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Quiet Quitting: What HR Leaders Need to Know

by Caroline Boyland August 30, 2022

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Quiet Quitting: What HR Leaders Need to Know

If you’ve been on LinkedIn within the past 1-2 weeks, chances are you’ve heard about “Quiet Quitting.” If you’re like me, the term first made you picture someone silently packing up their desk and tiptoeing out of the office, careful to not disturb the peace or tell anyone where they’re going. Or maybe, more realistically, you thought about an employee working from home who simply decides to close their laptop, never to be heard from again.

Well it turns out, these ideas are not even close to accurate, and that quiet quitting is actually not about quitting at all. The term, which has been met with everything from support to confusion to backlash, actually refers to employees who decide to stop doing anything that’s not strictly within the scope of their job description.

Simply put: workers are doing precisely what the company pays them to do, and giving nothing more (physically or emotionally) than that.

As an HR leader, you may have some questions. What does quiet quitting look like? Is it even a bad thing? How should we address it? Let’s dive into all that and more.

What’s driving Quiet Quitting?

Before we dive in, it’s important to note that the reason behind this change in behavior varies within each organization. But commonly, quiet quitting seems to be a response to the immense change and uncertainty we’ve all faced over the last few years. The pandemic has forced many employees to completely change the way that they work, practically overnight.

The ability to work from home (whether full time or a few days per week) may seem like it’s given employees a higher degree of freedom, but boundaries between work and home have become blurred. For workers with the added responsibility of family obligations, childcare, or homeschooling, this has hit especially hard.

Even before the pandemic, the glorification of the 24/7 work culture was already taking its toll, with workers burning out at an alarming rate. Within the hustle culture we've been living in, the lines between what's considered "essential" and "not essential" have constantly been shifting. With the pressure to be productive at all times, many workers feel they can't take a break without repercussions, so they end up burning out. For example, when workers are in the office, they may take a 15 minute walk with a coworker to go pick up lunch, but when working from home, many feel that if they are “inactive” on Slack or Teams for 15 minutes in the middle of the day, people will view them in a negative light. This fear leads to many individuals working from home sitting at their desks all day, working longer hours with less breaks.

At the same time, many companies are struggling to adapt to the new landscape and find their footing. Reorganizations and restructuring are becoming more common as businesses try to survive in an increasingly competitive market. With many organizations resorting to mass layoffs, the workers left behind may feel insecure in their jobs and feel they need to shoulder larger workloads.

With all this change happening around them, it's no wonder that employees are feeling overwhelmed, overworked, and emotionally exhausted.

With our culture’s focus on mental health and wellbeing, many employees are starting to see the sign of burnout in themselves, and are “quiet quitting” to take back control of their time, energy, and mental wellness.

What to look out for

For HR leaders, addressing this concept can feel a bit confusing—after all, if you’ve hired workers to do all the tasks your company needs, and they do just that, there shouldn’t be a gap, right?

But there are two real issues at hand.

The first is that quite simply, employees might be going above and beyond their job descriptions without HR even noticing. The reality is that while many organizations have a company culture, a smaller, more unique culture typically exists within each team at an organization as well. These niche cultures within an organization come with their own set of expectations, pressure, and challenges.

The second issue is much harder to measure—it’s the psychological pressure that many employees feel but haven’t outwardly addressed (think: I’m worried to go for a 15 minute walk when I’m working from home because if my coworkers see my status as “away” they will think I’m slacking at my job). This has only been exacerbated by many organization’s recent reductions in force, and employees feeling like they need to shoulder additional work left by past coworkers.

While you may feel like your employees are not “quiet quitting” because on paper they’re doing everything within their job description, it’s important to remember that much of this concept is an emotional quitting or letting go. It’s indicative of a problem much larger than work distribution—it is evidence of burnout, dissatisfaction, anxiety, and overall unhappiness.

The first step? Look for these signs of burnout in employees:

  • Exhaustion: Keep an eye and ear out to see if employees are feeling emotionally or physically drained. Take note of whether or not certain teams are working longer hours, not taking lunch or coffee breaks, or are online throughout the weekend.
  • Lack of engagement: If employees stop attending company-wide meetings, wellness events, or happy hours, it could be a bad sign. They may feel that they have too much additional work to do or feel like they can’t take the time to attend a non-mandatory session during work hours.
  • Isolation: Some employees love to eat lunch alone, but if someone who is typically social and talkative begins to detach and spend more time solo throughout the day, it may be a sign that they aren’t feeling 100%.
  • Negativity: This is something that’s hard to spot as an HR leader, as employees may not target this negativity towards you, but if an employee is acting negative and complaining to their teammates or coworkers often, they could be burnt out and feeling unappreciated.
  • Lack of productivity: If an employee is not hitting their goals, not participating in team meetings, and overall lacking in productivity, it can be a sign of something much more serious. Be sure to not chalk this up immediately to laziness, as it could be a sign of a mental wellness struggle.

What to do

The second step is to recognize that this may be a problem at your organization. It might not seem like a big deal at first, but if left unchecked, quiet quitting can have a serious impact on your employee’s mental and physical wellness. Plus, if employees are feeling burnt out and not productive, it can have negative effects on the business as well.

Here are a few things you can do to prevent burnout and quiet quitting from taking over:

  • Listen: Encourage open communication, and ensure that your employees feel comfortable coming to you with any concerns or problems. Regular employee surveys are a great way to get feedback on how they feel and what could be improved.
  • Set goals: Ensuring that every employee and every team has clear goals can help to focus their efforts and ensure everyone is on the same page. Having goals allows employees to prioritize instead of feeling like they need to do everything at once.
  • Give purpose: When employees are disengaged, give them a reason why their work is important. Help them see how their efforts contribute to the overall company's success. You can do this by ensuring all employee work plans align with the overall company objectives and that employees can see this link.
  • Support them: By giving employees the tools and support they need to do their jobs and stay healthy, you can help to prevent burnout. This includes things like providing access to mental health resources, childcare support, solid healthcare plans, and other wellness benefits.
  • Encourage breaks: We all need time to recharge, and that includes your employees. Make sure they take their vacation days and encourage them to disconnect from work, especially when they are not at the office.
  • Role model healthy boundaries: As the HR leader of your company, you can help set the tone for the workplace. Lead by example and encourage top-level management to do the same by not sending communications outside work hours, leaving the office on time, respecting boundaries, and taking breaks yourself.

When it comes to quiet quitting, it's important to remember that above all, it’s really a workplace mental health and wellness issue. The environment, energy, and boundaries you establish within your company’s workplace (whether that be a virtual, in person, or hybrid) are so important when it comes to making employees feel valued, healthy, and productive. This will bolster your retention efforts and ensure your employees won’t feel like they need to emotionally resign from work.

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