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'Quiet quitting' is taking over the workplace – what exactly does it mean?

By NICK GARCIA Published Aug 23, 2022 4:15 pm Updated Aug 24, 2022 2:25 pm

Ah, hustle culture.

Exceeding the eight-hour shift, going the extra mile in deliverables, even taking part-time jobs or freelance gigs on the side, the whole nine yards. Whether it's for one's perceived professional growth, self-validation, or extra moolah, it’s often at the expense of meals, sleep—even quality "me," "babe," or family time.

Many millennials and Gen Z professionals are already getting disillusioned with such a system nowadays. A phenomenon called "quiet quitting" is looming over workforces here and abroad.

To put it simply, quiet quitting is doing just the bare minimum at work. As TikTok user @zaidleppelin explained in a viral video, it's not about intentionally failing to fulfill one's expected tasks but rather doing away with hustle culture.

@zaidleppelin On quiet quitting #workreform ♬ original sound - ruby

It’s been the case for Ezra* (name withheld by request), a 25-year-old freelance architect who worked at a local architecture firm for six months.

After passing the licensure exams last January, Ezra was excited to finally focus on designing buildings after serving as a field architect for a local construction company from 2018 to 2020. Ezra's tasks mostly involved supervising labor on the field and enforcing the implementation of architectural plans, but didn’t really get to work on plans that much.

But little did they know that they’d be walking into a lion’s den as a junior architect for a local firm. Ezra told PhilSTAR L!fe they mostly did “fast-paced” commercial projects that required following rigid orders and guidelines, instead of “intimate” residential projects that would allow their imagination to flow aplenty.

Worse, Ezra said their monthly salary was at P15,000—government premiums excluded and work experience notwithstanding—for a job that mostly required overtime to beat deadline after deadline. The overtime pay, they said, amounted to P100 per two hours.

They also pointed out that their team leader wasn’t connecting with them enough for the better part of their short stay. Coupled with being overworked and underpaid, Ezra started looking for other opportunities, already using the quiet quitting techniques weeks before finally quitting the firm.

“Na-realize ko na di ito ang work environment para sa akin,” they said. “Naramdaman kong, ‘Bakit pa ako magsisipag dito?’” adding they were at least hoping for mentorship.

To add insult to injury, it was only when Ezra resigned, they said, that their boss gave retrospective advice on how their work could’ve been improved.

While a freelance architect now, Ezra is working from home as a photovoltaic permit designer for a California-based solar power company, where they prepare architectural plans for residents who wish to install solar panels.

Keeping in mind the harrowing experience with a local firm, Ezra said they’re only doing what’s necessary with their new day job, which, for them, only acts as a source of steady income to help tide their family over.

Not new, but escalated during pandemic

In fact, the workplace trend of quiet quitting isn’t exactly new. United Kingdom-based human resources magazine People Management reported that workers have already been doing it for years, whether to look for a new job or to disconnect due to lack of career growth, poor pay, or unmanageable workload.

It’s just that the practice escalated because of how COVID-19 turned lives and pre-pandemic routines upside down.

People began seeing the values and norms of life from a different perspective, according to Dr. Georgina Gozo-Oliver of the Department of Psychiatry of Veterans Memorial Medical Center in Quezon City.

“We used to define ourselves by the work we do and derive satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment from it,” she told PhilSTAR L!fe. “When people started working from home, they were forced to face their other roles as mother, father, daughter/son in a major way, time-wise and space-wise.”

The daily news of millions dying of COVID-19, Gozo-Oliver said, also forced people to acknowledge their mortality and how short life can be, prompting them to reevaluate their goals.

Alex* (name withheld by request), a 26-year-old content specialist for a local company for several years now, told PhilSTAR L!fe they were constantly doing more than what’s expected from them for campaign ideas. In time, the trait became a double-edged sword as teammates have been “taking advantage” of that by piling on more work.

We used to define ourselves by the work we do and derive satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment from it. When people started working from home, they were forced to face their other roles[.]

Alex shared that their boss has also been adamant about doing things a certain way and at a certain time even if there was a lot of other pending work, turning their passion to a mere following of orders.

“(My boss) doesn’t trust my own instincts and what I feel brings good results,” they said, noting how work has taken a toll on their mental health.

After the fact, especially for campaigns that didn’t perform well, Alex said their boss would play the blame game, making them feel that their work was not good enough.

“I’m slowly starting to hate my job,” they said.

At the behest of their support system, Alex noted that they’ve been employing the quiet quitting tactic recently.

“Basically, just be emotionless with your job,” they said. “Just do things as you’ve been told and don’t always exert yourself to the limits…to realign your focus on things that matter.”

A study this year by UK-based professional services network Deloitte found that millennials and Gen Z professionals are seeking more flexibility and purpose in their work, increased learning and development opportunities, and better mental health and wellness support. A 2021 survey from American analytics company Gallup also found that millennials and Gen Z professionals, above anything else, want employers that care about well-being, not only on the physical level but also career, social, financial, and community levels.

Human after all

Gozo-Oliver said that while numbers and metrics are necessary in the workplace, employers must remember that employees are first and foremost humans, not robots.

“They have to factor in their employees' need to be seen, heard, acknowledged, and valued. When such needs are addressed, the level of motivation increases,” she said, adding that it results in higher productivity and better quality yield, which then prevents quiet quitting.

When employees are unhappy with their jobs, Gozo-Oliver said motivation becomes low, triggering a domino effect in which productivity suffers, followed by the output, and ultimately, the company itself.

“The phrase ‘happy wife, happy life’ could be extrapolated to ‘happy employee, happy company,’” she said.

Gozo-Oliver also advised workers to make a concrete effort to balance work and life.

“There should be sleep time, meal time, recreational time, family time, etc. apart from work time,” she noted. “Time-management and prioritizing is key.”

For her, employees must actively inform their bosses or colleagues that they won’t be replying to work-related queries outside of their shift. Ultimately, the onus is on employers to show value for fellow human beings by respecting their private time, Gozo-Oliver said.

The phrase ‘happy wife, happy life’ could be extrapolated to ‘happy employee, happy company.'

Ezra, meanwhile, said the key is acknowledging one’s limits at work, since there are good days and there are bad days.

“If this day, for example, di ako naging productive, it's okay. Pwede akong bumawi sa next day,” they said. “Pag sinabi ng katawan mong kailangan mo magpahinga, kailangan mong magpahinga…Di mo dapat pinapagod sarili mo hanggang sa ma-burnout ka. Mas mahirap mag-bounce back pag ganoon.”

If possible, Ezra urged employers in the country to conduct one-on-one talks with employees at least weekly, something that they appreciate in their new job.

They noted that because of the pandemic, it’s inevitable for the personal and professional lives not to converge—whether on-site, work from home, or hybrid—and employees must learn to open up to their bosses about what’s going on in their lives.

“I think that's okay, as long as naipapaalam anong nangyayari, (na tipong ang employer ay), ‘Ah, kaya pala ganoon performance niya dahil may ganito siyang dinadala,’” Ezra said. “May genuine assessment dapat, di iyong nagbibigay lang ng workload sa tao without knowing their problems.”

Pag sinabi ng katawan mong kailangan mo magpahinga, kailangan mong magpahinga.

Alex, meanwhile, is hoping for employers, especially those from older generations, to adapt to the ever-evolving workforce.

“They need to understand that what might have worked during their time won’t work in the present,” they noted, adding that employers must avoid micromanaging and learn to trust employees in decision-making, as good employees will always do their best to get the job done—and done right. 

“They can’t insist on their own ways because it doesn’t help them evolve in their career. It just makes employees do certain things to impress them, even when their personal time and morals are at stake,” they said.

Gozo-Oliver also clarified that though one may resort to quiet quitting, it doesn’t necessarily mean that one cannot be hardworking anymore, especially when the fruits of the labor are being shared with loved ones.

“You do your best to accomplish what you set out to accomplish, and savor and enjoy the rewards your hard work brings,” she said. “Without people to share it with, the victory would be empty.”

Instead, it’s workaholism or the “work is life” practice that isn’t acceptable, Gozo-Oliver noted, as it won’t truly bring contentment and fulfillment.

At the end of the day, Alex noted that it’s best for employees to prioritize their mental health. In their case, Alex is trying to spend more time reading books, binge-watching on Netflix, working out, hanging out with loved ones, and most importantly, getting enough sleep.

“We won’t be at a hundred percent (at work) every day,” they noted. “Having a mindset that there’s more to life is a big, big help because it allows you to not give too much yourself in the workplace.”

[Bosses] can’t insist on their own ways because it doesn’t help [employees] evolve in their career. It just makes employees do certain things to impress them, even when their personal time and morals are at stake.

In a 2017 essay for The New Yorker, the late Nobel Prize in Literature Laureate Toni Morrison recalled one of her earliest jobs, i.e., cleaning the “beautiful” house of a wealthy woman. While she initially loved it, Morrison was handed more difficult duties other than scrubbing floors and washing clothes, like carrying bookcases upstairs and moving the piano across the room.

When Morrison complained about work to her father, hoping for sympathy, he told her, “Listen. You don’t live there. You live here. With your people. Go to work. Get your money. And come on home.”

But for her, these are the things that she heard—which the working class, quiet quitting or otherwise, ought to read and keep in mind.

  1. Whatever the work is, do it well—not for the boss but for yourself.
  2. You make the job; it doesn’t make you.
  3. Your real life is with us, your family.
  4. You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.