Written by Amy Beecham
A wave of viral TikToks are inspiring employees to “quietly quit” their jobs. But what does it mean, and can it actually help you protect your mental health?
In a society where your dedication to work is placed on a pedestal, most of us have gone above and beyond our job description at some point – from answering emails after hours to taking on extra responsibilities without compensation. While we may have inwardly grumbled at the time, most of us won’t have really considered the impact the extra load was having on our wellbeing. That’s just life, right? Well, maybe not.
A viral new TikTok trend is encouraging people to stand firm on their workplace boundaries in a bid to reduce employee burnout and improve their quality of life – and it goes by the name of ‘quiet quitting’. As TikToker @zkchillin explains in a video viewed more than 2.9 million times, quiet quitting refers to the act of “not outright quitting your job, but quitting the idea of going above and beyond at work…You’re still performing your duties but are no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life. The reality is that it’s not and your worth as a person is not defined by your labour.”
It’s little surprise this trend has emerged now. A new survey by LifeWorks reveals that half of Brits claim that work is their primary source of stress, and a 2022 Gallup study found that just 15% of employees feel engaged and motivated at work. While Stylist’s own recent ambition survey revealed that while 48% of respondents believe work “has its place, but it’s not [their] whole life”, 51% agreed they would like to feel more driven.
“The trend is part of a seismic shift in how people view work post-pandemic,” explains Paula Allen, global leader and senior vice-president of research and total wellbeing at LifeWorks. In this sense, it feels like the second phase of The Great Resignation we first saw in 2021. Research by software provider CIPHR revealed that one in three people have retrained for a new career or changed the industry they work in in the last 18 months, but amid a cost of living crisis, quiet quitting is seemingly an effort to find small ways of reducing the stress of our jobs when we can so many can no longer afford to leave outright.
To Allen, meanwhile the trend is an accidental by-product of the lack of clear work-life boundaries during lockdown, and a reduced emotional investment in our work emphasises the resistance to previous expectations, such as working in an office full-time or staying late to catch up. “Often it was out of fear of not meeting the job’s requirements or even out of boredom, many people worked almost constantly and are now feeling the impact. This situation was extreme, and whenever we hit one extreme, the pendulum ultimately swings strongly in the other direction,” she says.
As such, the response to feelings of overwork, burnout and stress may be met with the hard boundaries of quiet quitting. But according to workplace psychologist Dr Audrey Tang, this change of mindset is long overdue. The data backs this up: LifeWorks Mental Health Index found that 48% of employees already report having too much to do in their working day, and over one quarter (26%) are regularly contacted after work by their managers and co-workers.
“Quiet quitting sets much-needed boundaries, which is never a bad thing,” she tells Stylist. “I’d argue that if you are doing what your job description requires of you (which formed part of your contract and thus commitment), why would you be doing more in the first place? However, the situation is often a little more complex.” As Dr Tang suggests, it’s crucial to make a distinction between those who choose to work above their job description (and have the time and energy to do so), and those who feel it is the norm within their organisations to go above and beyond without compensation. What’s more, she stresses the importance of not confusing quiet quitting with laziness or being deliberately obtuse.
The trend as whole has been positioned as everything from liberating to lazy – and it’s easy to see why. Surely, you could say, it’s just slacking off from your responsibilities and burdening your colleagues instead? And who exactly is left to pick up the load if everyone is reducing their overtime? The people-pleasers among us, meanwhile, will know all too well just how hard it is to say no when your boss asks for “just one quick favour…”
“While employees may seek to regain balance by quiet quitting, the danger is two-fold,” suggests Allen. “First, it may not be sufficient to help those employees who are already feeling burnout and in need of mental health support. Secondly, human beings need to have a sense of accomplishment, and the sense of accomplishment supports mental wellbeing. While boundaries and balance are essential, if those boundaries are taken to mean minimum effort, the opportunity for innovation and growth within clear boundaries may be compromised.”
Dr Tang also suggests that it should not be up to employees alone to deal with the stresses and strains of a job. “Yes, there are things that individuals can do,” she explains, “and setting boundaries is part of that, as well as asking for help or other support if needed; but the organisation plays a crucial role in maintaining wellbeing.”
Naturally, no job description is set in stone. With busy periods, sudden personnel changes and company adaptations, there may be short term additional responsibilities that we have to take on. However, if these become long-term or explicit role changes, Dr Tang suggests raising the point with your manager as a first port of call. Allen, meanwhile, says that managers should be supporting flexible working in order to help reduce the feelings of overwhelm that could lead to quiet quitting.
“The first thing for a manager to do when they notice a change in an employee’s behaviour change is to have a conversation. The most important thing is to show that you are concerned, because you want the best for the employee,” she adds. “This can help set the stage for an honest recognition of the situation and prevent the denial and irritation that may come if the employee feels that your concerns are vague and unfounded. Then, ask how you can help. It might mean reorganising work demands for a period of time or it could result in positive problem solving about how work is done on an ongoing basis.”
While there’s certainly a convincing argument for reclaiming your time from a demanding job, it’s clear that not all burnout can be resolved by quiet quitting, or even changing jobs at all. As Dr Tang asserts: “ I don’t think quiet quitting is the solution to the question of wellbeing, but being able to change a toxic environment to one of psychological safety is crucial.” We hear that.
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