in 5 (42%) are staying in their current jobs because of concerns over the economy and job security. [2]Footnote 2 For employers, the challenge is to recognise the difference between employees who are reflecting on unhealthy work practices and shifting their behaviour towards wellness versus those who are consistently underperforming.

“We should be careful with how we’re thinking about quiet quitting,” says Debbie Bullock, Wellbeing Lead and Interim Head of DEI Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Aviva. “It’s just as much about employer expectations as it’s about employee behaviour. An employee taking full advantage of their lunch breaks or choosing to spend time with family, friends or pursue interests outside working hours should be encouraged.”

“Ultimately,” says Debbie,  “the question is whether an employee is fulfilling their job duties in their working hours and safeguarding their mental wellness with healthy, work-appropriate boundaries. And if an employee is struggling to do so, an employer has a chance to provide guidance and support. Doing the bare minimum may not, after all, help the employee with their long-term career progression or help the business.”

To help swing the pendulum towards productivity based on wellbeing, employers may think about applying these two strategies.

Question and reflect – as quiet quitting typically revolves around employee behaviour, specifically motivation, taking a moment to ask questions and (quietly) reflect may be a powerful first step.

  1. How do we tell the difference between quiet quitters and underperformers? An employee may be meeting their targets and job role expectations, but they’re unwilling to go beyond this. They’re prioritising their mental and physical wellbeing by creating healthy boundaries at work. Whether they’ve always done so, or the change is in response to unhealthy practices, it’s important to encourage performance based on reasonable expectations. In contrast, an employee who isn’t meeting their targets and has ‘checked out’ may either not know how to communicate their needs or feels like their concerns won’t be addressed.
  2. How well do we address hustle culture and promote wellness culture? As quiet quitting is a response to ‘grind’ mentality, reviewing workplace policies is fundamental. And not just the ones on paper, but the sneaky ones that are more ‘felt’ than found in a document – like presenteeism or working despite illness.

Empathise and educate Feeling under-valued and over-worked, and nervous about socioeconomic realities, employees may feel like a rock meeting a hard place. So, they stay put physically but check out mentally. This may be more about protecting themselves, mentally and emotionally, from feeling overwhelmed. Recognising that employees’ altruism, or goodwill at the expense of themselves, has a limit may shift workplace expectations.

Also, helping employees understand the realities of quiet quitting may encourage better informed decisions. An employee who doesn’t look for extra opportunities or training, doesn’t interact with business leaders and only meets bare minimum expectations may not, realistically, accelerate past their peers financially or professionally. [6]Footnote 6

The point is that employees who are quietly quitting may just be finding their way back (mentally, emotionally, physically) from being consistently overwhelmed. And although one generation may have largely defined their relationship with work through aggressive ‘grind’ mentality, Gen Z is responding with a more passive “I’d really rather not, thank you”. For employers, being empathetic, creating a psychologically safe working environment and a safe space for honest discussion could help the pendulum swing toward workplace wellbeing.

Helping the pendulum swing

There are three cost effective ways employers can navigate quiet quitting:

  1. Encourage employee voice – whether through anonymous surveys or dedicated working groups focused on wellbeing, employees should have a safe space to voice their views. This also means reviewing the business culture to improve the psychological safety employees feel at work.
  2. Regular chats with employees – having informal chats, not necessarily about work, may help build stronger relationships and give insight into challenges (or achievements) outside of their role. Genuinely connecting and caring about employees isn’t just the right thing to do, it builds trust.
  3. Schedule career development chats – As Gen Z employees may be focused on their development and desire for quick progression, having career development conversations is important. Giving regular feedback to young employees, with a focus on positivity, and encouraging them to find a “sense of meaning” at work may be invaluable to helping them feel seen and heard.[7]Footnote 7

To explore more about employee perspectives on life and work, download the Mastering the Age of Ambiguity report.

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