What explains ‘quiet quitting’ in the workplace?

University of Illinois News Bureau

Employees who are quiet quitting because of high stress may have a similar motivation to those who physically and psychologically withdraw from work.

YoungAh Park is a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who studies work stress and recovery. Park spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about “quiet quitting” at work.

Is “quiet quitting” any different than work withdrawal or employee disengagement?

Scholars have studied work withdrawal as a subtype of counterproductive work behaviors. Specifically, work withdrawal refers to employees’ avoidance or disengagement from their work environment and task situations even though they are physically present at work. For example, putting in less work effort than necessary; leaving work early for unnecessary reasons; taking longer lunches or breaks than allowed; letting others do your work; thinking of leaving the job or being absent, etc.

By contrast, the term “quiet quitting” seems to mean that employees stop going the extra mile while still performing their job tasks and duties well. So, yes, quiet quitting and work withdrawal are conceptually different.

One thing to note is that although organizations and managers view work withdrawal as counterproductive, research suggests that it can be understood as a stress reaction. It means that people want to avoid and disengage from stressful work situations. In that sense, those who are quiet quitting because of high stress may have a similar motivation to those who physically and psychologically withdraw from work. Also, it appears to me that people on social media define their quiet quitting practice differently depending on their job and organizational situations.

How much of the phenomenon is attributable to the work stressors brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic?

I’m not sure how much is due to pandemic-related stressors but, according to recent research and media reports, it’s clear that the current workforce has been experiencing a lot of stress due to the pandemic. For example, the pandemic resulted in many unwanted changes in both work environments and individual workers, such as working from home without proper child care support, work overload, job burnout, layoffs, pay cuts, sickness, depression and anxiety. In that sense, these various stressors and stress symptoms may have led some individuals to choose to scale down “extra” work effort to better manage their job stress.

If that’s true, then it’s not surprising, as previous research has already shown that job stress is associated with reduced work effort.

Are return-to-office mandates a driver of quiet quitting?

The exact causes of quiet quitting are up in the air, so we don’t know whether the return-to-office mandates or remote working drives this phenomenon. But just as research found that people have different preferences for remote working, in-person work or hybrid work, it’s certainly possible that there are employees who are dissatisfied with a mandatory return-to-office policy. One recent example of that is when Apple lost some employees because of its back-to-the office policy. But it’s not clear whether that kind of policy change drives employees’ quiet quitting.

Is quiet quitting more about escaping a bad job situation than actually wanting to quit working entirely?

The motivation and reasons behind quiet quitting appear to vary among individuals. Some won’t take on additional tasks and projects because they are underpaid, burned out or experiencing work-family conflict — or because they dislike their boss. But the job satisfaction literature suggests that dissatisfied employees are more likely to have poor work motivation and reduced work effort, and those employees eventually search for another job.

Is there a relationship between job performance and likelihood of quiet quitting?

Organizations value highly conscientious employees because they tend to not only perform well but also deal with job stress better and are more satisfied with their job than less conscientious employees.

However, a recent study found that under the difficult work situations caused by the pandemic, highly conscientious employees experienced more strain and lower job satisfaction than their less conscientious counterparts. The data suggest that it was because more conscientious workers reported greater work demands and more hours of working during the pandemic.

This finding indirectly implies that COVID-19-related working conditions — that is, less clear expectations for work effort and performance — may push conscientious employees to be at a higher risk for burnout, fatigue, job dissatisfaction and eventually turnover.

Also, there are reports that employees who have worked from home since the start of the pandemic are spending more hours on their work. This trend was not just observed in the U.S. but also in the U.K., Australia and Canada. Working longer or doing too much work is not healthy and likely to cause poor work-life balance. So it seems that some workers may choose quiet quitting to protect themselves from constantly overworking.

What can — and should — employees and supervisors do to combat quiet quitting?

It’s too early to say that supervisors and employees should combat quiet quitting unless there is evidence or data that show quiet quitting is counterproductive to teams, organizations and employees’ career success.

What I can suggest is that organizations, supervisors and employees need to diligently monitor how many extra hours or how much extra effort employees put in their work to ensure that they are not doing it to the point where they feel overwhelmed and pressured to sacrifice their family time and health. This would require efficient, quality communications from supervisors, as well as organizational efforts to maintain a healthy workforce that can be productive and engaged.