Why Quiet Quitting Isn’t Your Problem

By: Anna Greenwald

You know those days where you just can’t bring yourself to get any work done? You sit down at the computer, look at that overgrown task list, and try to muster up the motivation to get started, but can’t? Lack of motivation at work, often referred to as disengagement, is more common than you’d think.

So normal, in fact, that Gallup estimates 85% of US workers are struggling with some level of disengagement. And for most, it really is a struggle. Lack of motivation can arise from a variety of internal factors, including burnout, anxiety, depression. And more often than not, it also arises from external factors such as toxic work environments, unrealistic workloads, and workplace deficiencies.

But while disengagement at work isn’t new, the way we talk about it has radically shifted in recent months. Disengagement at work has taken on a new name that paints a bleak picture of the value we place on workplace mental health: Quiet Quitting.

What is Quiet Quitting?

Quiet quitting is one of those HR buzzwords that took off seemingly overnight, before we had the chance to define it in real time. Here’s how it’s defined:

“Quiet quitting refers to doing the minimum requirements of one’s job and putting in no more time, effort or enthusiasm as is absolutely necessary.” – Investopedia

Definitions like this have swept across newsfeeds, prompting conversations and controversy about the phenomenon of disengagement. The framing of “Quiet Quitting” implies that disengaged employees are making a conscious, even malicious, decision to lighten their own workloads and their output. It’s focused on the narrative that employees, particularly younger employees, lack work ethic and aren’t doing their duties to their organization.

For equally burnt out and stressed out leaders that are dealing with the consequences of disengagement, blaming employees “Quiet Quitting” for the lack of organizational performance can be tempting. It creates a scapegoat for a larger, more pervasive challenge facing all humans at work: a struggle to find balance in a world of increasingly high demands.

The Real Causes of Disengagement At Work

The truth is, disengagement at work isn’t new. A 2017 article by Forbes cited a statistic that only 33% of American workers are engaged at work, costing companies between $480-600 Billion per year. Whether it lasts for a day, a month, or years, disengagement arises from a complex combination of internal and external factors.

26% of Americans struggle with mental health challenges, a number that has been on the rise since the COVID-19 pandemic. Anxiety, depression, and even high levels of chronic stress (“burnout”) can lead to disengagement even among the happiest, most loyal employees.

While disengagement can come from personal stressors, a key source of disengagement comes from work itself. Only 12% of employees feel their onboarding process set them up to be successful and effective in their roles, and Gallup estimates that 70% of the variance in employee engagement comes from leadership.

The reality of employee disengagement is that leadership and organizational culture plays a much bigger role than anything else, and certainly more that Quiet Quitting gives it credit for. So how do we start to think about productivity and engagement in a healthier, and more effective way?

Ask the Right Questions

When tasked with a challenge like engagement, it can be tricky to know where to begin. Be sure that when you’re starting out, you know what question you’re asking. We often make the mistake of conflating two important questions when discussing employee engagement:

  1. “Are my employees doing the jobs they were hired to do?”
  2. “How can I empower employees to go above and beyond?”

Sometimes as leaders, we have biases or assumptions about what our team should be doing. If you’re noticing a trend of disengagement with an employee or team, check back in with their job description. Are they completing the tasks that they’ve been hired to do? If not, your conversations can be guided towards a plan to help them meet those expectations.

If they are fulfilling their job description, but you’re still feeling unsatisfied with their performance, it’s time to assess why. Have the needs of the business changed? Has their role changed over time? Is it time to consider a promotion? Simply expecting employees to do more than what they’ve been hired to do, without some form of compensation or reward, isn’t realistic or supportive of a positive and engaged workplace culture.

Expand Your Definition of Productivity

Another key piece of the puzzle is that not all productivity looks the same. The old wisdom was that employees had to be present in the office to be productive, but if the last 2 years have taught us anything, it’s that productivity is about much more than showing up in a physical space. If you’re looking to promote a culture of engagement, ask yourself – what are the types of productivity that drive meaningful business outcomes, and how do I support them? Examples of productivity types include:

  • Presence Productivity: being physically present onsite to perform essential tasks
  • Creative Productivity: contributing creative and innovative ideas and solutions to the organization
  • Fiscal Productivity: driving increased revenue for the organization
  • Network Productivity: building company value through expanding the network of customers, community, or partners

There are many other kinds of productivity. Find out what types are most relevant to your organization and team, and figure out how to support each one uniquely.

Be Aware of Biases

Companies are composed of human beings, and each of us is navigating a vastly different human experience. It’s critical to be aware that in the conversations around employee engagement, not everyone’s experience is the same.

When we look at the data on a holistic level, there are lots of nuances to how disengagement is viewed based on gender, race, and other demographic differences. Women and BIPOC professionals, for example, are more likely to assume that burnout is a natural state, and therefore not feel entitled to ask for support when they need it most.

Additionally, it can actually be riskier for women and BIPOC professionals to be disengaged at work, because being late to a meeting or missing a deadline can have stronger negative repercussions than for their male counterparts due to biases and prejudice. These dynamics are at play regardless of whether or not we talk about them, and they play a critical piece in organizational culture.

In 2023, companies that can demonstrate human-centered leadership will win the employee retention game. Beyond buzzwords, be honest about the work at hand, and what is expected. Approach conversations with empathy, and treat people like the human beings they are, not just an engagement statistic.

Written by Anna Greenwald

Anna Greenwald is a wellbeing and future of work expert. Through her work as the founder & CEO of On the Goga, she has supported teams including Johnson & Johnson, PwC, L’Oreal, GrubHub, and Lyft to improve wellbeing. Greenwald is a TEDx Speaker and adjunct professor of mindfulness and wellbeing at Drexel University.

Editor: Dennis Paris