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Why some employees are 'quiet quitting' their jobs

An undated file photo of a man with a laptop. (Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels) An undated file photo of a man with a laptop. (Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels)
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To manage burnout and maintain a work-life balance, a so-called "quiet quitting" trend is seeing workers clock out as scheduled, ignore after-hours emails and generally forgo above-and-beyond efforts.

"It's a new name for an old phenomenon; it's just been exacerbated by two-and-a-half years of the pandemic," David Zweig, a professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management at the University of Toronto, told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Thursday. "I think the past two-and-a-half years has really brought that idea of work-life balance up to conscious awareness for everyone, and we're not willing to go back to what it was before."

While the idea behind quiet quitting isn't new, the COVID-19 pandemic has fuelled an unparalleled intrusion of the workplace into people's homes, disrupting traditional work hours for many. Widespread staffing shortages have meanwhile led some employers to ask their workers to take on new or additional tasks, sometimes without more pay.

Seeking better work-life balance and emboldened by the current labour market, some employees are quietly pushing back -- not by slacking off, but by focusing on essential job requirements while foregoing the kind of additional efforts one might make for recognition or career advancement.

"I recently learned about this term 'quiet quitting,' where you're not outright quitting your job, but you're quitting the idea of going above and beyond," TikToker Zaid Khan said in a viral July 25 video that brought the term widespread attention.

"We've seen the walls between work and home life just disappear, yet much worse. We've been asked to do more and more, with less and less," Zweig added. "It's response to silly things like the whole idea of 'hustle culture,' which is just another name for a toxic workplace culture."

However, Toronto-based labour and employment lawyer Nadia Halum Arauz warns there are few legal protections for those who opt to respond by quiet quitting.

"An employer can terminate an employee for any reason, as long as that reason isn't discriminatory or retaliatory," Halum Arauz told CTVNews.ca by phone on Thursday. "All the employer needs to provide is notice that the relationship is coming to an end, or pay in lieu, which is commonly referred to as severance pay or a severance package."

But by talking to your employer about workload issues first, and by trying to establish clearer work-life boundaries with them, Halum Arauz says you can help insulate yourself against potential retaliation.

"Having an open conversation is probably the better way to go," Halum Arauz said. "Especially because in doing that, to me, you would actually be enhancing your protection, because terminations can't be retaliatory. So, by bringing something to your employer's attention, if you're retaliated against as a result, you know, that's a different story."

"It's also important for employers to have clearly defined job descriptions in place," Ottawa-based employment lawyer Samara Belitzky told CTVNews.ca by email on Thursday. "This makes it clear to both the employer and employee what the expectations are for a particular role and they can avoid future confusion about duties and other terms of employment."

Belitzky says you should immediately raise concerns with your employer if unwanted changes to usual duties or hours are introduced to your job.

"Employees who are refusing these things can not only express their refusal and the corresponding reasons why to their employers, but should do so, in writing, so that they have a record in case the employer takes further action in the future," Belitzky explained. "If an employee works under different conditions, without expressing refusal, they can be deemed to have accepted the changes and the new conditions can form part of their work conditions moving forward."

Zweig says employers should also be proactive about starting dialogues and offering supports to employees who may be disengaging from work because of burnout.

"Once people are burnt out, it's really hard to come back from that," he said. "It's going to require a real commitment from organizations to address the issues around burnout, and to re-evaluate how performance is monitored, how it's measured, and to help employees establish boundaries so that they don't feel these effects."

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