What “quiet quitting” is really about (and should you consider it?)

If you were raised by Boomers, you were likely sold a formula for success in the workplace: Go to college, graduate, find an entry-level position, and then work hard, going above and beyond to make yourself promotable, and that corner office will be yours.

For most of us, the reality has been different from the promise. Leaning in at work often just resulted in more work. We believed in hustle culture, made ourselves available at all hours, and then watched the economy collapse around us, first in 2007–2008 during the Great Recession, again in 2020 with the COVID-19 layoffs, and — possibly — again now. Boomers still occupy the corner offices, and lower-wage workers are struggling to survive against 40-year high inflation with minuscule annual raises and no growth opportunities. We’re still waiting for the payoff.

To deal with the disappointment that came from being sold a lie, many workers have responded to stressful, toxic, or unrewarding workplaces by “quiet quitting.” Managers complain that quiet quitting is an excuse for laziness, but workers argue that quiet quitting simply means “acting your wage” and setting boundaries for work-life balance. In this article, we will discuss what quiet quitting really means, where the idea originated, and how to advocate for yourself to prioritize work-life harmony.

What is quiet quitting and where did it come from?

Quiet quitting is the concept of no longer going above and beyond at work, and instead only doing the requirements of your job. The phrase gained popularity on TikTok in March of 2022 and blew up in comment sections across social media. Almost immediately, workers and employers had different views of what quiet quitting really means. Managers were quick to call it an excuse for slacking off. Many employers claimed that “quiet quitting” pointed to larger job performance concerns. Workers pushed back on this idea. Quiet quitting does not mean missing deadlines, slacking on the job, or bringing down the morale of your team by trash-talking your company. Quiet quitting simply means you work only during your work hours, doing your job and nothing more.

The catch-22 of quiet quitting

Unfortunately, because managers and employers have a different perspective on what quiet quitting is, they also don’t understand the factors that lead someone to “quiet quit” in the first place.

Let’s break it down:

  1. You are hired for a job you are extremely excited about. The role is perfect for you and the hiring manager laid out all the opportunities that could come next. You take the job and resolve to work hard and prove yourself.
  2. You spend the next 1–3 years making yourself available at all hours and never saying no to extra work, anxious to show you are a team player.
  3. During every performance review, your manager says you are indispensable and that they are pleased to give you a 2–5 percent raise. You ask about a promotion, and they apologize — the timing just isn’t right. But hang in there!
  4. You start to dread going to work. You feel exhausted and burned out and you notice your coworkers who do the same job as you aren’t working the same hours but are still earning the same salary or are getting promotions you aren’t even being considered for. You ask yourself, “What’s the point?”
  5. You decide to set some boundaries. You stop checking your email after hours and on the weekend. You meet your deadlines and do your best work without any extra effort. Maybe you start looking for a new position because you know that job hopping is a great way to advance your career and increase your earning potential. Surprise! You are a quiet quitter. But really, you are just someone who wants more reward for your effort and more harmony between work and your personal life.
  6. If you are unlucky, your manager notices the change in your approach to your job. They wrongly accuse you of poor performance and say they cannot offer a promotion or a raise because you aren’t going “above and beyond.” More often, though, your manager doesn’t even notice.

Welcome to the catch-22 of the working world. You work yourself into the ground because you believe hard work will result in advancement and recognition. You get neither of those things and start to feel the weight of neglecting your personal life, so you pull back at work and lean into your life outside of the office. Suddenly, you are no longer on the path to promotion — if you ever were. It’s a supremely frustrating  cycle many workers are refusing to participate in anymore. By quiet quitting, workers are saying this practice of paying your dues is nothing more than culturally accepted labor exploitation.

Burnout and hustle culture

In 2019, the World Health Organization recognized burnout in its International Classification of Diseases. “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.”

According to McKinsey, at least half of workers experienced burnout in 2021. For a lot of people, the isolation we experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic acted as a mirror to show us the best and worst parts of our lives. Many office workers shifted to full-time work from home and began to see how often work bled into our personal lives. At the same time, we felt the increased stress that comes from the collective trauma of experiencing a worldwide pandemic. This combination was a recipe for burnout. How many times during the last three years did you hit a wall, only to realize you still had to keep going anyway? The walls eventually become hurdles that grow taller and taller until you can’t surmount them anymore.

This experience was uncomfortable and unfamiliar to anyone who had become used to hustle culture. The American myth that “hard work” and never saying no will move you up the ladder was laid bare. Hustle culture doesn’t work the same way for everybody. If you are a business owner or are paid on commission, hustle directly impacts your take-home pay. But if you are a regular full-time employee who is a cog in a larger machine, hustle might not result in measurable gain.

If this describes you and you feel pressured to hustle, ask yourself how your company rewards performance. Have you (or others) been recognized for going above and beyond? Is there profit-sharing available, which directly ties performance to monetary reward? If you’ve been in the same position and have only received small annual salary increases, such as cost of living increases or merit raises of 2–5 percent, your “hustle” might not matter as much as you think.

Work/life balance vs. work/life harmony

In the past ten years, work/life balance has become another buzz phrase you can expect to see on most careers pages and job listings. Companies love to claim they encourage all employees to prioritize work/life balance. But balance and harmony are two different concepts. Understanding the difference (and the importance of each) could be the key to preventing burnout in the first place.

Work/life balance refers to how much time you dedicate to work versus how much you dedicate to your personal life. It’s about creating separation between your work life and your personal life. Examples of balance include creating a dedicated workspace, especially if you work from home, establishing a routine and taking breaks, and setting consistent office hours.

Work/life harmony is a newer concept. Finding harmony between home and work means making work coexist with your personal life in a way that allows you to derive meaning and contentment from both. Examples of harmony include setting priorities, finding a way to stay present in every aspect of your life, and enjoying what you do.

Imagine you have a job you enjoy. You find the work rewarding and the field interesting. When you are on the clock, you are fully engaged with the work you’re doing. You take the time to set your priorities, you work to the best of your ability every day, and then you leave work behind when you log off.

Now imagine your home life in this scenario. When office hours are over, you are fully present at home. You set priorities there as well, which could be anything from spending time with your family, investing in a hobby or interest, or reading a new book. When you are doing any of these things, you are fully present and not being pulled mentally toward work because you’ve left it behind.

When people “quiet quit,” they are often striving not only for work/life balance, but also work/life harmony. If any of this resonates with you, it might be time to think about whether “quiet quitting” is right for your situation. But how can you know for sure?

The pros and cons of quiet quitting

There are risks to quiet quitting, as well as rewards:

Pros:

  • Quiet quitting gives you room to breathe in the face of burnout.
  • Quiet quitting gives you more time for your personal life, which creates more space for you to set your priorities.
  • Quiet quitting can help you release unnecessary work stress by letting go of hustle culture.
  • Quiet quitting can allow you to focus on the parts of your job you love because you aren’t giving as much time to the parts you don’t enjoy.
  • Quiet quitting is a great way to keep your current job while you invest your energy in looking for a new position elsewhere.

Cons:

  • Your manager may not understand the difference between real performance issues (lateness, missed deadlines, being unreliable) and meeting expectations.
  • Quiet quitting could paint you (unfairly) as lazy and could lead to missed opportunities and/or the potential to lose your job if the market turns and layoffs happen.
  • Quiet quitting can lead to feeling uninvested in your work, which can be a hit to your morale and your motivation — which can lead to real performance issues.

It should also be noted that there’s inherent privilege involved with even having the option to quiet quit. People who are part of intentionally marginalized and underserved populations, especially women of color, often have to perform at a higher level than their peers in order to be seen as meeting expectations — even though they are often exceeding the work of everyone else. This discrepancy is due to either unconscious bias or outright racism. So if you are a person of color, especially a woman of color, you are more likely to be seen as a slacker if you “quiet quit.” If you are white, understanding this dynamic is important in equipping you to stand up when you see unconscious bias or microaggressions happening to your coworkers.

If you aren’t ready to quiet quit, there are other things you can do to advocate for yourself, advance your career, and prevent burnout.

  • Have a conversation with your manager about expectations and the work on your plate. What do they expect you to accomplish, and what can you execute within reasonable working hours?
  • Talk to your manager about growth opportunities in your organization. If you haven’t received a salary increase, now would be a great time to arrange a meeting to ask your boss for a raise — especially if you are currently underpaid.
  • Take an honest look at your current organization. Do the leaders demand more than you can give? If so, it might be time to look for a different job that treats employees as humans rather than cogs in a machine.

If you do decide to quiet quit, remember to keep your performance sharp. Hit your deadlines, meet deliverables, be available during your work hours, and follow through on setting boundaries around your off time. Delete your work email from your personal phone. Turn off all work devices at the end of each day and on the weekend. Be honest about what you can take on and set clear expectations around deadlines. It may feel strange at first, but you deserve to preserve your own well-being. We believe in you.

Remember, if it is time for a new job, be sure to update your Payscale salary profile.


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