by Marnie Dobson Zimmerman, PhD
Why did the “Great Engagement Project” backfire and become “Quiet Quitting”?
Quiet Quitting — the new buzzword in the world of workplace policy.
The term made me thrilled and curious the first time I heard it. “Quiet Quitting” reportedly went viral after a TikTok video. @zkchillin (#workreform) said he learned about “Quiet Quitting” as the decision to “quit going above and beyond at work” — not actually quitting.
“You continue doing your work duties, but without subscribing to the “hustle culture mentality,” he said. This simple statement of what many of us do already, has evoked a firestorm of commentary from other workers, managers, business consultants, and C-suite executives. But Quiet Quitting may not be an option for all workers. For millions of hourly wage essential workers, every hour and task may be closely monitored. Quiet quitting in some jobs (drivers, nurses, air traffic controllers) may even result in loss of life!
Nevertheless, thousands of white collar and “knowledge” workers responded they are doing what the term Quiet Quitting seems to describe — doing their job and leaving it behind at the end of the day so they can go about their lives. Reactions from corporate executives and media consultants have been swift and angry. Ariana Huffington decided it was a terrible term, that quiet quitting at your job was quiet quitting on your life. Others saw it as indicative of a landslide of “laziness” and that “quiet quitters” ought to watch out for being “quietly fired.”
…if we’re going to accuse workers of quiet quitting, we should also acknowledge the phenomenon of “quiet firing,” in which employers avoid providing all but the bare legal minimum, possibly with the aim of getting unwanted employees to quit.
So why is this prosaic term kicking off such a controversy now? For several important reasons which are all related.
What more effective way than a global pandemic to transform the way we work and live? In March 2020, millions of workers found themselves working “remotely” from home as a result of COVID-19. Millions more found themselves out of work — especially workers in hospitality, retail, personal service, child care and domestic work (and some never went back). At the same time, millions of essential workers continued to go to front-facing workplaces, and were more likely to be exposed to COVID-19, staffing shortages, and higher job stressors as a result.
Whether working remotely, in-person or unemployed, most American workers experienced fundamental shifts in their working conditions. Teachers, healthcare workers, food service workers, and grocery workers among others, reported their jobs became more grueling, facing hostile parents, patients and a general public that were closer to the edge than ever. We know the pandemic has resulted in a growing mental health crisis and greater levels of burnout. It really should be no surprise then that many working people (those that can), may be “pulling back” and conserving energy at work.
Worker Shortages = Worker Power
Along with “Quiet Quitting,” there has been actual quitting as workers leave jobs (and entire industries) for better pay or better working conditions. In late 2021, “The Great Resignation” found quit rates reaching a 20 year high.
Many workers were retiring early, while others changed jobs or industries because they had chronically stressful jobs, were treated disrespectfully, and experienced a lack of advancement opportunity–creating worker shortages. For some who couldn’t leave their job, facing ever more demanding and stressful tasks because of the shortages, maybe there was nothing left to prevent burnout but “Quiet Quitting.”
Worker shortages have turned into worker power. For millions of remote workers, having had a taste of work-life balance, greater flexibility, and no commuting, there has been a general reluctance to return to the office. Nearly two-thirds of workers said they would look for a new job if their employer required them to return to the office full-time.
Quiet Quitting is a way of never going back to the pre-pandemic hustle mentality of excessive “engagement.” Maybe workers who are “quiet quitting” know they can finally “just do their jobs” because they are not readily replaceable in an economy lurching closer to “full employment” by 2024.”
Quiet Quitting vs. Engagement
We actually know very little about the prevalence of “quiet quitting,” partly because no one can agree on how to define it. A recent Gallup survey of 15,000 full-time and part-time workers found:
About half of US workers could be described as “quiet quitters.”
But Gallup defines “quiet quitters” as all those who are not actively engaged (32%) and also not actively disengaged (18%).
“Engagement” has become a fully entrenched buzzword over the last 30 years in Corporate America, since it was coined by Professor William Kahn in his 1990 paper. It is not well defined either. In short, engagement is the idea that if workers think the company cares about them, and they find their work meaningful, then they will be more productive.
Yet another nifty way for corporations to squeeze more productivity out of people. How do you make people go “above and beyond”? You need to make “engagement” a corporate and worker value. And so, a billion-dollar consulting industry evolved (including Gallup) to routinely survey workforces to measure engagement, and to train corporations on how to get employees engaged. Is it any wonder managers and corporate executives are feeling slighted by the “quiet quitters”? The real question is why is “just” doing your job so enraging?
The U.S. economic model is fundamentally built on growth. Companies must show shareholders they are able to constantly increase profits. One way in which the U.S. economy has continued to grow so expansively has been the “doing more with less” ethos.
Corporate America in the last 30–40 years has come up with more and more “efficiencies.” When it comes to labor, the downsizing and restructuring of the 1980s evolved into lean production staffing models — not just in the private sector but also in the public sector with “New Public Management.” Workers who remain after “layoffs and lean” are being exposed to even more pressure for efficiency and ever-increasing production standards. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), performance metrics, and electronic monitoring are prevalent now in jobs as diverse as delivery & warehousing, Big Tech and platform work, but also in professions such as education and health care. And managers are not immune to the productivity squeeze; Gallup reports decreasing levels of “engagement” from the managerial occupations in recent years.
Along with this push for greater productivity has come epidemic rates of burnout. Burnout according to the World Health Organization’s definition is an occupation-related disorder. Generally, 30% of the U.S. workforce reports a high level of exhaustion — the key component of burnout. Some studies suggest upwards of 50% burnout among nurses, physicians and teachers. In a recent AMA report, 63% of physicians reported some element of burnout, an all time high. Perhaps most importantly, the AMA report states:
burnout isn’t due to a resiliency deficit — it’s a system issue.
Healthy Work: An Antidote?
At first glance, “Quiet Quitting” has provoked the corporate world to blame the victims — overworked Americans, workers who want to be family members or have a personal life and hold down a job. This is not a new phenomenon for many workers, who suffer from work-related mental and physical health problems, and who can’t go “above and beyond.”
The “Great Engagement Project” has to be dismantled if the corporate world wants to address the concerns raised by “Quiet Quitting.” The human body and mind have real biological and psychological limits. We have reached those limits as a society, as shown by decreasing life expectancy and a mental health crisis.
It is time to acknowledge that workers have limits and that more and more efforts by companies to increase productivity for greater profits leads ultimately to more and more illness. We need to replace excessive “engagement” with healthy work — which means listening respectfully and responsively to the voices of employees, including protecting workers’ rights to organize, or working together in labor-management partnerships to implement reasonable workloads, flexible family-friendly policies, fair pay/living wages, and to combat abuse and retaliation in all its forms.
Sustainable, healthy workplaces must replace the corporate ethos of productivity at all costs.
*This article was commissioned as part of the Healthy Work Campaign, which will be hosting “Unpacking Quiet Quitting”, a virtual panel discussion on September 30th, 2022. To learn more about healthy work and obtain free resources, visit https://healthywork.org.
Dr. Marnie Dobson is the Director of the Healthy Work Campaign, as well as the Associate Director of the Center for Social Epidemiology. She is also an Assistant Adjunct Professor at the University of California, Irvine Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH) where, for the last 17 years, she has been involved in work stress research, including qualitative, participatory methods, enhancing epidemiological studies and intervention development with several blue-collar working populations including firefighters and urban transit operators. She continues to teach occupational health classes at UCI, as well as publish academic articles and book chapters and present at scientific conferences. (LinkedIn, Twitter)
We would like to acknowledge the contributions made to this article by our colleagues: