November 15, 2023
March 1, 2024

What Is Quiet Quitting, and What's Really Behind It?

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We’ve all heard the trendy term “quiet quitting,” right? But what is it, really? Is it actually a problem, or is it simply a clickbait title to get more online traffic?

According to Gallup, quiet quitters make up at least 50% of the workforce, so we know it’s a real issue. But despite the fact that it’s easy to blame lazy employees, quiet quitting rarely means employee issues. Many factors affect the amount of quiet quitting at a business, such as culture, engagement, burnout, and feelings of appreciation.

Businesses need to be aware of quiet quitting, and they need to know that they can make changes to minimize the number of quiet quitters. Let’s dive in and discuss it.

What Is Quiet Quitting?

Quiet quitting is when employees show up and do the bare minimum amount of work required of them. Instead of going the extra mile, seeking out opportunities to help, or asking how they can help, employees fly under the radar, passively handling their responsibilities until they clock out. Sound familiar?

As employers, this can be frustrating—it may seem like you simply hired the wrong person, and you should look to replace them with someone more hard working. However, despite that knee-jerk reaction, quiet quitting isn’t an employee’s fault (usually—it’s best to give your people the benefit of the doubt).

When your employees are quietly quitting, that’s simply a symptom of greater issues within the company. Just as symptoms of the flu stem from minuscule virus cells in the body, quiet quitting is a symptom of small cultural issues that add up.

What Causes Quiet Quitting?

The main causes of quiet quitters at a company are: 

  • Low engagement levels
  • High stress situations
  • Unclear expectations
  • Undervalued employees

In other words, it’s your culture. If you have employees who aren’t engaged, have burned out from stress, don’t know what they should be doing, or feel unappreciated, they’re going to stop going the extra mile. Let’s look at each of these underlying issues and see how to improve them.

Low Engagement

When an employee is engaged, they have an emotional commitment toward and connection to the organization. Engaged employees are happier, more satisfied, and are more productive. And when engagement rises, employee turnover rates sink. 

However, 85% of employees globally are disengaged in their work. Even worse, the ratio of engaged employees to actively disengaged employees is now 1.8 to 1—that means disengagement is more common than you may think.

We’ve posted about engagement before, so at risk of being repetitive, here’s a quick list of ways you can improve engagement:

  • Connect employees’ daily tasks with the mission and goals of the company. Make sure employees feel deep in their bones that their work is important and they’re contributing to the company’s success.
  • Make work more fun and enjoyable. Don’t micromanage people, offer flexibility, and be free with employee recognition. These tweaks can create a culture of excitement, trust, and happiness, making employees much more engaged.
  • Invest in employees’ growth and success. An employee at a dead-end job, no matter how motivated they are, will eventually stop going above and beyond. Show employees that you see and appreciate their efforts by giving them growth and development opportunities. Help them gain skills, grow in responsibility, and move forward.

When employees are engaged, they’re much more likely to go the extra mile. Quiet quitting rapidly shrinks as engagement levels rise.

High Stress

No one likes working in a stressful environment, and that includes “hustle culture.” Hustle culture is jargon for a company that cares more about results than about the wellbeing of the people working there. When you expect an always-on mindset that encourages early mornings, late days, skipped lunches, and noses to the grindstone, employees will quickly burn out—which is another word for quiet quitting.

Life is stressful enough as it is, especially now with economical stress, financial stress, and pandemic-related stress. Don’t add more straw to that hypothetical camel’s back. Work should be fun (see above), engaging (see above again), and, yes, challenging. But that challenge should be manageable, and employees should feel supported in all that they’re doing.

A fantastic way to lower stress is to broaden flexibility. Let employees work where, when, and how they want. Provide plenty of PTO for employees to take breaks and spend time with their family and friends. In short, support employees’ personal lives in addition to their professional ones.

Unclear Expectations

Employees have to know what they’re supposed to be doing, how to succeed, and how they can go above and beyond. If they don’t know these things, they’re not provided clear expectations, they’re never going to do anything over the bare minimum.

In 2015, only around 50% of employees knew what was expected of them. More recently, Gallup shows that less than 40% of younger remote and hybrid employees know what is expected of them at work. Employees have to know what they’re supposed to do. As long as that’s clear, they have the ability and motivation to do more than what’s expected.

Undervalued Employees

When employees don’t feel valued or appreciated, they’re not going to work hard. That’s a simple fact of human nature. On the contrary, 93% of employees who feel valued are motivated to do their best work, and 40% of Americans would put more effort into their work if they were recognized more.

The importance of employee recognition cannot be understated. Think of it this way—if you do something around the house for your spouse or a loved one, and they don’t even notice or acknowledge your efforts, are you going to repeat that action? Probably not. You may feel annoyed or disappointed that you weren’t even thanked for your time. 

Employees feel the same way. They’re not going to work harder if they feel they’re not appreciated enough. And while 80% of senior leaders believe their employees are recognized at least monthly, only 22% of employees report enough recognition.

Use an employee recognition software for easy, automated recognition; plan an Employee Appreciation Day party; buy personalized holiday gifts that employees will love; or hand out genuine thank you notes. These are all ways to increase recognition and make employees feel appreciated.

Bonus Tip: The Importance of Managers

An employee’s direct manager plays a huge role in whether or not the employee quietly quits. HBR provides some eye-opening research, showing that the most effective managers (those who support employees’ wellbeing and balance results with relationships) had 62% of their direct reports willing to give extra effort, and only 3% were quietly quitting. On the flip side, the least effective managers only had 20% of their employees say they’re willing to give extra effort, and 14% who were quietly quitting.

Train managers to show their employees appreciation, recognize their efforts, and support them at work. Make sure your managers know to balance work results with meaningful relationships. And, most importantly according to the HBR research, ensure direct reports trust their managers.

Go From Quiet Quitting to Booming Business

Quiet quitting is just a new term for an old challenge, and quiet quitters exist in every business—but your employees themselves often aren’t to blame. By improving engagement, lowering stress, establishing expectations, giving appreciation, and training managers in healthy management techniques, you can build a culture where employees want to give their all. 

As long as your people feel supported, valued, and trusted, you’ll be surprised at how quickly quiet quitting vanishes.

Jefferson Hansen
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An avid lover of fantasy books, a proud Hufflepuff, and a strong proponent of escapism, Jeff has a love of good storytelling. He relies on that for both his professional work and his writing hobby (don’t ask about the 10+ novel ideas collecting virtual dust on his computer).