The recent rise of what is apparently called ‘quiet quitting’ has sparked the need for organizations to re-examine the modern psychological contract between employer and employee.
‘Quiet quitting’, in terms of working with reduced motivation, has always existed since work first began, and usually resulted in the individual leaving to find a new role that inspired them. However, working less hard while looking for a new role is not the same as consciously setting boundaries around your work in order to have a life – which is what I believe the new ‘phenomenon’ actually represents.
Employers risk falling into the trap of conflating demotivated employees – who are in the process of leaving – with those who love their work but are setting boundaries. And what strikes me the most is that ‘quiet quitting’ is a derogative term which is being used to describe, in many cases, employees doing the job that they were hired to do, for the amount of time they were hired to do it.
It is the younger workers who have been described as igniting this quiet revolution in the workplace, opting to operate broadly within the boundaries of their job and not expanding beyond it if they so choose. If they work certain agreed hours, then they do not expect to be contacted before or after those hours except in exceptional circumstances. If they are given a project beyond their job title, they may choose to politely decline if they do not have the capacity or if they were not contracted to do so.
They value time to live their lives, as well as do their work, and this does not mean they are any less dedicated, talented or that their output is reduced. No one is ‘quitting’ and they should not be accused of such!
They are rejecting the ‘always on’ culture that they have seen work so badly for their parents and older work colleagues. The additional work hours that once were paid as overtime became gradually seen as a badge of honour for the ‘workaholic’, and an expectation by employers as something you had to do if you wanted to ‘get on’ and reach the senior echelons of an organisation. Now with remote working making it possible to work 24/7, working way in excess of your contracted hours has become an expectation that has generated a tidal wave of stress-related mental health issues.
So, why did young people feel the need to push back against the relentless tide of work coming their way?
For one thing, people are working an increasing number of unpaid hours. A global study by ADP Research found that 1 in 10 people work at least 20 extra hours a week unpaid. To add context, they are often working for global organisations which are making millions in profit to give to the shareholders, yet their workers are ‘donating’ swathes of their time for free. Hours being ‘donated’ to organisations by their workers had also doubled in North America, while in the UK, the number of unpaid hours worked in 2021 was equivalent to £27 billion.
The idea of an unpaid overtime-work-ethic has arisen from a toxic mindset that equates commitment and effectiveness with working very long hours and never saying ‘no’. The younger generation are entering into a corporate world with some leaders who believe that giving your ‘all’ to a job (i.e., prioritising your work above everything else in your life including family, friends, hobbies and health) is a good way of measuring productivity and passion.
I believe it is the responsibility of leaders to manage their people resources such that they have sufficient people to deliver what they expect to deliver, not the ‘do more work with less people’ attitude that seems to prevail. Managers also need to support individuals and role model what it means to set boundaries, as well as being alert to when enough is enough.
Knowledge and awareness of the huge impact of overwork and stress on mental and physical health was scarce for previous generations, but we are now much better informed and amongst Gen Z, the stigma attached to discussing wellbeing has largely decreased. And yet, a generation that are more aware of what it means to have a balanced, brain-healthy lifestyle and want to work in a high quality, output-measured way, are having to operate within an outdated working culture.
And so ‘quiet quitting’ was born. Originally starting as a movement in China, ‘quiet quitting’ is a phrase used to describe workers putting in reasonable boundaries between their work and their home time, and rejecting the idea that work has to take over your life. Chinese companies responded by trying to persuade workers that to ‘struggle’ was to achieve a happy life. Younger workers were not convinced.
This is a wake-up call to companies and leaders everywhere, that individuals are deciding that their job cannot consume their entire life. There is both a strong moral and business case for this message needing to be heard:
Morally, companies should not come to rely on the additional cashflow produced through its workers not being paid for the time they are working. This is a fundamental breaking of the work/payment psychological contract. Good resource management does not mean expecting people to work 12 hours but paying them for 8 hours. This ‘discretionary effort’ ethos has got so out of hand that it is no longer the badge of a hardworking and ambitious person, but rather an expectation of all, which is creating a mental health crisis.
In business terms, tired people create tired ideas. Businesses need to recognise that, with the rise of AI taking on repetitive tasks, the next generation of workers will be hired and valued for the quality of their ideas, their innovations, and their thinking. Therefore, we need to work in a way that fosters the best of this thinking. Businesses need to start placing real value on creating environments of mental wellness and brain health, so that they can optimize the best brains and gain a competitive advantage. This is forward-thinking and makes great business sense.
The first steps towards this can be seen in the UK, as the trial for a 4-day working week commenced amongst participating organizations. This was in response to a successful trial in Japan, which found a 40% boost in productivity due to improved wellbeing. A shorter working week acknowledges that a person’s happiness is just as important as their job – having an extra day to indulge in one’s personal life can make all the difference to one’s mental health.
However, there is a fine line to this. As pointed out in the above citation, attempting to cram five days’ worth of work into four can lead to increased feelings of stress and burnout. If companies are shortening the week, they also have a responsibility to decrease the load. It is about playing the long game – productivity will go up despite the loss of a working day because staff will be more rested and motivated. As well as this, their brains will be able to work consistently at an optimal level, creating higher quality output, because they will feel less pressure and have more time to rest.
Henry Ford proved this in 1914 when he upped his workers’ wages and reduced their hours, as well as reducing the work week from 6 to 5 days. Described as a stroke of brilliance, he built a sense of loyalty and pride in his workers and as a result actually boosted productivity.
His son Edsel Ford said, “we believe that in order to live properly every man should have more time to spend with his family”. This seems to have been forgotten in 2022.
The 4-day week suggestion is only one solution. For most businesses currently operating within a five-day working week, it is time to think about shifting the focus from hours being put in, to the work that is being generated. We need to be output-focused whilst being utterly realistic about what any human being can be expected to achieve in the timeframe needed for the desired output.
Neuroscience already informs us what we need to do in order to create optimal brain function. Why do businesses not draw on this wealth of knowledge and create working practices that support this?
Humans are not computers, we cannot operate for hours on end without a marked drop off in our cognitive abilities, as well as a huge decline in our thinking, decision-making and creativity. In the end, overwork and stress can deeply damage mental and physical health, so it is no wonder that younger workers are rejecting this.
As a leader you have the responsibility to hire well, train well and trust your people to do their jobs. Focus on output and quality, whilst being realistic about what a human being can achieve, and resource effectively whilst supporting them to find the best pattern of working to suit their cognitive needs. A study by Harvard Business Review found that managers who were rated the highest at balancing results with relationships saw 62% of employees willing to give extra effort, while only 3% were ‘quiet quitting’.
Leaders who are implementing policies that promote mental wellness and brain health will need to realise that this means re-evaluating the psychological contract that they have with their employees.
For their mental and physical health, and to reverse this epidemic of stress related illness, people need to be able to switch off from work and embrace a personal life. If this is being encouraged by their employers, then these workers will reward their employers with fresh, inspired, and innovative thinking instead of bad decision making and ‘tired ideas’.