While some say quiet quitting is over, the spirit of it may carry into 2023

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It started, as many trends do now, with a TikTok.

“I recently learned about this term called ‘quiet quitting’ where you’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond,” a man calmly narrates over footage of New York City.

“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 voice continues as a clip showing a hand playing with bubbles out of a bubble machine.

Between 13% and 20% of Americans are reportedly actively disengaged at work

The video got over 400,000 likes and soon after it seemed like everyone was talking about “quiet quitting”, the hot new trend. As summer turned into fall, more TikToks were created, talkshows featured jokes on the phenomenon, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg published over a dozen articles on quiet quitting. The talkshow titan Dr Phil dedicated a full TV episode to it.

Now, as a new year begins, the stream of TikToks has slowed. Google searches for the term “quiet quitting” have dropped. Business Insider declared “RIP, quiet quitting” with reports that workers are back to the 50-hour work-week grind after some companies, particularly in tech, started laying off workers and freezing open roles.

But while “quiet quitting” looks like another here today, gone tomorrow viral trend, amid the current economic environment, the ethos that quiet quitting represents for workers is probably here to stay, say experts. Even if it is not neatly packaged in alliteration.

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Quiet quitting was never really new. Between 13% and 20% of Americans have reported being actively disengaged at work since Gallup started conducting employee engagement surveys in 2000.

To some, quiet quitting is just working – do your job, go home and forget about it. That something many people had always done – not volunteering for extra grind – was treated like a new trend shows how much the Covid-19 pandemic has influenced the relationship people have with their jobs. The pandemic made many people reassess their priorities. Had they been putting work before family, friends, their own health?

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The shift has even been acknowledged by the US surgeon general’s office, which in October released guidance around workplace health and wellbeing that encouraged managers to listen to workers, increase pay and limit communication outside work hours, among other things.

“Today, more and more workers are worried about making ends meet, dealing with chronic stress and struggling to balance the demands of both work and personal lives. The toll on their mental health is growing,” the US surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, said in the guidance.

“The pandemic … sparked a reckoning among many workers who no longer feel that sacrificing their health, family and communities for work is an acceptable trade off.”

Cristina Banks, director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces at the University of California at Berkeley, said the emergence of quiet quitting speaks to the drop in personal drive around work, partly due to ongoing burnout.

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“Quiet quitting makes a lot of sense. People are losing that intrinsic motivation and not wanting to work as hard as they did before,” Banks said.

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While the Covid-19 exacerbated loss of motivation, workers were already starting to feel detached from their work in the years before the pandemic.

“Before the pandemic, there were unrealistic expectations of what people were supposed to do in their jobs, to go above and beyond what they’re paid to do or push themselves to the limit,” she said. “People don’t want to go back to the workplace, to go under that same pressure cooker.”

In his book The Importance of Work in an Age of Uncertainty, the Boston College professor David Blustein reports that even before the pandemic, “people were already experiencing a sense of uncertainty about work, a sense that the institution of work was eroding.”

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“Workers over the last 50 years have lost more and more autonomy and protection and have been treated like commodities,” Blustein said. “Organizations have really put profits and productivity at the forefront, and I think people really feel it.”

A 2015 paper estimated that workplace stress from layoffs, job insecurity and toxic work cultures could be causing over 120,000 deaths and $190bn (£156bn) in healthcare expenses a year. And this was before the pandemic, when the risk of getting Covid-19 at work did not exist.

For workers who could do their jobs remotely when the pandemic started in spring 2020, it gave some a break.

“The experience of people working productively without all the excess of mental challenges, physical challenges, organizational challenges that they met when they were at the office gave them a different view of how they can live their lives and work in the future,” Banks said.

Blustein sees quiet quitting as a companion to the Great Resignation, which saw the national quit-rate rise from 1.6% in April 2020 to 3% in November 2021 – the highest rate since the government started tracking quit numbers. Over 47 million Americans quit their job in 2021. In a survey of quitters, Pew found most cited low pay, opportunities for growth and feeling disrespected as the top reason for quitting.

“Quiet quitting is part of a larger picture of this being a period of rethinking the institution of work,” Blustein said. “The pandemic was really a trigger point for working people.”

This was the case for “Ken”, a high school teacher in Iowa, who wished to be identified by a pseudonym for fear of professional repercussions. When the pandemic forced classes to go remote, it ended up offering a glimpse at what work-life balance could be.

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Once Ken came back to teaching in-person, he started to quiet quit, though the term had not been invented yet. He held off on staying up late doing grades and saved his energy for family and friends. He thought of fewer fun activities to do for his class and no longer stayed late to chat with students. While the more fulfilling relationships that came with teaching are gone, Ken said it was necessary to get some of his personal life back.

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“I’m kind of realizing I miss having friends, I miss actually having quality time with my family when I’m not totally drained,” he said. The pandemic “gave a lot of a teachers a chance to just be like, ‘Wow, I really enjoy having family time and not feeling exhausted.’”

In a survey released by the National Education Association in February, 55% of educators were thinking about leaving the profession earlier than planned. Ken said he is ultimately switching careers at the end of the year and is quiet quitting to bide his time.

Teachers “are supposed to be [students’] counselor, their second parents, their police officers,” he said. “We’re getting paid nowhere near what would be required of that. That’s the biggest thing for burnout, requiring us to do so many different, enormously important jobs.”

Though quiet quitting may not be the trend it once was, Blustein thinks its manifestation points to something larger that will probably stick around.

“People really are rethinking their relationship with work,” he said. “We don’t know where this is going to land, and it may not really land. It may continue to be a very organic, dynamic process.”

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