Quiet quitting: Aaron McEwan on workplace trends that make you unhappier

It’s the feel-good workplace trend many of us dosed up on this year. To deal with increased workplace stress, demanding managers and flat pay packets, we self-prescribed ourselves permission to take a step back and say ‘no’ to extra work, long hours or unreasonable requests.

It’s called ‘quiet quitting’ and, for those who have tried it, the feeling of being in control is pretty heady.

While the movement started out as an empowering way for employees to reset work and home boundaries eroded by the pandemic, the reality is that quiet quitting is proving to be more of a placebo than a tonic.

Rather than addressing the issues that are making you miserable at work, quiet quitting is probably making you unhappier, less productive and less hireable in the future.

The snowball effect

It’s true that once you’ve said ‘no’ once, it gets easier. But where do you stop?

The quiet quitting trend has unwittingly led to a raft of other anti-work antidotes such as ‘Bare Minimum Mondays’ and ‘Lazy Girl Jobs’. It seems declining an out-of-hours meeting can quickly snowball to skiving off work for a few hours each week.

As part of news.com.au’s Great Aussie Debate survey, 50,000 readers shared if they have ‘quiet quit’ and whether they were more, or less, productive when working from home.

According to the results, 21 per cent of Australians over the age of 18 have tried the quiet-quitting phenomenon at some point, with nine per cent admitting they were actively doing it right now.

Those who are currently quiet quitting, are also more likely to admit that they are less productive when working from home (32 per cent versus 21 per cent), and this is where the problem lies.

While TikTokers may make pretending to work look like fun, it doesn’t actually feel good at all. Not only is it boring and a waste of your time, the fear of being caught or labelled a slacker just adds to anxiety levels.

Being seen as disengaged from your work and the company culture can also negatively impact your reputation, limiting future opportunities such as training, bonuses, or promotions that you may be interested in.

Diagnose the problem first, then treat the symptoms

To be clear, quiet quitting is not a trend for the lazy or feckless. It takes courage to push back on your manager, and the energy some people expend trying to look like they are working is astonishing.

For most workers, quiet quitting stems from a place of desperation. Being stretched at work and financially squeezed at home by the rising cost of living has left many feeling there are few choices available to make life better.

Data from Gartner’s latest Global Talent Monitor shows overall employee wellness has been declining since July 2022. Australian employees report their financial and physical wellness are at an lowest of 21.4 per cent and 31.3 per cent, respectively.

Discretionary effort, a worker’s willingness to go above and beyond has remained relatively stagnant at 16.8 per cent, but few plan to move on to a better situation. Intent to stay increased in the last quarter to 38.8 per cent, with workers acknowledging a tightening job market.

But lying low and disengaging from work isn’t a viable solution. Ultimately it will eat into your sense of self-worth and long-term employability. You’ll only feel better when you have a frank conversation with your manager and negotiate real changes to your working requirements.

Regain control with radical flexibility

For some workers, an honest discussion with their manager may lead to a complete rescope of their role. Whether it is reducing hours, considering job-sharing, or even opting for a voluntary demotion – shaping your work to better suit your needs will benefit both you and your employer.

For most employees though, what you probably need is greater flexibility. The return to the office debate is one of the key drivers for increased stress, and rather than spurring on productivity, it’s having the opposite effect.

When organisations offer workers radical flexibility, or more simply, the ability to choose when, where and how they work, employees are happier and performance improves because they have a sense of autonomy, without the added risk of burnout.

In fact, the percentage of workers defined as high performers increases by 40 per cent when using this model.

A good manager will be willing to work through the natural tensions between ensuring productivity and providing flexible work options. If they’re not, be buoyed by the knowledge that, despite some softening, it’s still a jobseeker’s market.

If you’re constantly expected to go above and beyond with no actual recognition or personal benefit, it might be time to quit for real and find an employer with human-centric values.

Aaron McEwan is a behavioural scientist, coaching psychologist and vice president for global research and advisory firm, Gartner

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