Was quiet quitting just a TikTok buzzword that has become a washed-up, Gen Z trend? (says this GenX Dr. Aunty) Or did we miss the signals about a serious shift in the workplace?
While it might not be as buzzworthy, quiet quitting remains a dynamic force in our workplace.
The topic has been discussed ad nauseam in the press, but as a brain doctor and Chief Wellness Officer, I want to visit the conversation we may have missed about quiet quitting: what is the root cause of the problem?
Quiet Quitting Defined By a Doctor… Not a Tokker
What is quiet quitting, exactly? Here’s what you need to know:
- Quiet quitting is when employees disengage from their jobs and quietly exit the organization without formally resigning or giving notice.
- Quiet quitting is not a new concept. In organizational psychology, it is related to a lack of engagement, poor leadership, and a lack of purpose at work.
- The term “quiet quitting” refers to a conscious decision to fulfill only the essential responsibilities of one’s job and nothing more. The worker has decided to quit mentally, even though they continue to show up at work each day.
The Brain Science of Quiet Quitting
I started to examine the data on quiet quitting last year as I was working on my manuscript, “The Busy Brain Cure,” for Harper Collins. As a brain doctor, Chief Wellness Officer, and career burnout survivor, I wanted to understand if there was actual data and science behind the viral trend. This is what I found:
- The root cause of Quiet Quitting is a lack of compassion for those who are suffering from burnout or mental health problems (they just don’t know it yet).
- A Busy Brain can contribute to quiet quitting because it makes it difficult to focus on tasks. As tasks multiply, one more “ask” can create a disproportional stress response.
- If we have a Busy Brain, we fall somewhere on the spectrum between stressed and burnt out.
- When we reach this point, employees will cite “lack of work-life balance” or “can’t handle the workload” as reasons for quitting.
Quiet Quitting Further Defined
It’s easy to blame the younger workforce for this troubling trend, but the reality is that our younger workers are not the only ones who are disengaged at work. In 2022, a Gallup study revealed that people of all generations are more disengaged than ever before. In addition, at least 50% of your team is already disengaged – which might even include you.
Organizational Behavior and Human Resources researchers have long recognized that quiet quitting is a repackaged trend behind which one can find behaviors and dynamics that have always existed. If that is the case, why has the interest in quiet quitting skyrocketed now? In our hyperconnected world of social media and 24/7 news cycles, the power comes to the people when they rethink how they want to balance their lives.
The Great Resignation, a term first coined by Anthony Klotz, a professor at Texas A&M University, resulted from the pandemic, economic uncertainty, and a subsequent wave of burnout among white-collar workers (McGregor, 2021).
The data from our Busy Brain Test, which sampled over 17,000 people between 2020 and 2022, revealed that over 82% of employees had abnormally high stress levels, resulting in symptoms related to poor sleep, mood disorders such as anxiety, and physical symptoms. (Full data is pending publication in The Busy Brain Cure by Harper Collins in early 2024.)
Stress in our lives originates in both our personal and professional lives. In today’s world, the boundaries are blurred between the two.
The Neuropsychology of Quiet Quitting
Burnout is a state of complete mental and physical exhaustion that comes from long-term job stress. It is a very real problem worldwide and something I actively seek to address through my brainSHIFT programs.
While many researchers and sociologists are scrambling to identify causes and solutions, as a Chief Wellness Officer and workplace wellness consultant, it is clear to me why quiet quitting is happening now.
Quiet quitting occurs when the brain has reached its maximum capacity. In psychology, “capacity” describes the maximum extent to which an individual is able to receive and retain information emotionally or intellectually.
In layman’s terms, it’s a last resort strategy, a survival mechanism of sorts. It’s a way of protecting one’s well-being while maintaining a source of income. We are quiet quitting because our brains are at capacity due to personal and professional lives.
People who are quietly quitting are still trying to “do it all” or achieve “work-life balance” by remaining employed and protecting their sanity. Unfortunately, this approach will only cause further mental and physical harm to health.
Quiet Quitting: How Did We Get Here?
For the past several decades, American workplace culture has revolved around the idea that each person should go the extra mile continually in the hopes that they will eventually be rewarded with a raise or promotion.
Traditionally, the expectation has been that the American worker needs to do more, be more, achieve more, and gain more. We work harder than ever and sacrifice our personal lives and well-being to fit workplace expectations.
Those who don’t follow these expectations are labeled complacent or, even worse, “not a culture fit” or “not serious about the company/job/role.” Those who prioritized their families over work found themselves passed over for promotions.
This cycle is particularly challenging for parents and those caring for aging parents, who constantly have to choose between family and work. And yet, they must continue to bring in a steady income, which means buying into the belief that they must work harder and harder.
So here we are. We have reached the point where a concerning percentage of our population believes they have no other choice than to show up at work physically while checking out mentally.
The Problem with Quiet Quitting
Quiet quitters won’t achieve a sense of enjoyment or satisfaction at work with this mindset. And what’s wrong with that? We don’t all have to be passionate about our jobs, right?
I disagree. We spend the bulk of our daily lives at work. If we can’t find a sense of fulfillment or joy about that time, disengagement occurs and we continue to chase happiness. While our work should not define our identities, the thought of spending the majority of one’s day disengaged and unfulfilled is a dismal one indeed.
And that’s precisely what current data around the Great Resignation and quiet quitting reveals. Among the top reasons cited for quitting are:
- Lack of buy-in to company culture
- Not feeling like they are part of a mission
Employees want their work to serve a greater purpose. They need to know their work matters and their contributions have an impact.
To make matters worse, as more people check out, other workers must take over dropped responsibilities. Not only does a lack of teamwork lower morale, but it increases burnout levels within the organization, creating a snowball effect of resignations.
The problem with quiet quitting is not that people are trying to regain the elusive idea of balance in their lives. In brainSHIFT, we discuss the importance of balance in our brains – and then we work to tame those Busy Brains to achieve that balance. When we have high stress levels resulting from the inflammation of a Busy Brain, every aspect of our lives feels like an emergency.
Quiet Quitting Is a Fantasy for People of Color and Women
According to the American Psychological Association data on burnout in the US, women and people of color are more likely than other groups to suffer from burnout in the US Workforce. As such, quiet quitting must sound even more appealing to these groups.
These workers already face an uphill battle. They are less likely to be recognized for their potential, less likely to be promoted, and more likely to be viewed negatively when they try to establish boundaries at work.
While quiet quitting may be tolerated for some, people of color and women are more likely to be punished for pulling back at work. Instead of fulfilling their job description, they may be perceived as evading work or lacking commitment, putting them at higher risk for job loss.
Can Quiet Quitting Be Reversed?
Employers worldwide are scrambling to find ways to address and mitigate the effect of quiet quitting on workplace productivity and culture. There are many ways to approach this.
Some employers are taking proactive steps to identify the source of dissatisfaction, address burnout, and create more fulfilling work environments.
Other organizations, however, seek to blame the quiet quitters for creating a culture of discontent. This approach will not work. To reverse the trend, we need to get to the root of the problem.
In fact, we may even want to take a moment to appreciate the value of quiet quitting. For many people, quiet quitting is simply a conscious decision to opt out of the hustle culture. It means fulfilling their jobs and doing them well, but not defining their life by their work.
This has merit. Our work does not define us. But it does seem a waste of time and energy not to attempt to find work that will fill our cups instead of depleting it.
Somehow we have gotten to a place where workers feel their only options are quietly quitting or succumbing to burnout. I’d like to propose an alternative. Could we find a way to help workers engage in their work and gain a sense of fulfillment without sacrificing their well-being and happiness?
Burnout and workplace culture are not the only issues challenging us today. Around the world, there is a collective breakdown in understanding our purpose and meaning in life. More people than ever are questioning the meaning of life and are desperate to reclaim it.
Quiet quitting perpetuates the myth that finding purpose in one’s work will lead to burnout. My research in the Busy Brain Cure has confirmed that those with a sense of purpose are more likely to feel mentally and physically well. What if helping employees feel a sense of purpose at work would help them feel a sense of purpose in their own lives?
Solutions for Quiet Quitting
While the current landscape is challenging, this is our opportunity to reshape workplace culture. What better time than when everyone is paying attention to the issues?
Quiet quitting has captured our attention. Instead of lamenting it, let’s see this as an opportunity to address the real issues facing workers. One of the best ways to do this is to examine your workplace culture closely.
Are employees given the opportunity to engage? Do they feel heard? Do they feel valued as whole people, or is their worth only based on the work they can complete in 8 hours?
- My brainSHIFT programs are designed to help teams engage with one another, establish practices that will improve well-being, and find joy in their work again. These programs work in two ways:
They establish a channel to discuss well-being, demonstrating that your organization cares about its employees’ overall health and happiness.
- The brainSHIFT program teaches practical approaches to manage stress and avoid burnout. Each time I run this program with an organization, the results are powerful and wide-reaching.
- brainSHIFT is an innovative workplace program that helps your people manage stress, improve mental health, heal burnout, and optimize performance.
- Our brainSHIFT Leadership program gives you and your team a roadmap to build a culture based on wellness – and stop the revolving door.
It’s Time for You to Take Action
I’m Dr. Romie Mushtaq, a board-certified physician, award-winning wellness speaker, and the founder of brainSHIFT. I have created innovative programs designed to create cultural change, based on over 20 years of authority in neurology, integrative medicine, and mindfulness.
I work with organizations from all industries, ranging from large Fortune 500 companies to small tech small startups as part of my mission to create a culture of workplace wellness. My #brainSHIFT programs are here to help you and your team.
May is #MentalHealthAwareness month, and I want to bring some Dr. Romie Real Talk to your workplace, while sharing our latest research and solutions. Email us at moc.eimorrd@ofni for more information to start the conversation. Or click here to learn more about my programs.
- Bloomberg quiet quitting women and POC:
- Ariana Huffington’s take:
- Hospitality Net Article:
5. McGregor, J. (2021, December 14). Careers Weekly: All The Other Names For The ‘Great Resignation,’ Omicron Is Crashing Return To Office Plans And More. Forbes.