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What is quiet-quitting? Researchers explain rising employee disengagement

A Gallup survey has revealed that about half of the US workforce is ‘psychologically detached’ from their job and prefers to do the ‘bare minimum.’

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There’s a lot of hand-wringing over the “quiet quitting” trend these days, from articles warning employees about the dangers of adopting a passive-aggressive approach to work to consultants urging managers to improve their leadership abilities in order to better motivate their direct reports. A new Gallup survey claims to support the idea that employee disengagement really is on the rise, calling the quiet quitting trend a “crisis.” But whether it’s actually a problem is a matter of perspective.

About half of US employees say they’re not engaged at work—meaning that they “do the minimum required and are psychologically detached from their job,” according to Gallup’s definition. Another 18% are “actively disengaged,” which Gallup defines as people who are “resentful that their needs aren’t being met and are acting out their unhappiness.”

That leaves 32% of workers who are actually engaged with their jobs, which Gallup defines as being “highly involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace.” That’s compared to an engagement rate of 34% last year and 36% in 2020.

But the portion of employees who identified as engaged was even lower between 2000-2014. In other words: employee disaffection is nothing new.

The Gallup survey polled more than 15,000 US workers in June 2022, asking employees about whether they agreed with statements like “The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important” and “This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.”

Quiet quitting around the world

It’s also worth noting that US workers are positively delirious with professional enthusiasm compared to workers in many other regions, according to Gallup’s recent report on the state of global workplace. In 2021, 33% of workers in the US and Canada said they were engaged at work, compared to 14% of workers in Europe.

Employee engagement around the world

For workers, quiet quitting doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re spending eight hours a day feeling miserable or checked out. Image: Gallup, State of the Global Workplace: 2022 report

Nor is the philosophy behind “quiet quitting” a strictly American idea. It bears a lot of similarity to recent trends among Chinese millennials such as “touching fish” (mō yú), in which young people exchange tips on how to waste time on the clock by drinking eight glasses of water a day or exercising in the office pantry.

Is quiet quitting really a bad thing?

Whether or not people are markedly more disaffected at work than they used to be, it makes sense that the concept of quiet quitting has taken off in the wake of related trends like the Great Resignation and the anti-work movement. And given that higher employee engagement is linked with greater productivity, it also makes sense that companies and managers are worried about the spread of quiet quitting amongst their staff.

But for workers, quiet quitting doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re spending eight hours a day feeling miserable or checked out. In a viral post that’s garnered 3.5 million views, TikTok user Zaid Khan defines quiet quitting as “quitting the idea of going above and beyond” and “no longer subscribing to the hustle-culture mentality that work has to be your life.”

This approach—fulfilling your job requirements but refusing to log long hours without added compensation—sounds less like giving up and more like striving for fair pay and a reasonable work-life balance. “The main confusion seems to be what any of that has to do with ‘quitting,’ as opposed to just…meeting your job expectations?” Danielle Cohen recently observed in New York Magazine’s The Cut.

Doing the minimum and feeling psychologically detached from one’s job could mean—as one career coach recently told the New York Times—that people are missing out on a chance to feel real purpose in their lives. But it’s also highly possible that self-identified quiet quitters are trying to locate their sense of purpose and identity in areas outside their jobs—whether that’s friends, family, hobbies, activism, spirituality, creative pursuits, or any combination thereof.

Meanwhile, it’s true that someone who decides to turn in a merely adequate performance may find themselves less likely to get promoted and more likely to get laid off. But companies regularly pass over deserving candidates for promotions. They also lay off hardworking people all the time, because they’re eliminating entire teams or because of innumerable other factors ranging from seniority to personal relationships. Some quiet quitters may figure that if they lack career growth opportunities and job security, there’s not much point in channeling all their energy into work.

All in all, quiet quitting doesn’t seem to have many concrete downsides for employees. It’s a much bigger problem from the perspective of a boss who’s long relied on employees doing work that isn’t accounted for in their salaries or job descriptions. But if quiet quitting takes hold, perhaps companies will be forced to adapt their business practices accordingly—whether that means hiring more workers to achieve productivity goals rather than expecting people to put in 10-hour workdays, or paying overtime to employees when they burn the midnight oil.

This article was originally published in The World Economic Forum.

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