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Quiet quitting: The workplace buzzword that is eating itself

10 Oct 2022

Everyone has been talking about the phenomenon that is much ado about nothing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not doing some damage, writes Jenny Darmody.

An employee power move or simply workers doing what they’re paid for? In recent months, there has been a lot of talk about quiet quitting – the rejection of hustle culture in favour doing enough to get by in your job without it taking over your life.

I’ve watched the speed at which this buzzword has come to life with huge interest. It seemed to start as a celebration of employees taking back some power over their work-life balance and not burning themselves out or working beyond their expected hours.

‘I didn’t want to hop onto the buzzword bandwagon’

But then, the tide turned and the idea started receiving backlash. A lot of the criticism has centred around how people interpret the phrase – whether it means simply doing your job or whether it means putting in the absolute minimum effort to every work task you have.

I’ve even heard of the employer response to quiet quitting known as quiet firing – when employers subtly compel employees to leave their jobs to avoid the messy business of firing them. In my books, that is just a hip new term for constructive dismissal.

And as the debate rumbled on all through August and September, the articles, podcasts and PR pitches just kept rolling in.

I have been hesitant to write about a term that I genuinely believe to be much ado about nothing, because I didn’t want to hop onto the buzzword bandwagon.

For what it’s worth, I do believe taking a step back from hustle culture is a good thing. I also believe that recent decades have seen hordes of companies relying on their employees going above and beyond to make them stand out from the competition – not to mention keeping labour costs down by assuming workers will stretch themselves to cover the work needed.

More harm than good

Pushing back on this is definitely a trend I can get on board with. But I’ve never been a fan of buzzwords and I often believe they do more harm than good.

In an article for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson wrote that quiet quitting “is more likely to validate managers who think that their employees are slackers than to help ordinary workers reclaim their soul”.

Sadly, I have seen plenty of prominent leaders come out against remote working because they assume that employers are slacking off and watching Netflix at home, so I’m not surprised that quiet quitting will become the new term to beat workers with.

After all, no matter what meaning of the term you choose, quiet quitting doesn’t actually involve quitting your job – so should that word even be there?

Damien McCarthy, CEO of HR consultancy firm HR Buddy, said that the term is also specifically targeting Gen Z workers, even though the buzzword has much older roots than the recent surge in popularity stemming from TikTok.

“I know a lot of wise old articles who quiet-quitted a long time ago, they just didn’t post about it on TikTok! It is really wrong to land this on the younger generation and brand them as the ones that are responsible for it,” he said.

“I would be worried that the constant blame being put on Generation Z could create problems and I worry about how that generation are perceiving the commentary around phenomena like quiet quitting.”

Say the quiet part loud

There has also been talk that so-called quiet quitting is bad for employees too. That by engaging in a coasting mindset, you’re actually losing out on finding the opportunities that make you thrive and that ensure your work is meaningful.

HR expert Josh Bersin said: “When you lean into your job, and give it extra effort, you find unexpected value as a result.”

And while we can all agree that the quitting part of the phrase is inaccurate, Bersin argued that the ‘quiet’ part isn’t good either.

“It’s OK to put limits on your work, but don’t do it ‘quietly’. If you tell your boss that you just can’t work these hours and he or she gets upset, maybe it’s just time to leave,” he said.

“If you’re just personally fed up, either tell someone or do something about it. We as employees have much more power than you think.”

McCarthy added that Gen Z workers are much more aware of their mental health and work-life balance compared to previous generations and that needs to be embraced. “Mental health and wellbeing were brushed under the carpet for far too long. This is something that workplaces need to be aware of and approach positively and proactively.”

These are good lessons to consider for both workers and employers. We can say no to overwork and burnout, but we should be doing that openly, not quietly.

Equally, it should not be considered quitting to simply do what is asked of you in the job you are paid for. Creating boundaries is not slacking, but seeking new opportunities in work doesn’t have to come at a cost of your work-life balance.

There will always be nuance to the way we work, especially in the new era we currently find ourselves in. But reducing it all to pithy buzzwords only seeks to create a ‘them-versus-us’ mindset.

For this reason, I’m hoping that the phrase quiet quitting will go above and beyond its own meaning and actually quit being a thing.

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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