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Quiet quitting: the latest workplace trend to combat burnout

In 1853, Herman Melville — an American novelist best known for Moby-Dick (1851) — published a short story called Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853).

The eponymous Bartleby is a scrivener (a clerk, scribe or notary). He’s described as a calm, forlorn-looking young man, who at first produces a large volume of high-quality work with which his employer is very satisfied.

However, after being asked one day to proofread a document, he answers with what will soon become his only response to every request:

“I would prefer not to.”

And we’re seeing the modern equivalent today.

Since the pandemic, an increasing number of workers have grown tired of not getting the recognition and the compensation they feel they deserve for going above and beyond.

Whether that’s responding to work emails on holiday or doing tasks outside their job description (in Bartleby’s case, proofing).

No, today employees are fueled by a new sense of agency and self-worth that focuses on two things: balance and avoiding burnout. Across the globe, people are reevaluating their lives and the amount of control work has over them (and vice versa).

And very recently, this mindset has come to be known as “quiet quitting”.

What is quiet quitting?

Despite the name, it has nothing to do with quitting one’s job.

Instead, quiet quitting is all about doing exactly what the job requires. No more, no less. It’s a new phrase for a very old concept.

The idea? To avoid things like occupational burnout, and instead pay more attention to mental health and personal well-being. For example, this means less opening up your laptop at 7pm while you’re on a family vacation and more time enjoying yourself.

But though the term was originally coined at a Texas A&M economics symposium on diminishing ambitions in Venezuela, and more recently gained ground in China with the “lie flat” movement, it wasn’t until the American Tiktokker @zaidlepplin posted a video about it that it went viral.

@zaidleppelin On quiet quitting #workreform ♬ original sound - ruby

In the video, @zaidlepplin highlights an important point that many of us have forgotten about: work is not our life, and our worth is not defined by our productivity. And that message is resonating as at the time of this article: it has more than 3.5 million views.

“Workers are now being asked to do more than is sustainable,” says Sim Sitkin, a management professor at Duke University. “It’s like running a sprint — you can’t maintain that pace for a whole marathon.”

It’s also quite hard to determine what constitutes “quiet quitting”. Employees who put up more boundaries at work and say “no” to projects instead of “yes” might only be reprioritizing and choosing to focus on activities that drive the most value. At the same time, this helps them to reduce burnout, increase motivation and improve engagement.

Discover how to create a culture of wellbeing at your organization

The impact and importance of quiet quitting

Psychologist and well-being consultant Lee Chambers says quiet quitting is often a coping mechanism used to address the likelihood of burnout and chronic overworking.

“Quiet quitting has the potential to improve boundary setting, as well as help people step away from toxic productivity,” Chambers notes. “It may empower them to take control over their rest and growth time and create space for reflection on how they can embed well-being into their lives.”

To put the trend into perspective, currently, less than a third (32%) of U.S. employees are engaged in their work and workplace[1].

Globally, that number is just over a fifth (21%)[2].

But while engagement numbers are down, it’s too early to tell if quiet quitting is a generational trend or equally likely to affect anyone in the workforce.

Sure, some employees are embracing it now, but the risk is that they may find themselves completely disengaged from work in the future. For those who quietly quit long term, it’s likely that they’ll gradually find work less fulfilling as the value they bring to the company, their coworkers, and their customers decreases. And given the amount of time people spend working, this could impact peoples’ long term happiness and life satisfaction.

Conversely, going above and beyond has a measurable and well-documented effect on business outcomes, employees, and customers. According to research by Gallup, highly engaged teams, those who show up every day with purpose and energy, show 21% greater profitability.

So while staying late to help coworkers on projects and taking on additional responsibilities might feel temporarily taxing, they can contribute to long-term fulfillment for both organizations and employees.

What’s most important is that organizations notice, understand, and appropriately recognize  these efforts. Noticing and understanding requires measurement — measurement of whether employees are engaging in these above and beyond behaviors, and what drives employees to do so.

Moverover, our research clearly suggests that employees who feel their voices are heard and taken into account have better attitudes and are much more productive.

All of this starts with listening.

Find out about the trends driving employee experience in 2022

What can leaders do?

In experience management, the roots of quiet quitting are what we call “experience gaps"; instances where organizations or brands fail to meet expectations at any point in an employee’s journey. Here are several key activities leaders must lean into:


  • Listen, understand, and act

Employee listening programs like organization-wide surveys are critical to identifying and closing employee experience gaps. These efforts also allow organizations to notice and understand (i.e., measure) the roots of quiet quitting and likelihood of above and beyond behaviors.

Do employees feel motivated to go above and beyond, and are they appropriately recognised or compensated for their efforts? If not, why? It’s important to keep a pulse on what expectations are and to look for areas where they aren’t being met. 

  • Promote healthy work-life habits

Our research highlights that more than half (58%) of American workers say work is the primary source of mental health challenges and that nearly half work while on vacation.

We also know that people find it difficult to separate work and family life, even more so with hybrid and remote work environments. What’s crucial is that leaders and senior managers openly communicate about balance to encourage employees to create boundaries and take time off seriously. Things like mental health days, setting out-of-office responses, and ensuring employees aren’t disturbed while they’re on vacation are just a few simple measures every leader can implement.  

  • Be flexible in defining ‘flexibility’

Workplace flexibility has been a hot topic and many organizations naturally default to defining this as ‘where work gets done’. And there is no question that this is an important aspect of workplace flexibility. However, our research has shown that employees, themselves, define flexibility more broadly than that, citing not only where work gets done, but when, and how their performance gets measured and managed.

Flexibility (or the lack thereof) is likely to influence whether employees choose to quietly quit, engage in above and beyond behaviors, and perform their jobs effectively. While remote or hybrid work is not possible for all jobs, organizations must listen to employees to determine which additional levers they can pull, to give employees more flexibility and hopefully prevent quiet quitting in the first place.

  • Set real expectations and responsibilities

Every job has core requirements but the idea of going ‘above and beyond’ is so entrenched in some business cultures that leaders simply expect it of employees.

Employees take on roles and responsibilities outside of their core requirements, like helping a colleague with a work challenge or staying late to resolve a customer, if and when they are internally or externally motivated to do so.

However, not formally outlining these additional behaviors or their mutually beneficial outcomes has become the norm — and some employees don’t feel recognized for these behaviors. With this in mind, leaders should ensure expectations and responsibilities are clear, outline the joint value proposition to employees, and explicitly incentivize these behaviors with rewards and social recognition.

Implement the right tools to help

Employees quietly quitting work is something that organizations and leaders around the globe can rectify — and this starts with listening to employees and understanding the experiences and expectations they have.

Qualtrics makes the quiet, in quiet quitting, less quiet. With tools like Qualtrics EmployeeXM™ and the Qualtrics EX25 framework, organizations can achieve an end-to-end view of the employee experience and its most important drivers. This includes engagement (along with motivation to go above and beyond), inclusion, expectations, sense of purpose, physical health, and mental and emotional wellbeing.

EmployeeXM gathers continuous feedback from every employee experience to take the right actions to impact engagement, talent planning, productivity, and innovation. It empowers your organization to take actions that put your people first. You can:

  • Continuous listen and improve experiences for every employee, from relational census and pulse to multi-rater and always-on feedback
  • Fix problems before they become part of your culture by leveraging advanced statistical and human language tools to model employee experiences and surface areas to focus on
  • Go beyond measuring how employees feel about work and drive immediate change with automated workflows and guided manager action planning solutions.

Also, the EX25 framework is an industry-leading, holistic approach to measuring and optimizing employee experience. Engagement as a single metric is no longer sufficient — instead, the framework looks at a set of KPIs to simplify the engagement metric and measure new areas such as inclusion and well-being.

The fact is that the pandemic brought employee experience into sharp focus, and caused many employees to rethink their priorities. Quiet quitting might put a modern spin on an age-old challenge, but what’s important is how employees and leaders respond to it.

At its core, this trend underscores the ever-increasing necessity of listening to employees’ feedback to truly understand their experiences, and what can be done to improve them.

So whether it’s setting real expectations and responsibilities for each employee or being flexible in how you define workplace flexibility and measure employee performance, the actions organizations and leaders take should truly reflect the ever evolving needs of their people.

At the same time, employees are asking leaders to not only recognize their sustained above-and-beyond behaviors but reward them appropriately for doing so. We know that employees who go the extra mile have a massive impact on customer and brand experiences, and business outcomes — so it’s crucial that organizations create healthy ways to incentivize these behaviors without exhausting employees.

But it’s not just about the leaders — employees have an important role to play too. At the end of the day, we must all remember that work is not inherently a bad thing and it is absolutely possible to create work environments that are good for business and good for people.

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