Quiet Quit or Unf*ck Work?
It was such a TikTok thing to do – demand attention, that is. On this occasion, as the re-phrasing of the industrial action favourite ‘work-to-rule’ in a far less meaningful yet decidedly more romantic expression, through ‘quiet quitting’. Another product of the Great Whatever that followed the pandemic. Its strapline, “work is not your life”, heralds yet another realisation in an eternal series: that work is fucked. If it instinctively feels like something you’ve debated since your very first crispy pay packet, real or metaphorical, you’d be right. It is. This time, however, it got a lot of Likes.
Work-to-rule is self-explanatory. Trade unions, often fighting bitter battles over livelihoods and communities at the lower reaches of the wage hierarchy, couldn’t have it any other way. Quiet quitting isn’t self-explanatory – it’s neither quitting, nor quiet. You’re still there, and you’re making a thing of it. Nor is it earthy or have anything to do with livelihoods or communities. Yet it’s offered a new zeal to those numb from the seemingly-endless debate about working from home. It beats waiting for a tech giant to publish another attention-demanding report, after all. They’re not so different from a TikTok post.
Beyond mere attention, quiet quitting has emerged as a manifesto so open to interpretation as to have attracted adherents from all quarters happy to rationalise and proclaim it’s genius. There’s a bold ‘no more!’ in its essence, a demand for a demarcation between work and private life, a commitment to a clear statement of the limits of commitment: ‘acting my wage’. Quiet quitting is a reaction, no less, to the decades of the collective pursuit of what Human Resources (HR) functions loved to call ‘engagement’. A reaction to its nemesis, ‘quiet firing’, where an employer or manager pursues a sustained programme of low-level, barely discernible abuse intended to force the individual to quit. Which isn’t quiet firing at all, it’s abuse. It needs to be called what it is, not flowered up for comfortable consumption. We’ll return to this shortly.
Beyond the mainstream press and social media radar, however, the term itself is another example of the pervasive symbolism of language with the power to codify and solidify an inherently destructive apparatus of work. Which, oblivious, we willingly perpetuate. It’s a phrase therefore that needs understanding and dismantling.
For HR, engagement was their golden ticket, the solution to their wandering in the wilderness between being a trusted ally of the worker and a valued business partner to management. HR made engagement a valid pursuit. They could have happy, motivated employees aligned with the mission and values of the organisation, offering discretionary effort in going ‘the extra mile’ and ’above and beyond’ in its service. They could simultaneously have an organisation reaping the benefits of an additional layer of non-remunerated and often un-recognised time and effort expended on its behalf, sustaining the ‘trickle out’ economics of shareholder capitalism. All engagement often required was a catalogue of benefits such as dawn yoga and free apples to sustain the ruse, and an annual survey that could be ready in any way required to prove it was working.
But it hasn’t been working. For all the effort engagement yielded little but attention. Gallup’s global 2022 workplace report showed that only 9% of workers in the UK were enthusiastic about their work, placing it 33rd out of 38 European countries. The post-pandemic transactionalisation of work has no doubt contributed: the return to an early 19th Century focus on pure output rather than contribution, together with the loosening of emotional ties to colleagues for office workers from mere occasional physical presence has rendered it easier than ever to join and leave an organisation. It’s as if ‘gig work’ – for many the future non-employment panacea – was not destroyed by Covid but rather forced inside organisations, becoming mainstream. Yet quiet quitters advocate a transactional relationship. Emotion is for life, not for work.
Quiet quitting is also a potentially catastrophic goal in its own right. In a deeply polarised world of work (often simplistically pitched as workers versus managers) it’s given managers an emotional script. The workers are lazy. They’re uncommitted. All of them. Soldiering, as Frederick Taylor would have said, settling on the standards of the worst performing and least motivated member of the team. Especially those working from home, naturally, tormented by memories of the serried white desks awaiting them. None of which, naturally, has anything to do with the inadequate quality of management deployed. It’s another convenient escape route for those believing themselves entitled to an escape route.
There are other problems with quiet quitting, too. What does only doing ‘what you’re paid to do’ mean, anyway? Job roles are inherently vague, often created before the job exists or has been tried, written by someone who doesn’t understand what the job may be or become, a statement at a point in time that rarely evolves with the job. A role invariably gets defined by the performer in the performance. Deciding what lies beyond its boundaries becomes problematic when the boundaries have been set by the incumbent.
Work-to-rule was organised, usually targeted at management or one of their decisions or strategies, its effects are powerful and felt across a broad range of activities. Quiet quitting on the other hand is a personal decision, rarely co-ordinated in any fashion. While seen as ‘one in the eye’ for management, the brunt is often borne by colleagues and friends, as no-one works alone. The slack created has to be borne elsewhere.
Quiet quitting is also not binary. There will be times when we’ll be asked to do more than at other times, pushing our boundaries. We rather hope it evens itself out over time. Just as we all have days where we’re on fire, and days where we just can’t get any momentum and don’t feel like creating any. We’ll hope that evens itself out over time, too. For most, this ebb and flow of input and output is simply work. It’s only when a pattern begins to dominate and becomes the norm that we’re alerted.
Lastly, we’ve only just been told across social and mainstream media that everyone’s quitting in the post-pandemic Great Resignation, off to work for organisations who subsidise four days a week (and pay for five) working from a location of unlimited choice, on treble the money with half the workload. This non-event supposedly had similar roots to quiet quitting, emerging from a heightened awareness of our own mortality, a revaluation of the meaning of work and its place in our lives.
Yet we have every right to be sceptical about the advocacy of a personal, passive remedy for a problem that is deep and widespread; of turning away rather than attempting to solve it. The purposeful response to unsustainable work isn’t a mardy (and ultimately fatal) sulk like a latter day Bartleby, this solves nothing at all for anyone. The reaction should be decisive and visible.
If the role isn’t right or the expectations are too great, then we should find something else and actually quit. If we’re paralysed by anxiety, the constant search for validation; if there’s toxicity, poor treatment, unfairness or anything that may be affecting others, or likely to, then we should quit noisily. The reasons should be called out. If there are motives to stay but negative factors causing anything from disquiet to risk, we should galvanise and if necessary organise others to fix it. For us and those after us. And we should do that noisily, too. Just as no-one’s going to quiet quit for us, no-one’s going to unfuck work for us. It’s time we stopped looking at TikTok and got on with it.
Neil Usher is a professional workplace and change leader with over 30 years' global experience in a variety of sectors. He’s been blogging and writing about work and the workplace for over a decade and is a regular conference and webinar speaker. Author of the practical, no-nonsense guides 'The Elemental Workplace' (2018) and ‘Elemental Change’ (2020), he’s highly regarded for his willingness to critically challenge commonly held views and ideas while retaining perspective and humanity. He lives in London, UK.
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