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Quiet quitting: You always had workers who did 9-5 but it’s a creeping malaise, employers say


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About two years ago the term “quiet quitting” was added to the workplace vocabulary. It refers to employees who are no longer willing to go the extra mile for an employer and it was widely considered a knock-on effect of the pandemic.

In fact, quiet quitting is not new. Employees have always had the option to reduce their effort if they felt undervalued or overworked. What the pandemic did was bring this resistance right out in the open as many resented the extent to which work had seeped into their personal lives during lockdown. Once a semblance of normality returned, they started kicking back.

What employers have found since is that quiet quitting is worse than the inconvenience of having an employee leave. Quiet quitters are hard to handle, both on the job and in performance reviews, because they continue to complete their assigned workload to the same (often high) standard, giving their managers an uneasy feeling but nothing specific to complain about.

Quiet quitting is subtle, unspoken and slippery to tie down, but a straw poll of managers suggests it is a lot more prevalent post-pandemic. “You always had those who did their 9-5 but not a minute more and never chipped in if there was a crisis. But it’s become like a creeping malaise with a sort of passive-aggressive undercurrent that’s really exhausting,” says one manager in charge of a large finance team in a busy multinational business.

“Their attitude also has an impact on colleagues who are affected by the downbeat vibe and having to pick up the slack. Post-Covid, people are definitely less prepared to start early or work late and less willing to put their hand up if there’s something extra to be done.”

At one level it’s reasonable to ask why should they? They are apparently fulfilling their employment obligations to the letter if not the spirit and if an organisation is constantly relying on employees to put in extra hours to make the business model work, it is going to be in big trouble when that goodwill runs out and it can hardly be surprised that it does.

Job creep, where people end up doing tasks outside the original scope of their role, is a fact of life. However, part of the problem now is that many employers failed to “recalibrate for more normal times” when the pandemic was over, say organisational behaviour expert Prof Anthony C Klotz, from UCL School of Management in London and Mark C Bolino, professor of international business at the University of Oklahoma’s Price College of Business.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, the duo say that, “after more than two years of pandemic-fuelled firefighting, during which more and more activities that might once have been considered ‘above and beyond’ have become expected parts of workers’ jobs, the benefits of citizenship behaviour may increasingly feel outweighed by the costs”.

“Going above and beyond can come at a cost for employees,” they add. “In a healthy organisation, these costs are typically counterbalanced by benefits such as increased social capital, wellbeing and career success. The quiet quitting trend suggests that employees are increasingly feeling that this exchange has become unbalanced: employers are demanding additional effort from workers without investing in them enough in return.”

Klotz and Bolino say that employers need to review employees’ responsibilities and decide what is core and what is extra. They also suggest that the withdrawal of effort may be linked to fatigue because employees don’t feel supported – something that could be tackled relatively easily by asking them (individually) what supports would help. Being flexible is important here as people have different needs depending on age, responsibilities outside work and life stage.

“As a manager in my 50s, I’ve been around the block a few times and I have a certain sympathy for the quiet quitters,” the finance manager says. “But it’s hard to deal with while keeping everyone else engaged. In particular it’s a challenge to ensure that the first job employees on the team don’t assume this behaviour is the norm.

“The other thing that’s becoming apparent is a level of thinly veiled anger among those in the 35 to 45+ age bracket. This is not about the job per se, although they go off like firecrackers if there’s any suggestion that something like the hybrid working arrangements might change. It’s more related to the pressures they’re under outside work but it spills over and people are definitely more tetchy.

“The pandemic tested everyone’s resilience. People became really ill, they had to mourn family members in very difficult circumstances and some of my team are suffering from long Covid so the fallout is still being felt in the workplace.

“But whatever’s going on for my crew, I still have my KPIs to meet so I can only be understanding up to a point. I actively encourage my team to avail of our employee assistance programmes and I try to lead by example by doing a relaxation class at lunchtime (provided on-site) or going outside to get some air if it’s not lashing down.

“I also keep back some of my budget to spend on small rewards like sweet treats when everyone is in the office, buying eggs at Easter or standing them the occasional lunch. I’m not naive enough to assume these gestures will sway the quiet quitters, but for some of my team they make a difference and in the words of the ad: every little helps.”

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