Quiet quitting is a rebellion against hustle culture. Here’s how to tell if you’re doing it.
It may be the buzzword of 2022, but the origins of “quiet quitting” trace back to the start of COVID-19 in early 2020. The pandemic has impacted Americans’ daily lives in countless ways, including where and how they work. Many office workers—especially those with recession-proof careers—initially had the ability to work from home, and they considered it a silver lining during the pandemic. But others didn’t fare as well.
“Working remotely over the last two years has caused many to experience emotional and physical distress, which sometimes leads to feeling disconnected socially, especially in their day-to-day routine,” says Michelle Hay, global chief people officer at Sedgwick, a third-party claims administrator that provides workplace advising for 78 of the Fortune 100 companies.
When employees feel disconnected from their colleagues and workplace, Hay says, they don’t want to put any additional effort into their jobs. This leads to unengaged employees—and a phenomenon known as quiet quitting, she tells Reader’s Digest. “This trend is more than just setting boundaries: It speaks to the tired and frustrated feeling that many are experiencing on the tail end of the pandemic,” she says. “People are reassessing their priorities.”
In fact, you may be one of them. Though you may not be ready to quit your day job, you may have already started engaging in quiet quitting without realizing it. Here are some of the hidden signs.
What does quiet quitting mean?
Quiet quitting is when an employee decides “to intentionally withhold some aspect of their typical job performance,” according to Gena Cox, PhD, an organizational psychologist and executive coach. More specifically, in her view, it’s a response to a person’s perception that their employer is taking advantage of them.
“Quiet quitting is an employee power move—an effort to regain or retain their self-respect when they feel a psychological threat in the workplace from those who make the rules,” Cox says. “Quiet-quitting employees know they have other options—they could quit or keep performing—but they choose to stay and withhold.”
Though the precise origin of “quiet quitting” is unknown, the phrase has been making the rounds on social media following a now-viral TikTok video from Zaid Khan, a 24-year-old engineer in New York who discussed the topic on July 25, 2022. From there, an Aug. 12 article in the Wall Street Journal took quiet quitting mainstream, introducing the concept to an even wider audience.
It’s now seen as a way to push back against modern workaholism.
No, it’s not doing just the bare minimum
While there’s no official definition of quiet quitting, as the term has gained momentum it has, in some cases, been oversimplified. For instance, a common misconception is that quiet quitting simply refers to doing the bare minimum at work. But in reality, it’s more nuanced than that and can be more accurately described as an employee ceasing to go above and beyond their duties.
“Quiet quitting is about a change in engagement,” says Danielle Joworski, a career coach who primarily works with women entrepreneurs. “A misconception about quiet quitting is that it’s [only] about working less or the bare minimum, when it can also be about engaging less or engaging the minimum.”
No, it’s not a sign of laziness
Ira Wolfe, president of employee recruitment firm Success Performance Solutions, says that along with disengagement, quiet quitting is an inability to thrive in a role and organization.
“While employers and pundits cry ‘laziness’ and lack of work ethic, many employees who quiet quit hold down multiple jobs or other obligations, such as pursuing a degree or caregiving,” he says. “This is hardly a sign of laziness or quitting in the conventional sense of an employment contract.”
Yes, it’s a response to hustle culture
Another misconception is that quiet quitters are leaving their jobs, says Adam Lyons, CEO and founder of The Smart Blueprint, a firm that works with owners to scale up their small businesses. But they’re not actually quitting. They’re just quitting the idea of doing endless hours of extra work, no longer sacrificing their personal lives to put in 11 hours a day at the office.
“They’re drawing lines, setting boundaries and saying ‘no,’” he says. “In fact, you could be quiet quitting without even knowing it. This cultural rebellion against hustle culture is not a fluke or a flash in the pan. It’s employees finally pushing back, saying ‘enough is enough.’”
Is quiet quitting the same as burnout?
Quiet quitting is not the same as burnout. “Burnout, defined as a psychological reaction to unmanaged or unmanageable workplace stress, is an involuntary response,” Cox explains. “Quiet quitting is voluntary and intentional.”
Because burnout leaves employees feeling depleted and exhausted, it has the potential to place some mental distance between them and their job or make them feel cynical, says Rachel Kanarowski, founder of Year of Living Better, a consulting group focused on addressing systems-based stress in the workplace. Quiet quitting, on the other hand, “is a proactive step toward creating healthy mental distance between people and toxic leaders,” she says.
While quiet quitting and feeling burned out are different, in some cases, burnout can lead to quiet quitting, according to Charles Catania, principal of Branding with Chuck, a firm providing executive branding and career development services to clients. “This might play out in an employee’s refusal to answer urgent emails after 5 p.m., for example, or any number of other situations where the employee would have previously prioritized work over their personal life,” he says.
Is quiet quitting bad?
What motivates quiet quitting largely depends on the individual employee, Catania says. “During the pandemic, some people realized how much of their families they were missing out on by participating in their nine-to-five, which invariably intruded on their lives well past the time they clocked out,” he explains. “Those people are trying to redefine their work-life balance. Others are simply tired. It could be pandemic-related burnout, or they could simply be ready to check out from their current employer.”
A lot also comes down to how, exactly, an employee engages in quiet quitting. For example, setting boundaries at work can be healthy, but showing blatant disregard for your job, company or team is unlikely to be viewed in a positive light in any context.
In other cases, employers and employees may perceive the same situation in different ways. “The employee is thinking of this as a way to restore equilibrium, while the employer may be thinking of this as employees taking something away that the organization deserves to receive,” Cox explains.
The upside of quiet quitting
And while most employers would likely see quiet quitting as something negative, Joworski says there’s a way to minimize its impact. “From my perspective, quiet quitting is a sign of employees taking a deeper look at their life and work relationships and no longer believing in what they used to, to justify working in a particular manner,” she explains. “If possible, employees can communicate the shift in their realization or even ask for help in navigating how to best align [their] personal needs with the needs of the company.”
Separate from its impact on an individual employee, the phenomenon of quiet quitting could bring some much-needed changes to company culture.
“Workplaces are being called out in the conversation about quiet quitting, but ultimately the phenomenon is mostly about leadership,” Kanarowski explains. “Within a healthy company culture, leaders can do a lot to ensure their teams have adequate staffing and clear mandates about what success looks like. In a toxic workplace, supportive managers will have to go to bat to push back on leadership expectations, lobby for sufficient budgets and communicate with their team in a way that builds trust in the meantime.”
But if you’ve recognized any of the signs of a toxic workplace, it may be best to move on anyway.
What are some signs of quiet quitting?
Though quiet quitting, by definition, tends to be inconspicuous, there are signs that someone is engaging in this workplace phenomenon. The four below are among the most common.
Disengagement in work
The amount of effort someone is willing to put into their job is often tied to how engaged they are in their work or with the company, Joworski says. And some everyday work habits could be telling your boss you’re disengaged.
“[Employees] participate less frequently in corporate events, optional meetings, and they don’t participate in mandatory meetings,” says Jack Bishop, chief operational officer at Market Cow, an e-commerce automation company. “They’re showing a lack of engagement and social interest. I’ve had lots of co-workers and employees who do the bare minimum but will still come up with ideas and participate in non-mandatory corporate events.”
Becoming less available may be an early sign that you’re no longer as engaged at work as you once were, Lyons explains. This may be signing off from Slack early, or deleting email from your phone. “From missed emails to late arrivals, these employees aren’t even trying to hide that they don’t want to be at work on any given day,” he adds.
A lack of initiative
When a once-enthusiastic employee stops stepping up to spearhead projects or take on new responsibilities, it can be noticeable. “They can go from having all the ideas and solutions to only doing the things they’re told to do,” Bishop says.
According to Joworski, this may happen suddenly, or it could be a gradual process through which an employee’s habits and behaviors change. “The outcomes can be more obvious, like employees not volunteering for projects, not staying late unless needed [or] speaking up less [frequently] in situations where they would have been vocal,” she explains.
Isolating from the rest of the team
It’s not unusual for an employee who is in the midst of quiet quitting to stop interacting with their colleagues. According to Joworski, this can range from spending less (or no) time partaking in social or informal conversations with co-workers while in the office to eating lunch by themselves when they’d normally eat with others to turning their camera off on a video call when it would normally be on. This can erode trust at work.
The isolation may take place outside of work too, Bishop notes—like when employees “don’t join in non-work-related activities and show a general disinterest in their co-workers.” Indeed, many proponents of quiet quitting point to these outside-work events when making their case: They’re being paid to do a job, not hang out after hours.
Quiet quitting can also take the form of failing to fix known problems that hinder or slow down performance, Cox says.
Shifts in an employee’s thoughts about work
Working as a career coach, Joworski has observed that the visible, external signs of quiet quitting (like the ones discussed above) are the result of internal changes in an employee’s thoughts about their workplace or job. “These then drive a shift in beliefs and habits, which others see as changes in performance,” she notes.
These evolving perceptions of and feelings about the workplace—and what people’s jobs truly mean to them on a deeper level—can be a hidden sign of quiet quitting that they may not initially recognize, according to Joworski. “As an employee, are you more often having an internal dialogue where you’re asking yourself questions like ‘What is the point?’ or muttering the phrase, ‘There must be more to life than this?”’ she asks. “These can be hidden signs [that] you’re starting to question what you’re doing in the grander picture of work and life.”
In fact, as Cox points out, so-called quiet quitting isn’t exactly quiet, “because it is possible that employers are seeing the evidence of this behavior more clearly than the employees realize.”
Can you still get ahead in your career if you’re quiet quitting?
Really, this comes down to what you want out of your career and your thoughts on how to succeed at work. For example, if at this moment your idea of “getting ahead” in your career involves leaving your current position and moving on to a job that’s more fulfilling (and having the financial means to do so), then quiet quitting can help get you there. But if your biggest concern is climbing the corporate ladder, quiet quitting is probably not the right move.
According to Catania, people working for companies that are aggressively production-oriented will find it difficult to stand out in the promotion line if they’re not going beyond what is asked of them—especially if they have in-demand jobs. “One of the critical things that many managers look for when promoting from within is a team member they can count on when they need it most,” he adds. “It will be hard for quiet quitters to fit the bill in those circumstances.”
As an employer, Bishop agrees. “I would rather make recommendations for employees who are hard-working [and] engaged—not quiet quitters,” he says.
An exception to this, Catania says, may be when the employer in question genuinely believes in employees setting healthy boundaries between their work and home lives. “If [a person’s] employer makes life-balance a cultural norm, then quiet quitting may not be detrimental,” he says.
How do you strike the right work-life balance?
It may have taken a pandemic to get to this point, but increasing numbers of people are realizing that their lives are structured in a way that doesn’t prioritize the most important aspects. In fact, a survey published in March 2022 found that one in five American workers are willing to take a pay cut if it would mean that they could have a better work-life balance or work for themselves.
In this context, it’s not hard to see why people are quiet quitting as a way to reclaim their time. “We’ve seen the toll hustle culture has taken on our lives and families,” says Kanarowski, “and quiet quitting is putting up a strong boundary that prioritizes our health and well-being over the next promotion cycle.”
Drawing a line between work and play
So what does setting up boundaries look like in practice? “Each person needs to strike the right work-life balance that fits their family’s lifestyle,” Catania notes. “Only they can decide where that balance rests.” In other words, because everyone has different priorities in life, there’s no particular formula that would work for everyone. Having said that, there are a few general strategies that would be beneficial to most people.
For example, Hay stresses the importance of not only taking advantage of the paid time off you’ve earned each year but also using it to truly unplug. “Employees should take vacations to relax and reset,” she says. “Many started taking ‘work-cations’ during the pandemic and working remotely from different locations, but employees need to take time away from the computer to avoid burnout.”
Another key component of achieving work-life balance is ensuring that you have a clear picture not only of your manager’s broad expectations of you but also the specific goals you have to meet in your role and how your manager expects you to get there, says Kanarowski. “A healthy workplace sets goals and trusts teams to choose the best path toward meeting them,” she explains. “I would question asking anyone to ‘lean in’ and to go the extra mile beyond the basic expectations if their boss is unable to articulate what success looks like and how it’s measured.”
When you have a better understanding of what, exactly, you need to accomplish at work, it should (at least in theory) help you establish healthier boundaries between your personal life and your professional life.
- Michelle Hay, global chief people officer at Sedgwick
- Gena Cox, PhD, organizational psychologist and executive coach
- Danielle Joworski, career coach
- Ira Wolfe, president of Success Performance Solutions
- Adam Lyons, CEO and founder of The Smart Blueprint
- Rachel Kanarowski, founder of Year of Living Better
- Charles Catania, principal of Branding with Chuck
- Jack Bishop, chief operational officer at Market Cow
- TikTok: “On quiet quitting”
- Wall Street Journal: “If Your Co-Workers Are ‘Quiet Quitting,’ Here’s What That Means”
- Prudential: “Pulse of the American Worker Survey: Life and Work in the Pandemic Era”