We have all heard the term quiet quitting, and there has been much written about this already. For those of us working in human resources, we have seen this term and probably rolled our eyes. Isn’t this what we have been talking about for years? Aren’t we really talking about employee engagement? Zaid Khan, a 24-year-old software engineer and musician in New York describes quiet quitting as “You’re still performing your duties but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life.” His TikTok video went viral. 

From what I have read, many articles tend to describe this as a Gen-Z phenomenon, or something that only afflicts the young at work. Others refer to the impact of burnout and link it back to the great resignation. And others still ponder whether it is purely a social media ‘thing’! 

So here are my thoughts… quiet quitting is real, it always has been. In the sometimes-disconnected world of human resources, we have always described this as ‘dis-engagement’ – those who are not willing to put in extra discretionary effort beyond what their job description calls for. More importantly we need to consider why this so big now. Is it all due to the pandemic? The answer is some, not all.  

In a recent McKinsey article aimed at Gen-Z, they discuss three contributing factors: 

Disconnection – the pandemic has certainly contributed to this, with some employees feeling removed and isolated with remote work. According to McKinsey research, Gen-Z in particular has the highest rates of mental-health concerns, and work isolation. 

Too much connection – Whilst we may not be physically in the office, there is some expectation that employees should be online 24/7. The workday never really ends. 

A different direction – careers that move from the idea of a “dream job” to a job that supports our dreams instead. 

Whilst some of these factors play out differently for each generation within the workforce and certainly there is much cause for concern regarding the rapidly increasing mental health concerns for Gen-Z – the fundamentals are the same across the entire workforce. A global survey by the McKinsey Health Institute finds that employees around the world are facing persistent levels of burnout, with an average of 1 in 4 employees experiencing burnout symptoms.  

So, what can companies and HR do about this? 

There has already been significant focus on investing more into mental health and well-being in the workforce than ever before. But are we focusing on the right things? Here are some things to think about. 

One size does not fit all – increasingly I see business and human resources focusing on policies once again that are applied consistently across the whole workforce. Take hybrid work. How can we possibly think that ‘forcing’ all employees back into the office on a set number of days per week can be a good thing? For most, the concept of hybrid work is welcome, providing a balance of connection and work-life balance. However, for it to be truly effective, provide people the choice – choice of days, choice as to whether they come in or not based on other things going on in their lives. Choice provides people with a feeling that they have some control and are valued. 

Flexibility is key – but not everything! As per above, however don’t under-estimate the positive impact of valuing people for the work they do, recognising their contributions and paying them fairly for their work! 

Clarity of role – Providing clear job descriptions, clear goals that can be measured (no matter where or how they are working) and working with your employees to focus on clear priorities all help with clarity, focus and productivity. Consistently trying to work out what it is you should be focusing on can be exhausting, lack of clarity and misalignment around expectations can lead to employees struggling to work out how they add value, poor behaviours and ultimately some form of burnout. 

Leadership – The McKinsey survey found that toxic workplace behaviour is the biggest driver of negative workplace outcomes, such as burnout and intent to leave. There is significant focus and investment into employee resilience and there is some benefit in this. However, in my mind this is investment into the symptoms not the cause. Poor leadership, under-developed leadership capability across all levels of leadership and lack of leadership from the top all contribute to poor workplace behaviours and can cause significant stress for the individuals concerned. Toxic workplace behaviours cannot be tolerated, and leaders need help and support to manage their workforce in this new world we find ourselves in. 

We live in a complex and disrupted world. As an employer it might feel extremely challenging to get this all right for your workforce. As an employee, you probably just want to know and feel you are doing a decent job and that this is valued by your boss and your employer. Our job in human resources is to support both. Quiet quitting is real and so is burnout, exhaustion, and employee engagement. It is not easy, but the world has changed for good. We must all adapt to this new world and hopefully create workplaces that offer choice, flexibility, and the opportunity for great achievement!