Workplace Wellbeing

The Nuances of Quiet Quitting: Employee Mental Health and Workplace Conditions

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Jess Maynard
Clinically reviewed by
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    Quiet quitting is where we’ve always been headed

    Quiet quitting is a time-honored employee response to poor working conditions, toxic workplaces, stagnating wages, and worsening mental health, reconfigured during a new post-pandemic era. 

    Employees are often expected to go the extra mile, take on extra work without commensurate pay, disregard their own mental and physical health, and live without work-life boundaries—while income inequality continues to balloon out of control. 

    Is it really surprising that workers are checking out? 

    There’s not yet a consensus on what quiet quitting actually is, which makes sense. Employees are not monoliths. However, it does seem to be recognized that pandemic conditions and economic turmoil have brought things to a head. 

    A whole assortment of employee behaviors are being crammed into the phrase quiet quitting, as it’s widely discussed on social media and across the internet. 

    It’s been described as a refusal to go above and beyond at work, completely disengaging and doing the bare minimum at work, simply completing the work an employee is compensated for, and disentangling self-worth and personal identity from work.

    There’s definitely something going on. Let’s dig in.

    What’s causing employees to “quietly quit”? 

    Quiet quitting is not about lazy employees. Among the almost 163.5 million people in the U.S. workforce, of course there are some who do fall in the lazy category. But that’s not at the heart of the quiet quitting phenomenon.

    Employees are dealing with crushing economic forces in their personal lives: inflation, wage stagnation, medical debt, student loan debt, wealth inequality along with global turmoil in the form of a pandemic, war, and climate change.  

    On top of that, many have learned that investing a significant amount of emotional energy, extra time, and going all out for a job doesn’t mean they’ll be rewarded or avoid being laid off or fired. Plus, employee stress is still at record levels.

    No wonder many employees are pushing back against workplace conditions that aren’t conducive to their wellbeing, in the midst of so many other threats to their mental health. The pandemic gave us all a sense that life isn’t guaranteed, and made many rethink the role of work in their lives.

    A recent survey showed some clear indicators of the reasoning behind quiet quitting: 

    1. 46% of workers say they don’t want to work more hours without compensation
    2. 45% say that going above and beyond compromises their mental health
    3. 40% indicate that going above and beyond would disrupt work-life balance, which is another mental health indicator

    Again, quiet quitting isn’t about one workplace issue. More accurately, it’s a range of employees' reactions to a set of workplace conditions that have contributed to feeling devalued, burned out, and disengaged.

    Each workplace plays host to its own set of internal conditions. To begin addressing quiet quitting, People leaders first need to figure out what’s going on within theirs.  

    Investigate with curiosity and a willingness to listen

    It’s counterproductive to reduce a host of complex workplace behaviors to the simplistic adage, “employees are just lazy.” Instead, there are useful questions to ask about the workplace environment and quiet quitting, such as:

    1. Is the workplace environment contributing to poor mental health?
    2. Is mental health being addressed, with fast access to support and resources available?
    3. Have employees taken on more and more responsibility in the midst of the pandemic, layoffs, and/or hiring freezes—especially without being compensated?
    4. Is work-life balance encouraged, modeled, and respected?
    5. Are managers leading with empathy and respect?
    6. Are employees dealing with sexual harassment, bullying, or racism at work? 
    7. Do employees feel like their work is meaningful?

    The answers to these questions can give HR and People leaders a baseline for addressing quiet quitting. This new challenge may be about a host of workplace problems, but there are also an array of solutions.

    How to proactively address quiet quitting 

    People leaders and managers are the frontline of workplace culture. They bridge the gap between C-suite and everyone else. They also inhabit the best position to understand what’s going on with employees and address why so many are quietly quitting.

    In broad strokes, the goals below are the foundation of making work a place where employees are engaged and nurtured:

    1. Creating an environment where workers feel cared about and valued
    2. Confronting any systems that have taken root in a workplace that contribute to dehumanization—including racism, sexism, toxic power imbalances, and lack of fair compensation for workers 
    3. Ensuring that employees have fast access to excellent mental health resources such as therapy, coaching, or substance abuse counseling
    4. Cultivating connection between coworkers
    5. Ensuring healthy power dynamics between managers and employees

    Next, let’s talk about how to meet these goals and build environments where employees are engaged and thriving.

    It all starts with managers and supervisors

    An employee's experience in the workplace is most directly influenced by the manager or supervisor they report to. Which makes managers uniquely suited to address quiet quitting.

    A recent study by Harvard Business Review found that “the least effective managers have three to four times as many people who fall in the “quiet quitting” category compared to the most effective leaders.”

    On the other hand, managers who were effective at balancing relationships with results “saw 62% of their direct reports willing to give extra effort, while only 3% were quietly quitting.”

    Managers are the drivers of workplace culture. A good manager ensures that their employees:

    1. Understand their role and expectations
    2. Are recognized for their hard work, especially when they go above and beyond
    3. Have opportunities for development
    4. Have a clear picture of their future within an organization 

    Managers that cultivate open communication with their employees will find out about employee dissatisfaction before their team members quietly quit. This requires leading with empathy and active listening, instead of fear-based leadership.

    Build up managers and foster relationships

    How can managers lead effectively? Companies need to invest in one-on-one support for leaders, both managers and HR staff—and the investment is worth it. After all, managers are part of the bulwark against quiet quitting.

    For managers, relationships and connection with their employees is everything. To foster that connection, managers can:

    Schedule one-on-one time at least once a week, for 15-30 minutes of open communication with employees about their lives, needs, and how they are feeling about work. What needs to be addressed to ensure they’re engaged? How can they do more work that feels meaningful to them? Once a year engagement surveys can’t function as relationship builders like regular check-ins and weekly conversations.

    Avoid top down communication and fear based leadership styles. These sever emotional connections between management, People leaders, and employees. 

    Partner with HR leaders to enforce concrete, robust HR policies around workplace abuse and grievances. This can include implementing a clearly defined system for reporting, handling, and following up when employees have a problem. A lack of justice for abusive behavior is a contributor to quiet quitting.

    Lastly, if there’s one particular department with low engagement, pay attention. It’s worth investigating to see if this is actually a management issue. 

    Understand that relationships are fundamental to connection and engagement 

    On the surface, work may appear to be about one thing: creating value that turns into higher earnings. But humans are relational beings. Spending 40 hours a week together should be a basis for the formation of relational networks, support, friendship, and joy. 

    People leaders and managers can recognize and encourage that mutuality, make a point to get to know and form connections with their employees, and above all, lead with empathy. 

    Employees will feel it when the company believes their value is not solely based on their contribution to the bottom line. 

    Mental health support is an important piece of a larger puzzle

    In the midst of an ongoing and robust conversation around quiet quitting, one elemental factor isn’t being discussed: poor employee mental health is at the root of quiet quitting. 

    There are many aspects of workplace conditions that employees don’t have a lot of control over: social ills that bleed into the workplace (racism, sexism, homophobia, wealth inequality), toxic managers, uncertainty, and pandemic stressors, to name just a few. 

    One way to address parts of life that are out of our control is to build resiliency— adapting to and recovering from trauma or difficult life experiences, behavioral and emotional flexibility, and a tolerance for living with uncertainty.

    These are all hallmarks of strong mental health. It’s important not to make light of the conditions that employees have endured or suggest that solutions are solely on the individual. 

    We must do better as a society by ensuring that the places we work are conducive to individual thriving, and until now, many workplaces have functioned in a way that is dehumanizing and harmful to mental health.

    At the same time, individual mental health is still important—and something worth supporting, alongside systemic policies and practices that prioritize employee wellbeing.

    How Spring Health can help you address quiet quitting

    We recently published a landmark three-year study showing that our innovative EAP led to nearly 70% of participants showing improved mental health, fewer missed workdays, increased productivity, and less likelihood of leaving their job.  

    We also offer one-one-one support and training for managers, through our dedicated management consultation team of Care Navigators—all of whom are licensed, master’s level clinicians. This better equips your People leaders to support and effectively guide their teams.

    Training includes:

    • Communication techniques
    • Problem solving different approaches to addressing employee concerns
    • Coping strategies and skills that can help managers support employees

    Mental health support gives employees, managers, and People leaders the tools to bounce back from difficult situations, deal with the stressors at the heart of quiet quitting, form stronger workplace relationships, and create healthier workplaces. 

    Read this blog next to learn how to cultivate resilience at your organization, which leads to healthier employees and a stronger workplace.

    About the Author
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    Jess Maynard

    Jess is a seasoned writer who has completed graduate work in women’s studies. She also works at a domestic violence shelter facilitating support groups for children and teens. Jess follows her curiosity devoutly and is committed to using her accumulated knowledge and life experiences to articulate facets of being human.

    About the clinical reviewer
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