Can a robust employee experience counteract the quiet quitting trend?

Need to know:

  • The term quiet quitting refers to employees contributing the bare minimum in their jobs and putting in no more time or effort than is necessary.
  • It is in a response to the burnout many employees are experiencing, and can be considered disrespectful to the hard work that many have contributed during the pandemic.
  • The trend points to a deeper issue of disengagement and demotivated employees, and places more of a focus on setting clear work-life boundaries.

The term quiet quitting started appearing in headlines and email subject lines in the summer of 2022; but is it the latest workplace buzzword that will fade out in a few months’ time, or a symptom of a deeper employment issue?

What is quiet quitting?

While the phrase may be new, the idea that unhappy employees show up to work and contribute the bare minimum is not an original one. The term appears to have originated in a TikTok video from career coach Brian Creely, and suggests that some people who are fed up and feeling burntout at work, are simply “taking it easy at work rather than quitting their jobs” or doing anything else to resolve it. Lou Campbell, co-founder and programmes director of Wellbeing Partners, believes that the phrase is disrespectful to hard-working people that have experienced very difficult times. “This trend labelled quiet quitting comes from a moment in history where people have played a huge role in keeping the economy afloat throughout the pandemic,” Campbell says. “People carried on working long hours dealing with very difficult situations and that has led to a high degree of burnout.”

The trend revolves around employees reacting to the working habits developed over the past few years, and rather than going over and above in their roles, contributing no more than necessary. The solution here is to set clear boundaries, says Campbell. “People do want, and should be encouraged, to have boundaries,” she says. “That means not overworking every day, not working long hours every day, and not checking emails once logged out.”

Many employers placed staff wellbeing centre stage during the pandemic, but has that support continued since the end of furlough schemes and a return, for many, to physical workplaces? Do employers recognise the symptoms of a ‘quiet quitter’ in their workplace? Rob Boland, chief operating officer (COO) at Reward Gateway, believes that many employers are not acknowledging the trend. “Until they do acknowledge it, it is just going to become bigger,” he says. “A lot of businesses do look at it as a buzzword and don’t want to acknowledge it, but one of the major factors that has caused and drives quiet quitting is businesses’ lack of acknowledgement that it actually happens.

“The world of work has changed, and many [organisations] are not going to go back to pre-Covid working practices. That’s probably one of the underlying reasons that quiet quitting has become such a fundamental challenge for many businesses.”

Finding the balance

The past few years have been challenging for everyone; the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, the after effect on the economy and the subsequent cost-of-living crisis, have created unprecedented work and home situations. Against this backdrop, the issues of burnout and disengagement among employees are not going to be easily solved. There have been comparisons drawn between the quiet quitting trend and the work-to-rule concept that was prevalent in the 1970s. However, the motivation of work-to-rule was as part of industrial action and a wider collective issue, says Simon Kerr-Davis, counsel in the employment practice at Linklaters. “I see the quiet quitting phenomenon as being a much more individualistic issue,” he explains. “It’s much more about ‘my work-life balance’ and ‘me wanting to do less work and more stuff for myself’, and and working out whether that is possible within the work environment.

“For the last three years we have all had to work in such a different way, and the nature and the approach to people’s work has changed. We have started to see our jobs as being a sequence of tasks, and we’ve lost that sense of occupying a role within an organisation. I think that is the big change, and why this concept is surfacing now, is that for the last three years people have been focusing really on getting their tasks done, and focusing much less on engagement and opportunities for growth.”

It is this focus on employee engagement and motivation that could very well hold the key to diffusing the quiet quitting trend.

Yves Duhaldeborde, senior director in the employee experience team at Willis Towers Watson, says: “Leadership has a huge role to play in motivating people and showing them a vision that’s really attractive. There’s a leadership and management style that for some, feels disconnected with expectations today. Change is happening, and there’s a good opportunity there to say to people, ‘we don’t want you to stay quiet for the change to succeed’. So more involvement, finding people to get involved in any type of innovation and linked to that as well is, management style.”

However, as some employers have adopted hybrid or completely remote working practices, improving those levels of engagement at arm’s length presents its own challenges. “Remote working is obviously something that all businesses have had to embrace for the last three years, but they haven’t then worked out how to recreate that cultural environment of engagement through virtual working,” says Kerr-Davies. “That, to me, is the real challenge because it’s clear that virtual working and agile working are going to continue.”

War for talent

Employee benefits have long been a key component in an employer’s attraction, retention and engagement approach, but are they a strong enough defence to combat quiet quitting? Gallup’s State of the global workplace report, published in June 2022, found that just 9% of UK employees feel engaged in their current role. And so, in a tight labour market as the one we are currently in, the bargaining power lies with the employee, says Lucy Bisset, director of Robert Walters. “We’ve seen many vacancies left unfilled and employers almost scrambling for candidates, which really gives that rise to a war for talent. As a result, [there are] candidates that can find themselves in a position to barter, and that becomes their expectation and their demands on employers become a lot higher.”

The pandemic led to many employees revaluating their lives and looking at how they could achieve that perfect work-life balance, so we saw the emergence of the Great Resignation trend at the end of 2021 when people sought out more attractive opportunities. “A lot of businesses can’t just pay more, that’s not always a solution, “ says Bisset. “The key point is to look at strategies to develop a positive [organisational] culture that fosters cohesion, inspires a forward-thinking approach, making sure that everybody understands their career path and their career development and what is on the table for them.”

Offering this attractive experience has become a key differentiator for employers, but it must be meaningful and valued by employees. “Employee experience is absolutely critical, all the way from hiring to onboarding into regular touchpoints throughout the business,” says Reward Gateway’s Boland. “Benefits are also very powerful tools but what businesses need to do now is actually put in place benefits that are meaningful to their staff.”

This could include benefits that support the organisation’s purpose, for example, offering volunteering days, matched funding for charity work, and considering the pension fund’s investment strategy. “By making these rewards and benefits more engaging, more tailored, more fun to interact with as well, it’s a big piece of the puzzle in terms of getting people more motivated,” says Duhaldeborde. “So when [employers] talk about benefits it could be ‘how we invest your pension’, ‘how we connect with communities’, and so on. It has to be told in a very powerful way. [Employers] need to go back to their roots to really articulate that vision for the business overall, but then find ways to align these benefits and communications with who [they] aspire to be as well.”

Whether quiet quitting is a short-term trend or part of a broader employment issue, the disconnect between employer and staff is not something that should be overlooked. The contributing factors to the disengagement and detachment of employees should be of high importance, and the solution considered a priority.