What Is 'Quiet Quitting'—and Is It Really Just Work-Life Balance?

·6 min read
mockup of mobile phone on beach sand mountain
mockup of mobile phone on beach sand mountain

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When I first saw the headlines about the latest workplace buzzword—"quiet quitting"—I expected it was about someone who ghosts their employer or quits without saying goodbye to her colleagues. Instead, the term is being used for people who continue to come to work every day and do their job, but maybe aren't going above and beyond—they're turning off notifications and not answering work emails at 10 p.m. In other words, "quiet quitting" is simply people looking for a little more work-life balance, while actually putting in the work.

By calling it quiet quitting, employers have pushed the narrative that "above and beyond" performance is what's expected. "Quiet quitting is commonly being referred to as doing the bare minimum at work, which makes it sound like people are being lazy or entitled," says Ed Zitron, CEO of public relations firm EZPR, who has written extensively on the topic. "The bare minimum actually means working the hours you're meant to, doing the tasks you're assigned, which is otherwise known as going to and doing your job."

And framing accomplishing the tasks you were hired to do as "quitting" could paint people who aren't burning the midnight oil in a less-than-flattering light. "The term can be weaponized against workers and employees who are simply saying that their work is commensurate with what employers are giving them in terms of pay, respect, and autonomy," says Cynthia Pong, founder and CEO of career coaching firm Embrace Change. "There should be nothing wrong with that, workers and employees shouldn't be shamed or accused of not doing good work because they want to have a life."

Why "Quiet Quitting" Is Happening

While it's getting a lot of exposure now, people setting boundaries for work-life balance isn't anything groundbreaking. "It may be a TikTok phenomenon, but it is definitely not new," Pong says. "If anything, this has to do with generational values—what this generation wants and values is less of an 'all about the money' kind of thing."

But all the upheaval of the past few years may be the reason so many people are souring on going the extra mile for their companies all at once. "Quiet quitting" is the not quitting version of the Great Resignation.

"The pandemic has been the catalyst for a lot of people to recognize what's most important in their lives," Pong says. "And employees have been reeling back, looking to preserve their lives, and their family life."

With early pandemic layoffs and staffing issues due to illness and resignations, many companies have tried to make do while being understaffed. "It can be really tiring when you're constantly underresourced," Pong says. "Teams are burnt out and fatigued. And some employers have tried to guilt or shame people into going into this overwork situation, and to kind of abdicate the idea of healthy workplaces."

Returning to the office may have been the final straw for many workers—especially as Real Simple's reader survey found that very few people wanted to stop working from home. "Bosses do not trust their workers to do their jobs, and can't seem to realize how much that damages morale," Zitron says. "If I had a boss that was forcing me back to the office for no reason—which is the case in most situations where someone is being forced back—I would definitely not be going above and beyond, because they were doing the opposite for me."

It can also be considered a bit of a correction after lean-in and hustle culture ruled career-focused conversations over the past few years. "There's been a flat-out rejection of that," Pong says. "People are not going to jump through hoops—if they're still not going to get a promotion or raise, they're going to put up boundaries."

And it may just be a function of workers getting fed up. "Corporate America rarely gives transparent career progression within an organization, and they don't pay overtime," Zitron says. "Yet they expect for people to take on extra responsibilities and work harder. It's just deeply unreasonable."

How to Manage the Workplace Now

For people who feel burned out, setting healthy boundaries around work could help you course correct and find the balance you crave.

Use tech in your favor

The constant tether of the smartphone may have led to a lot of the work time creep, but you can also use it to take time back. Snooze notifications from Slack and work emails when your workday is done, and don't accept work calls after a certain hour. You can also set up automatic responses to any communication to say when you'll be available next to respond.

Take advantage of your "golden hours"

Are there times when you're really cranking on work? Make sure you block those off and make the most of them. "Optimize your daily and weekly schedules according to your golden hours," Pong says. "Golden hours are essentially our best times of day for deep thinking, creative thinking, strategic thinking. So we want to make sure we don't let work eat up all those hours with administrative tasks or things that don't rise to the level of importance on that priority list above."

And for those times in the day when your energy flags, save the mindless tasks, she says.

Unplug on vacation

Vacation is supposed to be time away from work—so make sure you get that. Use that out-of-office auto reply, and perhaps even choose a remote location where cell service and wifi is spotty to minimize interruptions. If you absolutely still have to be in touch with the office, offer very specific (and limited) "office hours"—an hour in the morning where you can answer questions or pop onto meetings.

Communicate your boundaries with your team

If you've been a 24/7 worker, you may need to reeducate your team and your supervisor about when you're available. You can simply say something like, "I won't be available after 7 p.m., but will be able to get back to you first thing in the morning,"

RELATED: What Employers Need to Do to Keep Workers Around

If you receive pushback, ask for specifics about why that's an issue. "If you hear a boss or manager complaining about quiet quitting, ask them to be very specific about what is no longer being done as a result," Zitron says. "If they tell you stuff like 'picking up the phone late at night,' laugh them out of the building."

Get your supporters (and your portfolio) in order

If your workplace isn't inspiring a lot of loyalty or engagement from you, it might be time to look for your next big thing—especially right now, when it's still a job seeker's market, Pong says. "Make sure that you are doing what you need to do—building your strategic network of mentors, sponsors, and champions, building a strong network for yourself. That way, if something goes sideways, you're not caught unawares."