What is quiet quitting?: Employees suffering pandemic burnout say they've just stopped working as hard

Lisa Souza, an insurance claims adjuster, regularly volunteered to work on weekends and holidays but the strain was compounded during the pandemic as colleagues retired early or stayed home out of health concerns.

Her workload increased significantly, and she was given projects outside her field, such as setting up new software applications.

“I told them, ‘You’re going to stretch me so far I’m just going to end up being a pile of goo,’” says Souza, who is 57 and lives in Fall River, Massachusetts. “It just got to be too much.’”

So in spring of last year, “I said I’m done. I’m not going to volunteer anymore.”

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Millions of Americans are taking a similar approach. Burned out after logging excessive hours or duties during COVID-19, they’re resolving to meet their job requirements but not go beyond. No toiling late into the night. No calls on weekends. And no pushing themselves to the brink even during regular business hours.

Their determination to stick to their job descriptions has been made possible by widespread labor shortages that have given workers unprecedented leverage over employers.                                                                                                             

“Employees are saying, ‘I’m not going to define myself by traditional markers of career progression and success,’” says Mark Royal, senior client partner for Korn Ferry, a recruiting and human resource consulting firm. “I’m going to put a box around work.”

Many workers “have shifted to doing the bare minimum,” says Annie Rosencrans, U.S. people and cultural director for HiBob, which makes HR software.

What is quiet quitting?

The mindset even has a trendy new moniker, “quiet quitting,” popularized by TikTok creator Zaid Khan in a video late last month that has drawn millions of views.

"You're not outright quitting your job, but you're quitting the idea of going above and beyond," Khan explained in the video.

Quiet Quitting: Zaid Khan posted a video on "quiet quitting" on TikTok that has drawn millions of views.

While that ethos may be bolstering employees’ mental health, it appears to be hurting the nation’s labor productivity and even contributing to inflation, which hovered just below a 40-year high in July.

Nearly half of white-collar workers said they’re turning down projects more frequently now than before the health crisis and resulting labor shortages, according to a May survey of professionals by Korn Ferry. And 62% said they feel more emboldened to insist on a better work-life balance since the labor crunch began.

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Even before the pandemic upended the economy in spring of 2020, a growing number of employees were seeking more flexible hours and remote work options. And more companies were providing them.

COVID burnout fuels quiet quitting

The health crisis dramatically intensified the trend, HR officials say. Early in the pandemic, workers were pushed to the limit as they filled in for their millions of colleagues who were laid off during business shutdowns and the millions more who stayed home to care for relatives or avoid contagion.

As recently as April, 51% of workers surveyed by the Harris Poll said they continued to feel burned out.

“We’re coming to the other side of the pandemic and people are saying, ‘I’m exhausted,’” says Cali Williams Yost, CEO of Flex + Strategy Group, which helps companies adopt flexible work arrangements.

While many Americans who have worked at home during COVID prefer the set-up, it also has exacerbated burnout by coaxing them to do tasks or answer emails or calls at all hours.

“A lot of workers are finding it challenging to disconnect because it’s with us all the time,” says Michelle Reisdorf, district president for Robert Half staffing in Chicago. “There’s definitely people setting boundaries: ‘I’m not available for an (online video) call at 12 or I’m only available until 5.’”

Souza, the claims adjuster, says, “The lines were blurred” between her work and personal life after she began working remotely during COVID.

“You don’t want to hate your house," she said.

Because of staffing shortages, her assignment of taking calls from customers in 15 states every other Saturday expanded to all 50 states. She also sometimes answered calls in the evenings and on holidays.

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“I felt like I was being taken advantage of,” she says, though she notes she received overtime pay.

Souza drew the line in March of last year, declining to volunteer for extra shifts, and she retired a year later. She now works 10 to 15 hours a week as a contractor for a different insurance company.

“Now, it’s on my terms,” she says. “My job fits into my life.”

Disengagement on the rise

For others, remote work is fostering a sense of disengagement that may prompt employees to give less than 100%. Nearly four out of five companies said they’re experiencing employee “engagement issues,” according to a March survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm.

“People don’t feel very connected to their organizations,” says company Senior Vice President Andrew Challenger.

The “quiet quitting” mentality is at least partly being driven by Generation Z, those born between 1997 and 2012, with many entering the workforce during the pandemic's labor shortages.

They know “they can demand more if their employers want more from them,” says Joe Galvin, chief research officer at Vistage, a CEO coaching and consulting firm for small and midsize businesses.

In June, there were 10.7 million job openings and nearly two vacancies for every unemployed worker, Labor Department figures show. Each month over the past year, more than 4 million workers have quit jobs, typically to take higher-paying positions, an unprecedented pace.

As a result, “Everybody’s thinking, ‘They’re not going to fire me because my warm body is better than nobody,’” Royal of Korn Ferry says

Quiet quitting affects productivity

Yet decisions by many employees to work less fervently seems to be affecting productivity, or output per labor hour, which fell at a 4.6% annual rate in the April-June period, the second straight quarterly decline. The 2.5% drop from a year earlier was the largest on records dating to 1948, according to the Labor Department.

"I think (quiet quitting) is part of the reason” for the fall, says Barclays economist Jonathan Millar.

About a third of the companies surveyed by Challenger said employee disengagement is causing a drop in productivity. .

Early in the pandemic and during the Great Recession of 2007-09, the dynamic was reversed: Productivity soared as employees picked up the slack for laid-off colleagues because of worries that they otherwise would lose their jobs.

Lower productivity also contributes to inflation by forcing companies to raise prices more sharply to maintain profits since they’re receiving less output for the wages they’re shelling out.

How to fix it

Experts say companies and employees should remedy “quiet quitting” by addressing burnout. Employers should prioritize tasks so staffers don’t feel overwhelmed and set rules about when emails or instant messages can be answered, Yost and Royal say.

Instead, many firms aren't communicating clearly with their employees.

Such an approach would benefit both businesses and workers because eventually the economy and labor market will head south, flipping the bargaining power back to employers, Challenger says.

“If the labor market turns, those people (who quietly quit) will be at the top of the list” of layoffs, he says.

Worker burnout is prompting employees to draw the line.
Worker burnout is prompting employees to draw the line.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What is quiet quitting? Burned-out employees dial back work efforts