This summer, Zaid Khan’s TikTok video about quiet quitting launched a viral debate about what the term means—and whether it is a good or a bad idea. From Khan’s perspective, “You’re still performing your duties but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life.” The video triggered a barrage of interpretations, ranging from Hunter Kaimi’s TikTok saying “The reality is that many of us … are working at jobs that do not care about us as people” to Kevin O’Leary’s comments in a CNBC story that “People that go beyond to try to solve problems for the organization, their teams, their managers, their bosses, those are the ones that succeed in life.”
So, what exactly does quiet quitting mean, and is it a good or a bad idea? What effect does it have on job satisfaction,mental health, and work performance? While each interpretation of quiet quitting is unique to the individual, the common thread may be reflective of a response to the “work harder and faster” culture that had already been a concern before the pandemic in organizations that were becoming energy-depleting versus energy-replenishing (Schwartz & McCarthy, 2007). Throughout the past couple of years during the pandemic, these concerns escalated with increasing rates of emotional exhaustion, disengagement, mental health issues, and many employees’ no longer finding work meaningful, according to Gallup and a 2021 American Psychological Association (APA) study. The neurophysiology of stress and social exchange may explain quiet quitting and point toward interventions to alleviate burnout and disengagement.
The Neurophysiology of Stress and Social Exchange
The neurophysiology of stress. When we experience stress, such as the unprecedented levels of stress during the pandemic, a sequence of survival-based strategies is set in motion. Commonly known as the flight, fight, or freeze response, this adaptive autonomic system response allows us to address stressors. When fight and flight are not options (an employee isn’t in a position to safely speak up or take action or the person can’t afford to quit), the last line of defense may be the freeze response (disengagement and quiet quitting).
Over time, this chronic sympathetic nervous system arousal triggers an excessive discharge of the stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine in the body, which can suppress the immune system, increase blood pressure, and also exacerbate anxiety and depression. Moreover, prolonged cortisol secretion may compromise cognition and cause problems with verbal functioning and concentration. Chronic and intense stress can be harmful, as it disrupts emotional, cognitive, and physical functioning and can lead to job burnout and disengagement.
Neural circuitry for social exchange. Humans have also evolved psychological adaptations for managing social relationships and social exchange. These adaptations are unconscious mental processes that track status, manage relationships, and keep tabs on social interactions for their costs and benefits (Cosmides & Tooby, 2015). If the role of these adaptations is “keeping score,” it may not be so surprising that the pandemic slowly steered many employees toward disengagement. Before the pandemic, expectations of social exchange between employee and employer kept many workers on the treadmill, working for pay, prestige, and promotion. But during the pandemic, the strain of trying to advance in one’s profession was often met with furloughs, pay freezes, and salary cuts. This may have caused feelings of “giving more than I get” and led workers to scale back on “unrewarded” effort (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2009).
Costly signaling. Before the pandemic, employees may have volunteered for undesirable tasks or responsibilities as a way of signaling their commitment to a position, a supervisor, or a company. Going above and beyond can serve as an honest signal of employee cooperation, collaborative ability, or work ethic, which often pays dividends, as one becomes regarded as a dedicated and trustworthy worker. But the pandemic blunted many of the rewards typically given to those who engage in “costly signaling,” as stress on the economy drained the incentive structures that once rewarded going “above and beyond” (Bereczkei et al., 2010).
Social exchange. In many employment circumstances, there is a rational incentive to invest time and energy in the interests of others (coworkers, a boss, a division, a company) as a means of ultimately increasing one’s own welfare—up to an extent (hence “ratio”) (Cosmides & Tooby, 2013). The circumstances of the pandemic likely changed the ways these ratios are unconsciously calculated, leading to a downturn of motivation, commitment, and sense of job satisfaction and reward at work (depending on the employee’s context) and mobilizing the turning away that we call “quiet quitting.”
How Can We Address Disengagement and Support Flourishing?
The biggest impact that leaders and HR professionals can make is to address organizational-level conditions that affect the greatest number of organizational members. Individual interventions are also important, such as those that support individual resilience and health, but they should complement organizational-level interventions rather than being the sole intervention that places the entire responsibility on the employee. At the organizational level, Maslach’s (2017) work engagement model recommends six empirically supported interventions to reduce burnout and build a healthy workplace in which employees and the overall organization can flourish:
Organizational Level Support
- Creating a supportive work community: developing a culture that fosters trusting and supportive working relationships and effective conflict management skills to work through differences
- Clear values and meaningful work: going beyond an “exchange of time for pay” with meaningful work and transparent communication
- Fairness, respect, and social justice: treating all employees fairly, equitably, and with respect
- Sustainable workload: ensuring manageable workloads that afford the opportunity for employees to refine existing skills and develop new skills, as well as providing time to rest and restore
- Choice and control: giving employees voice and control to influence decisions that will affect them, as well as professional autonomy
- Recognition and reward: ensuring that employees know they are valued and appreciated and providing social, institutional, and financial reward
Individual Level Resilience
Significant stressors in the workplace that can adversely impact employees include uncertainty and tumultuous change, as well as interpersonal or interdepartmental workplace conflict. Providing professional development to support employees and leaders in developing the skills to adapt to constant change and navigate conflict in a healthy way can be a tremendous support for the health of both employees and the overall organization.
Science-based stress-reduction programs, such as the 8-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, have been shown to have salutary effects on health at multiple levels (Creswell, 2017), including cognitive health (concentration, focused attention), psychological health (mood and emotion regulation), interpersonal health (increased perspective-taking and prosocial behaviors), and physical health (immune system functioning).
Creating Organizations that Are Energy Replenishing Versus Energy Depleting
Perhaps the best practice to address quiet quitting and mitigate potential burnout from the “hustle culture mentality” is to create a supportive and psychologically safe culture in which employees feel comfortable speaking up about their workplace experience with their supervisors. By asking employees about their felt experience in the post-pandemic workplace with a genuine curiosity to learn, leaders and HR professionals can work with employees to find optimal solutions that support employee flourishing and healthy workplaces.
Shirley Ashauer’s research, teaching, and consulting interests focus on the science of stress, social conflict, and change (adaptation) processes and interventions that support individual and collective flourishing. She has a PhD in organizational psychology and is an associate professor of psychology at Maryville University with 20 years of leadership and organization development consulting experience.
Brian Bergstrom, Associate Professor of psychology at Maryville University, has a PhD in cognitive psychology from Washington University. His research interests are grounded in biological perspectives on human cognition and how cultural influences interact with motivational systems to influence success and thriving.