Quiet Quitting - a controversial trend or valid boundary setting?

You’ve probably seen the expression ‘quiet quitting’ gathering momentum on social media and news outlets. What appeared to start as a TikTok by Zaid Khan, a 24-year old engineer from New York, is now a debated topic amongst employees, HR (human resource) professionals and CEOs (Chief Executive Officers) alike.


In his TikTok, Zaid defines quitting as “…not outright quitting your job but quitting the idea of going above and beyond in work. You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life”.


The intended definition of quiet quitting describes an employee who fulfils reasonable expectations within working hours but does not take on extra work beyond what they are contracted for. Nor does their work and career fully define their identity, or worries about work define their non-working hours.


Additionally, the term quiet quitting builds on concepts we are familiar with, such as setting boundaries, protecting health, achieving work-life balance and meeting expectations.


As a young professional in research who entered the workplace at the start of the pandemic, I’ve seen from the inside the environment that quiet quitting is a reaction to. A few years before my first job, I’d already experienced burnout, witnessing the all-consuming nature of my university studies taking over almost every waking hour.


The lengthy process of reconstructing my work-life balance and recognising my needs shaped how I perceive similar challenges and pressures today. In the past year, when realising my job no longer met my needs, I didn’t actually quiet quit. It was better for me to move on entirely. I knew where I could have a more specialised role and could identify how my previous employer was not meeting my needs nor utilising the breadth of my skills in clinical research, especially within the therapeutic area of mental health.


But what happens if your next steps are not clear?


As the conversation around quiet quitting has evolved, so has the meaning of the expression. Opinions are split around the validity, fairness and meaning of quiet quitting.


It is essential to acknowledge that the concept behind Zaid’s version of quiet quitting did not originate with him, as the creator later explained. The lying flat movement, or “tangping” originated in China in April 2021, with the aim to protest against long working hours (often 9am — 9pm, 6 days a week).


The movement aimed to empower workers to regain more of their life back and advocate for more reasonable working hours. However, the expression “tangping” was shortly censored from social media and wider internet searches.


So, why has quiet quitting become such a heightened topic of conversation?


Several factors could have possibly contributed towards this current landscape.


The covid pandemic changed what work looked like for many of us, in particular during the first two years, with some alterations still remaining.


The adoption of remote working brought about advantages and disadvantages. Greater flexibility and reduced commuting time and costs were welcomed, but especially for those relatively new to the working world, remote employment led to an increased risk of weaker work boundaries, thus blurring the lines between home life and work life.


As most of us experienced, social aspects of work decreased during the pandemic, and connection was more difficult. Whilst offices have opened again, and we’re experiencing more contact with our peers and managers, the former two years of poorer quality communication and insight could have a lasting impact on those who were silently struggling with demands, now worn out.


Additionally, whilst the current world we experience can be politically unstable, with mounting financial pressures and increasing humanitarian concerns, continuing in this ‘hustle culture’ does not seem to be as popular post-pandemic. Especially when career progression and recognition at work don’t compensate for fall-out like poorer home life, strained family relationships, stress, burnout and worsening mental health.


Due to its controversy, quiet quitting has stirred up strong criticisms. Or, as I see it, individual perspectives of quiet quitting have shaped such criticisms. One rather blunt article describes quiet quitting as a ‘self-indulgent sulk’, invalidating and downplaying the link between workplace stress and poorer mental health. They view quiet quitting as a lazy refusal to work contracted hours and fulfil outlined duties, fuelled by pessimism, low tolerance for boredom and the avoidance of challenge.


However, people’s mental health in relation to work must be taken seriously, and we know that external stresses and pressure can contribute to worsening mental health and burnout.

Experts in workplace psychology and HR professionals suggest that if a job no longer meets your needs, actually quitting may be more appropriate than quiet quitting. This can start by looking for opportunities that are either more fulfilling, offer increased progression or provide work-life balance.


Of course, this is much easier said than done and not promised as a quick solution to poor mental health in the workplace or toxic workplace cultures.


Also, it’s important to consider risks that could accompany quiet quitting, independently of individual understanding of the term. Depending on how obvious a reduction in over-working is, there may be a risk of not being considered as highly for promotions or progression, and peers may not appreciate unequal matching of team effort.


Some of the following actions might be options for moving forward instead of quiet quitting: talking to your manager about your workload, setting boundaries and asking for help in maintaining them, engaging in employee support, actively seeking out other opportunities or using some annual leave for a break.


Additionally, it can be helpful to check that any support unique to the individual’s circumstances is fully and freely given, such as sick leave, maternity/paternity leave and reasonable adjustments for disclosed disabilities.


So, whilst quiet quitting has trended recently, I think our real concern should be what it signposts to, namely unsustainable workplace pressures, mental health and burnout consequences, which thrive in poorly equipped workplaces.


Ultimately, we can’t fix this ourselves, although we might be able to change our individual environment for some time.


A better understanding of workplace stress and its consequences on our mental health is needed by employers and individuals, accompanied by creating safe environments for employee disclosure.