Quiet quitting: A woke sense of work-life balance or simply slacking off?

Does the truth lie somewhere in between?

By Sushmita Bose

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Published: Fri 2 Sep 2022, 12:15 AM

Last updated: Fri 2 Sep 2022, 4:19 PM

Starting sometime in the 1970s, one of my uncles had held on to a government job in India — one from which he retired more than a decade ago. For almost 40 years, his life revolved around a routine, a 9-to-5 one. He was required to input his ‘in’ time and ‘out’ time on a register book. Once he had signed in, a large part of the day would be spent drinking tea, smoking cigarettes, discussing cricket/football with colleagues and, at times, stepping out to meet friends/relatives who worked in the vicinity. At 5pm, he would log out for the day. “You see, the work I am required to do takes, at most, two to three hours,” he would tell the rest of the family, “but since I have to remain in office for nine hours [minus a one-hour lunch break], I take it very easy, and there’s usually no pressure — unless it’s the quarter endings.”

My uncle could, perhaps, have helped out with more work, but he was clear he would do only what he was being paid for. “We are given nominal raises every year, and a promotion — not really merit-based but more process-driven — once every 10 years… That’s how most government offices function in India for most employees,” he would shrug whenever he would be asked about his career trajectory.

I don’t know why I thought of him when I heard about ‘quiet quitting’ raging on social media, with the recent TikTok video claiming: “You’re not outright quitting your job but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond. You’re still performing your duties but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life.” And I realised my Baby Boomer uncle was probably a quiet quitter back in the day when Zillennial/Gen Z hashtags and social media did not exist.

I called him up to ask if he ever considered joining the private sector, and taken on a more challenging — and better-paying — role.

“Why would I?” he responded. “My job was secure, my colleagues were my friends, I would be back home by 6pm, I got an off on every single public holiday, and I earned a decent gratuity when I retired.”


Demystifying quietly quitting

In a column for thecut.com, Danielle Cohen probably summed it up the best, writing that “Quiet quitting has been used in the US since at least March, when YouTuber Timothy Ward described it as doing ‘just enough to get by and not get fired’ — also known as ‘coasting’, an approach to work which existed long before the current hashtag cycle… it appears more people are questioning who is actually served by the stress of overtime and hours of uncompensated labor. Not everyone has the privilege to actually quit, and not everyone thinks of work as something they have to be passionate about or fulfilled by. Whatever quiet quitting is, its resonance suggests more of us are finally recognising our jobs for what they are: the stuff you have to do to earn a living.”

I spoke to a friend who has been part of the broader HR domain for a long time, and he explained the evolution of quiet quitting — quite beautifully I thought — in terms of the three revolutions: the industrial revolution, which resulted in jobs for survival; the information revolution, which resulted in people wanting a better standard of life; and the social revolution, which resulted in the search for ‘quality of life’ — the equivalent of self-actualisation in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Today, one set of workers — comprising older millennials and Generation X-ers — are ‘coasting’: doing enough to complete the job at hand, no more. It’s probably because they are disillusioned at their workplace and have become apathetic to growth prospects. But, equally, they don’t want to lose that job because their livelihoods (survival and standard of living) depend on it, so they work to crack that code of “my job is secure but I will remain under the radar”.

And then there are the ‘new-gen’ workers — younger millennials and zillennials — whose survival and standard of life are more or less taken care of (because their parents worked towards that end), so now they want that extra fillip in life (the self-actualisation). For them, a job could potentially not be an ‘emotional’ contract, because if it doesn’t fulfill their aspirations and their notion of work:life balance, they move on in no time. “It’s the gig mentality that’s come into play: it’s all about the short term,” my friend pointed out.

‘I’ve known quiet quitters in my places of work; we just called them slackers’

Celeste Strydom is a Dubai-based copywriter and PR content specialist with the Prestidge Group who heard “so much” about quiet quitting that she decided to read up everything on it to figure out what all the hype was about. “I immediately felt conflicted. I think it’s fair to say that if an individual is working in a role with zero trajectories to go anywhere and it doesn’t reward them sufficiently, then doing precisely what they’re paid for is a fair rate of exchange. But I also believe that, like most things in life, we need to be wary of taking anything too literally.”

An employee remains in their job but limits the tasks they do strictly to within their job description. “They give no more and no less. Reading that, I thought: well, this is a new term for an old concept. I’ve known quiet quitters in my places of work; we just called them slackers,” Celeste says, before telling us her story.

“I might be giving my age away, but I began my career in the early 2000s, and times were different. I started in finance. I worked hard; I knew that I was smart. But I also knew that if I hoped to stand out in the crowd or make it to a leadership position one day, I’d need to show a willingness to sacrifice. And in the business world, the biggest display of sacrifice is time. Two things happen when you spend time. You learn more, and you show off a can-do attitude.

‘Yes, I can collate the notes ahead of the meeting.’

‘Sure, I can stay to shut the office after hours.’

‘Yup, I’ll take today’s meeting minutes.’

Working my way up the ranks, I worked 12- hour days in an 8-hours-a-day job. And all of us who were vying for promotions or envisioning a long-term career were doing the same thing.”

Fast forward 16 years, Celeste works for herself, and dry heaves just thinking of the pace she used to run at. Never again would she work that hard for anyone… not even herself. “Now I want to spend time with my family. I’m not checking emails at 8 pm; I’m reading bedtime stories. I’m running; I’m drinking my water; I’m meeting friends for coffee...”

But here’s the thing. “I no longer have the capacity to pour from a never-ending cup. And I don’t have to. You see, I’ve paid my dues. Putting in the extra hours, volunteering to do the grunt work, and picking up additional duties to score brownie points did more than just teach me the hard skills I learned on the job. It taught me invaluable soft skills.”

While today Celeste still believes in the value in going above and beyond, she’s also learned to set healthy boundaries. But “I don’t believe I would have known how to do that if I hadn’t practised it in an actual working situation.”

Does she think there’s merit to quiet quitting? “Sure. But when I see fresh graduates hashtagging that they’re low-key quitting, I wonder if they’ve missed an opportunity.” She’s also interested to see how long this trend lasts. “It’s been reported that up to 800 million jobs for humans will be displaced by automation by 2030. The apathy will wear thin very quickly if the job market narrows down.”

The case of disaffected employees

David Singleton is the founder of Oraculi — a strategic business advisory and thought leadership practice working with ambitious brands, teams, and high-performance leaders in growth mode. He’s also a transformational coach, offering perspective to stimulate powerful ambition, and fuel personal and professional development.

According to David, problems occur — in this case, quiet quitting — when lines of communication and expectation are unclear. “Employees should understand and should be able to articulate organisational vision. Employees naturally stand up and want to be counted when they share the dynamic vision of the leadership. It’s unforgiveable to have a great recruitment process that promises the earth, and then follow up with something different when they start. That’s when you have disaffected employees…”

He believes it’s vital that “leaders” be very clear in what they expect from their teams — right from the outset. “Inductions should immerse new team members into the business, leaving no stone unturned, being absolutely clear in what the customer expects from you, what the company, colleagues expect from you. But also, it’s an opportunity for the new employee to be clear with her new colleagues… for instance, he or she might have morning or evening activities, family members to care for, important hobbies, or faith that is valued.”

‘What if we could create a path of wellness in the workplace?’

Rreema Aidasahnni is an energy healing therapist at Dubai’s Miracles Wellness Center. The way she sees it, quiet quitting refers to young employees, predominantly Gen Z, zillennials and (younger) millennials, doing the bare minimum and not going above and beyond their tasks. “But before casting judgement, it is important to acknowledge the power of perspective at play. Previous generations believed that the road to success was through hard work and determination, having witnessed tougher economic situations and, due to this, the new trend of quiet quitting is being interpreted as not taking work seriously and bailing out when times get tough but is that necessarily true?”

Her job as a wellness expert is to focus on the similarities, not the differences, in order to be neutral and non-biased, she continues. “I must look at what links these generations together from a wellness perspective. In doing so I have found ultimately, the underlying goal — no matter your generation — is to have a healthy work-life balance and a purpose at work. So, no matter your take on quiet quitting, the truth is we are all working towards the same goal, we are just taking different paths to get there. What if we could create one path, a path of wellness in the workplace, and eliminate the rest? Perhaps we would see this trend begin to dissipate.”

Covid, Rreema says, has altered people’s views about work and the importance of a more integrated life. “It made everyone re-evaluate their priorities and realise how important it is to spend time with family, take care of their health, make time for social affairs, and enjoy nature.” The pandemic also sparked a sense of an existential crisis for many and this led to people questioning what is meaningful for them and how they can have a job and life more aligned to their values.

The bottom line lies with organisations

Former US labour secretary Robert Reich stirred the hornet’s nest when he tweeted “Workers aren’t ‘quiet quitting’. They’re refusing to be exploited for their labor.” Which squarely puts the onus on organisations to set the house in order. My friend — the one with whom I had a chat on quiet quitting — referred to a question that was once tossed in this regard: “Did they come dead on arrival when you hired them — or did you kill them?”

The last three years in particular have taught us the importance of self-care, both from the leadership perspective and the employees themselves, avers David. “Employees have recognised bosses who haven’t made them ‘feel’ good at times of crisis; even the slightest things matter and have been remembered when it matters to them personally. ‘You didn’t make me feel good when I needed you, and now when you need me, I might just think twice’.” It’s at these times when employees shrink back and look after their own needs more. As a leadership and transformational coach, David works with senior leaders who want to learn how to handle their line managers who now recognise that they should be cared for more and look for ways to handle situations to make them better, or use the opportunity to move on to an organisation who probably deserves them more. “I often hear ‘my boss doesn’t deserve me’ — and when you hear this it’s a clear signal that they are very likely to quietly quit or, more often, not so quietly!”

In many ways, the new-school culture is a lot healthier, points out Celeste. “Now, especially in a post-pandemic society, we speak much more candidly about a work-life balance. Society quickly turns on organisations and people displaying mental or social toxicity.” This overhaul was necessary for a workforce raised to expect gender disparity and who believed that a career came at the expense of a personal life.

And when you find true meaning in your work, you are less likely to ‘quietly quit’, says Rreema. “Studies have shown that happy employees are more productive and can contribute greater to the goals and objectives of an organisation.” She points out she’s seen how the pandemic has created a greater focus on wellbeing in the workplace. “[At Miracles] Our requests for corporate wellness programmes are growing daily and we have seen many companies prioritising wellbeing and looking at what they can do for their employees in the space of mental health and healing.” These last few years have shifted people’s mindsets and relationships with work, so we could also look at this as an opportunity to grow and adapt to what people require: “flexible hours, remote work, and understanding of what our employees need outside of monetary benefits”.

Bottom line? Businesses need to take accountability and start reading the room. As Celeste says, “If your staff are unmotivated, ill-considered or unfairly remunerated, this topic should concern you. Happy employees are a lot less inclined to clock-watch.”

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