Opinion: “Quiet Quitting” Is Bad Advice

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Opinion: “Quiet Quitting” Is Bad Advice

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After a TikTok video about “quiet quitting” went viral, millions of people have shared their thoughts on the concept, which the video defines as “still performing duties” just not going “above and beyond.” While I get why the idea resonates with tired, exploited workers, this is a counterproductive, isolating, and ultimately demoralizing message.

To be sure, plenty of employers exploit their workers, and the mental health effects of burnout are serious. But burnout is not just about being overworked – it’s about being emotionally burned. Having your spirit broken. Proposing that the best way to deal with this is by ceasing to care at all is to accept defeat and tell yourself it’s a victory. It puts the power in your hands, but only in your own mind (like saying, “You can’t fire me, I quit,” but without even the dignity of actually leaving).

When we use the word “quiet” to describe what is a perfectly acceptable approach to paid labor, we’re making that seem like something to be cagey and furtive about.

That’s not revolutionizing an unhealthy work culture – it’s reinforcing it.

To be quiet is to hide, and hiding implies a sense of shame and fear. It raises the question: what is that we’re ashamed and afraid of? I suspect that to some extent, it’s the possibility of being “merely acceptable” employees, not exceptional ones. Sure, there may be some practical fear; workers might feel that if their supervisors know they’re phoning it in, they’ll let them go. But the entire premise of “quiet quitting” rests on the assumption that you’re not slacking enough to get fired. It’s not sabotage, it’s coasting. Either way, in this scenario, workers are the ones feeling that shame and fear, not employers. Viewed that way, quiet quitting doesn’t look like much of a victory.

There are many things we used to be quiet about as a society – mental health, sexism, racism, to name a few. In every case, it’s been opening up and becoming louder – not quieter – that’s led to meaningful societal change. Would it not feel better if we could, say, be open with our employers, colleagues, and selves about the fact that we’re “merely” fulfilling our duties? Is it not possible to take pride in that, still? While it can be hard to find people who feel safe to talk to, it’s nearly always worth trying. Outside of a given workplace, there are Facebook groups for people who do similar jobs, membership-based industry organizations, mental health professionals, and services like Empower Work, a free, text-based peer counseling service. All of these offer a practical alternative to keeping quiet about your discontent.

Then there’s the word choice of “quitting.” Since we’re not talking about actually leaving, the focus is on a sort of emotional (or maybe spiritual) departure. It’s possible for a person to take some satisfaction in her work without pushing herself too hard.

But “quitting” implies we have to choose between two extremes – striving to the point of burnout or disconnecting from the activity we spend the majority of our waking hours doing.

How is that the route we’re most excited about? It may not be morally wrong, but it’s at least a little sad. Take out the catchy, alliterative word choice and consider its synonyms. Would we be so amped about “silent disengagement”? “Voiceless disillusionment”? That sounds a lot like depression.

Quiet quitting is also an isolated, individualistic approach that puts the onus on oneself to adjust your behavior without any hope of changing the culture of work.

As the writer Anne Helen Peterson brings up in her newsletter, none of the Tik Tok discourse seems to talk about the decades-old strategy used by labor activists of “work to rule” – a tactic wherein a group of workers collectively decides to work as slowly as possible, with the goal of frustrating employers and showing them how much they rely on a satisfied, motivated workforce. But as Peterson points out,that approach only actually produces change when enough people do it in an organized, intentional way. In contrast, quiet quitting seems like a lonely pursuit. It may be less overtly risky than a labor movement, but it carries plenty of risks for the individual.

The practical risks of purposely underperforming are easy to point out, especially for people with statistically less job and financial security such as women and people of color.

Even if you don’t get yourself fired, you might miss out on promotions or raises, limiting your earning potential and thus overall ability to build savings – a choice that will impact you for the rest of your life. You might make fewer quality relationships with coworkers, who might otherwise help open doors for you and remain a resource long after you leave your current workplace (not to mention make your day-to-day less lonely and more enjoyable). You might, paradoxically, find yourself more micro-managed if you fail to earn the trust of your supervisors.

For all of these reasons, “quiet quitting” is yet another privilege of those who can afford to gamble with their own potential.

Still, even the most privileged worker has something to lose by disengaging, if only in terms of their ability to live a meaningful, fulfilling life. Sure, you may gain a temporary sense of relief from giving yourself permission to try less. But at what cost? The opportunity to confront your problems at work and potentially find ways to feel more genuinely engaged? The deep sense of satisfaction you can get from taking pride in your work, even if you are “only” fulfilling your duties?

My issue really has nothing to do with how much someone is working or not working. If a person needs to scale back how much energy they’re pouring into a job in order to maintain better mental and physical health, I believe they should absolutely do that. My issue is with referring to your behavior as “quitting” when you are still very much staying and giving of yourself. That discounts all the work you are doing, and for which you should still give yourself credit. Whether or not you view “fulfilling your duties” as a source of shame or a source of pride may not make any difference in your performance, and it may not look any different to your supervisor or peers. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a meaningful difference in how it will feel. It’s the difference between self-judgment and self-acceptance, between a defeated sense of complacency and a healthy sense of boundaries.

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