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‘Quiet quitting’ isn’t about laziness, it’s about meaning

If you have a Wi-Fi connection and a social media account, chances are you’ve seen someone speaking about “quiet quitting.” “You’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond,” says Zaid Khan in his now-viral TikTok video that seemingly set this discourse in motion. “You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle-culture mentality that work has to be your life. The reality is it’s not, and your worth as a person is not defined by your labor.”

“You’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond,” says Zaid Khan in his now-viral TikTok video that seemingly set this discourse in motion. “You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle-culture mentality that work has to be your life. The reality is it’s not, and your worth as a person is not defined by your labor.”

Since the video first made its rounds, the definition has taken on various forms.

For some, it’s come to mean mentally checking out from work and doing the bare minimum to get by. For others, it’s about not accepting additional work without additional pay. Many want to untether their careers from their identities. And others are simply happy to have a platform to speak about burnout, blurred work-life boundaries, and unfair expectations. 

Naturally, there’s been pushback, with opinion pieces calling quiet quitters lazy and cowardly or, at the very least, shooting themselves in the foot. Some are confused by the jargon altogether, claiming quiet quitting sounds a lot like just doing your job.

But with Gallup finding employee engagement in the U.S. is declining for the first time in a decade — dropping from 36% engaged employees in 2020 to 34% in 2021, is this trend just the tip of the iceberg?

How does burnout manifest in corporate workers?

Burnout has been an important part of the quiet quitting discourse. Hundreds of stories discuss long hours, work-life balance struggles, and declining mental health.

It’s unclear when expectations for knowledge workers shifted from an actual 40-hour commitment to something much greater, but the ever-present connectedness that technology creates has impacted this significantly. Work is no longer tied to your desk — it can be done from home, on your phone at your kid’s sports game, or in the car while you drive. You can now even be fully connected to Wi-Fi when traveling by plane.

Without the physical boundary of an office, it’s less implied when we should start and stop work. And with colleagues across the world working in different time zones, notifications come through at any time of the day or night.

But just because you can work doesn’t always mean you should.

I see quiet quitting as an attempt to set boundaries, albeit quietly. But burnout can go far beyond just the physical, and I believe the true source of disengagement is bigger than just long hours.

Psychologists say there are three types of burnout: overload, under-challenge, and neglect. Overload, as the name suggests, covers overworking and feeling overwhelmed by too much at once. Under-challenge describes feeling unenthusiastic about what needs to be done. It could be that you’re doing too many low-level tasks or have too much downtime without being challenged. Neglect burnout is more focused on failure and not having the energy or confidence to keep going with your task load.

While I see all three types at work in quiet quitters, there’s something about human behavior professor Melody Wilding’s definition of under-challenge burnout that makes me pause. She describes it as “not feeling appreciated, boredom, and a lack of learning opportunities.”

Wilding goes on to say: “Because these people find no passion or enjoyment in their work, they cope by distancing themselves from their job. This indifference leads to cynicism, avoidance of responsibility, and overall disengagement.”

This description, to me, points to both the cause and definition of quiet quitting all at once. 

It isn’t about laziness at all, but about meaning.

Creating and maintaining meaningful roles within your organization

Don’t worry: you’re not about to lose your team to the nonprofit sector. All roles and means of contribution are meaningful; it’s simply a matter of ensuring the experience of these roles shows the reality of that.

Define your values 

One way employees can become disengaged is when the mission and values of a company are unclear. More so when what is on the posters and the landing pages doesn’t match their experience. Values are not supposed to be aspirational rhetoric but a true measure of the heart of an organization. Spending the time to meaningfully uncover this and communicate it well will help current employees connect with the mission and attract like-minded future employees. There’s no point describing your values as community-focused if you don’t follow through with community support. This only leads to disillusionment from your team as well as your customers.

Set expectations early and revisit them often 

When hiring for a role, you should clearly understand the scope of the position and whether it will fall outside of standard work hours. For many global companies, there will be an expectation of early or late meetings to account for time zone differences. These expectations should be communicated in job listings as well as the interview and subsequent onboarding process.

If these expectations are project-based or subject to change throughout the year, take the time to address them as needed. Providing clear parameters and pathways of discussion give employees the space to communicate if this is becoming an issue for them.

Create clear pathways for growth and mentorship 

A big part of job satisfaction comes from feeling there is a path for advancement. Setting clear and measurable goals — and doing so in a way that pegs them to the vision and longer-term outputs of the organization — makes the work enjoyable and engaging. When the mission is fuzzier, advancement becomes more arbitrary, which can be a morale killer.

Setting measurable goals not only breaks down company objectives into smaller, more achievable actions but also means each team member can measure their contribution to their team and the organization at large — two things that are harder to do in distributed teams.

Professional development and mentorship can also help employees grow and feel more engaged with your company.

Communicate your team’s value 

While providing meaning in a career is not only about money, sometimes it is, in fact, about money. When you aren’t compensating fairly, it communicates how you see your employees. Combine this with a less-than-ideal company culture, and they are more likely to jump ship.

Of course, compensation isn’t the only way to communicate value. Benefits like unlimited PTO, parental leave, subsidized healthcare, or travel credits are some additional examples of how you show trust and value to your team.

You can also communicate your team’s value in simple ways like prioritizing positive feedback, publicly acknowledging exceptional work, or even offering spot bonuses.

Flexibility 

Finally, employees feel most valued when they are trusted to get work done on their terms. This could look like flexibility in location, work hours, or how they design their workday. When teams are judged by their outcomes rather than hours in the office, it means they have more freedom to work when they’re most productive and break when they need to, which could negate the need for quiet quitting altogether.

Managing burnout in today’s workplace

The quiet quitting trend, like others under different names, will eventually run its course, but the core messaging is clear. Our teams are burned out, not just from overwork or blurry work-life boundaries but from lack of purpose. In a time when we’re redefining everything from how we work to where that work happens, we have an opportunity to look at the reasons why we work as well. While meaning is personal, there are universal elements we all desire, such as achievable goals, clear boundaries, and a sense of worth and belonging. If we can structure our teams around these core needs, there will be no need for quitting, quietly or otherwise.

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