Curbing quiet quitting in the age of work-life balance
Quiet quitting – doing the bare minimum to get by at work – is a growing global trend, but employers could reverse the tide of disinterest by renewing their focus on employee well-being and engagement.
Saying “no” to going the extra mile and rejecting workplace “hustle culture” comes in the wake of people’s changing attitudes to their relationship with work, sparked by remote working during Covid-19.
A sign of the times
It’s a trend that has gone viral on social media, especially TikTok, among younger “Gen Z” employees, and it can negatively impact on both employees’ career prospects and organisational culture and performance, says organisational behaviour specialist Dr Natasha Winkler-Titus, Leadership Development Programme head at Stellenbosch Business School.
“Employees who are quietly quitting are not actually resigning, but they are drawing the line. They are setting boundaries to recalibrate work-life balance and protect their mental health. Work-life boundaries are healthy and necessary, although quiet quitting could be seen as a passive-aggressive way of achieving this, rather than a more constructive, assertive approach.
“It is a signal to employers, though, to focus on employee engagement and well-being and to create a supportive environment where employees feel they have a voice and are being heard. Employers that don’t focus on and enable discussion about improving mental health and employee well-being risk a disengaged workforce or losing employees to companies that offer better wellness benefits,” Dr Winkler-Titus said.
Covid, the quiet contributor
Employee engagement is seen as the opposite of burnout, with positively engaged employees more involved, committed, energised, and mentally resilient. A highly engaged workforce impacts positively on customer satisfaction and business performance.
South Africans working remotely rose from 4% of employees to almost 40% in the Covid-induced lockdowns of 2020, leading to greater awareness of the potential for more autonomy and flexibility in how and where we work, she said.
“This, combined with the mental health impact of the pandemic, prompted people to reflect on the meaning of life and where work fits into it. Expecting people to just return to an old form of ‘normal’ in the workplace creates discomfort and is a factor in employees quietly quitting in order to keep work and life apart,” she said.
Flags for early intervention
Signs of a quiet quitter include missing meetings and deadlines, meeting only the minimum of performance standards, arriving late or leaving early, isolating from a team culture or withdrawing from team and social activities, and showing less commitment, passion or enthusiasm for their work.
In addition to reduced performance and productivity, quiet quitting can negatively impact on interpersonal relationships at work as other team members pick up the slack, and it can be seen as a negative attitude that limits the person’s career progression.
“Some of these behaviours are performance-related and should be treated as performance issues, but much of it really has to do with engagement. High levels of engagement are linked to performance and well-being, but when employees don’t have a voice and feel disempowered, they become demotivated. Supportive management is fundamental to the success of performance management – when this is lacking, employees disengage,” she said.
Employee engagement happens at the cognitive, emotional and behavioural level, she said, and is linked to meeting expectations in the “psychological contract” that employees have with organisations, “the unwritten contract of perceived promises and expectations within the employment relationship”.
When this contract is broken, employees are more likely to leave the organisation, or simply quietly quit, she said.
Speak up on quiet quitting
Dr Winkler-Titus said open dialogue with employees about their expectations and motivations (what they need to improve their engagement with work) would help employers better understand what employees value and what it takes for them to feel respected and valued for their work.
She said employers should encourage and model a positive work-life balance and obtain feedback from employees on their workload and which projects interest them the most.
Performance reviews can include discussions on career aspirations and progression, and upskilling opportunities, to ensure that employees see a meaningful path ahead with the business.
 Survey by business consultants Willis Towers Watson of 66 SA firms employing 207 000 people, conducted in September & October 2020. https://www.willistowerswatson.com/en-ZA/News/2021/01/working-from-home-is-here-to-stay-but-firms-have-no-plans-for-jobs-offshoring-or-pay-cuts-tied