The truth behind quiet quitting: silent apathy or healthy boundaries?

27 November 2023

Quiet quitting has been making headlines lately, often with a negative connotation implying younger workers are lazy or entitled. But is this really an accurate portrayal? Perhaps quiet quitting is less about motivation and more about employees—particularly millennials and Gen Z—setting healthy boundaries and expectations in the workplace.

The term quiet quitting (and its related cousin ‘lazy girl’) originated from TikTok, and describes an employee who performs only the minimum requirements of their job. They put in no more time, effort or enthusiasm than absolutely necessary.

Quiet quitting might look like:

  • Chronic disengagement, particularly when they’ve previously been very engaged.
  • Performing the bare minimum, particularly when they’ve previously strived for more.
  • Isolation from other members of the team.
  • Withdrawal from non-necessary conversations, activities and tasks.
  • Attendance at meetings but not speaking up or taking action.
  • Teammates reporting a sudden increase in their workload in having to pick up the slack.

A recent Gallup poll reveals that 67% of employees worldwide are quietly quitting, significantly impacting economies. Australian businesses face losses of AU$211 billion, with New Zealand’s economy losing NZ$36.5 billion. Globally, quiet quitting accounts for an astounding USD$8.8 trillion loss, equivalent to 9% of global GDP.

Soothing workplace burnout

Interestingly, Gallup puts a wellbeing spin on the trend, stating it happens when someone “psychologically disengages from work. They may be physically present or logged into their computer, but they don’t know what to do or why it matters. They also don’t have any supportive bonds with their co-workers, boss or their organisation.”

This suggests that it’s less about laziness, and more about purpose and belonging.

Research shows that purpose and belonging are two of the most important factors in employee engagement and retention. According to Hays Salary Guide, offering purposeful work was one of the top three ways to retain employees. And a Gallup poll found that 71% of millennials who know what their organisation stands for plan to be with their company for at least one year.

Some have even suggested that quiet quitting is a proactive way to manage burnout because it requires the person to set better boundaries around their work. The fact that many employees have resorted to quiet quitting suggests workplaces are not addressing or taking burnout seriously enough. Burnout is still ranging across the country—with in the last year.

If organisations aren’t going to take measures to reduce and prevent burnout, it seems this generation will take matters into their own hands.

The silent struggle of workplace imbalance

The quiet quitting trend suggests that employees are increasingly feeling that the exchange of effort and benefits has become unbalanced. Employers are demanding additional effort from workers, without investing in them enough in return.

It’s not as though employers are not willing to try. Many are making efforts to invest in their people and are putting measures in place to boost wellbeing. The problem is they often focus on the wrong things.

In their report , PwC found that there is a “sizeable gap” between what employees want and what senior leaders think their people want. Read more about what workers actually seek out in our report, ‘The 7 Pillars of Retention’.

Interpreting silence: identifying quiet quitting in your workplace

Disengagement can—of course—be situational or short-term. Sometimes we just have a bad day or a bad week. And sometimes these things show up differently in different people.

A person who is very shy may not ever be engaged in meetings so that wouldn’t ring any alarm bells for us. But a person who is regularly very outgoing and engaged and suddenly becomes very quiet or withdrawn would be piquing our interest.

It’s up to us as leaders to have the emotional intelligence to see when patterns are arising, to know when something’s off with our people, and to calmly and genuinely check in when things start changing.

Rather than labelling employees as quiet quitters, leaders should engage them in dialogue:

  • What motivates you?
  • What are your career goals and expectations?
  • How can we create a workplace where you feel valued?

Regular stay surveys and exit interviews can provide insight into why people leave jobs—and what would motivate them to stay.

Often people won’t speak up until they’re asked. And even then, they may deny anything’s wrong. Offering support—even if it’s not taken at the time—is something we can all do.

Some practical steps to combat quiet quitting

If you suspect your people are quiet quitting, there are some things you can do.

  • Make sure your people have what they need to do the job. That includes bathrooms, fresh drinking water, appropriate desks and chairs, the right tools and equipment.
  • Don’t overwork and underpay your staff. Most employees are happy to step up when needed but don’t make it permanent and always compensate them properly for their effort. Shifting expectations are exhausting!
  • Provide development opportunities. Help your employees develop their skills and identify where they want to go in their careers. Investing in your people is an investment in your business. And remember: the types of development or stretch opportunities that people may be seeking will vary—it’s not one size fits all!
  • Walk your talk: your business values and culture need to match what happens on the ground. If you say you’re a flexible workplace, you need to show it!
  • Formalise your onboarding and offboarding processes so staff feel valued as they enter and exit the company. Value what your employees think by booking stay surveys and/or exit interviews. It’s the only way to get a true indication of what people are really thinking.
  • Support the wellbeing of your employees: physical, mental, emotional, work-life balance, maintaining boundaries.

Remember, it’s not about perks and gym memberships or fancy team-building retreats. There’s more to retention than that.

People who feel understood and valued, stay.
People who aren’t supported, understood or engaged, usually leave.

But then there’s a third group: those that stay but remain chronically disengaged. And these might be the biggest risk to your business of all.

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