Everybody is exhausted. The COVID-19 pandemic, which started nearly three years ago, shows no signs of ending anytime soon. The disruption to the social norm has caused a lot of people to reevaluate their priorities, especially when it comes to the workplace.
In 2021, over 47 million people left their jobs, and this wave of voluntary quitting became known as the Great Resignation. Shortly after, people started hearing the phrase “quiet quitting.” This term is deceiving because it doesn’t refer to actually quitting one’s job. Rather it means “quitting the idea of going above and beyond” in the workplace, according to Zaid Khan, who’s viral TikTok popularized the phrase.
Quiet quitting is all about boundaries, says Kate Schroeder, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) at Transformation Counseling in Saint Louis. In fact, Schroeder says when she heard this term, her first thought was, “Oh, people are having boundaries.”
But the idea of having boundaries at work is not a new phenomenon at all. It’s just been given a name, notes Farah Harris, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Illinois.
“Your mom probably quiet quit on her job 40 years ago when she was like, ‘I’m pregnant. We need insurance. Let’s just get this job done,’” she says.
Who’s quiet quitting
This trend of quiet quitting is having a big impact on the workforce, with more people, particularly millennials and Gen Z workers, refusing to work beyond their basic job descriptions. A recent Gallup poll revealed that quiet quitters make up about half of the workforce.
Most quiet quitters tend to be white-collar, salaried workers says Briana Severine, an LPC at Sanare Psychosocial Rehabilitation in Denver. Of course, there are exceptions to this, she adds, especially in careers that expect employees to work far beyond the standard 40-hour work week to get ahead, such as a lawyer who wants to become a partner in the law firm.
And then there are careers, with workers who can’t quiet quit at all. People working in health care, for example, often don’t get to decide what duties they perform, when they work overtime or any number of responsibilities because somebody’s life depends on them doing their job and doing it well, Severine says.
Racism and biases further complicate one’s ability to quiet quit. People of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities and other marginalized groups can’t easily quiet quit their jobs are because doing so would reflect negatively on not just themselves but the marginalized group they belong to.
In September 2022, The Washington Post reported that people of color were disproportionately affected by the layoffs at the start of the pandemic because of how they were perceived by management. Black, Indigenous and people of color individuals also reported higher rates of burnout than their white coworkers, according to a 2021 report from Hue, a nonprofit dedicated to building workplace equity.
As a Black woman, Harris knows too well the potential consequences: “If I show myself as just mediocre, I fall into the stereotype or biases about my race, so I actually need to be more hyper present and visible so that I can still be seen and hopefully not passed over for a promotion.”
Unhealthy work boundaries
People are tired, burnt out and they’re looking for some way to cope. Most employees are struggling to maintain a work-life balance. According to research by the Adecco Group, only 17% of workers take a sick day when they’re feeling mentally unwell or burned out and only 30% use all of their holiday time. The reason behind this is that workers often can’t afford to take off time or they’re afraid of the consequences they may face if they do, such as fewer opportunities to advance.
“In the height of the pandemic, the demographic that struggled the most were parents,” Severine says. “I think during this time it became impossible for many people to be able to go above and beyond at work, they just no longer had the capacity.”
Parents, mostly mothers, who would normally send their children to school or daycare had to take on extra childcare responsibilities at home while still being expected to maintain the same pre-pandemic level of success at work.
It became impossible for them to balance it all without majorly burning themselves out. Between advancing their career and caring for their families, it was already a challenge for mothers to ‘have it all’ before the pandemic, Harris notes. And the pandemic just provided the “perfect petri dish” for everything to go wrong.
Work stress is still an issue even for those who aren’t parents or part of marginalized group. In 2015, Deloitte conducted a survey of 1,000 full-time U.S. employees and found that 83% of respondents said work burnout negatively affected their personal relationships.
These findings indicate that something needs to change in the workplace. So how can counselors help people avoid becoming burned out, especially for those who can’t quiet quit?
Where to start
There are a variety of techniques counselors can use to assist clients and others struggling with workplace boundaries. Harris, owner of WorkingWell Daily, a consultancy company focused on workplace belonging and well-being, suggests using narrative therapy and having clients ask self-reflective questions about work such as
- What are the stories I’m telling myself about the organization?
- Where does work fit into my life?
- Is my work identity my identity?
- Is my work identity aligned with my personal one?
Asking these questions will help clients learn about themselves and find ways to define themselves outside of their career. Finding out the reason behind a client’s desire to quiet quit can also help counselors find the right way to address the issue.
Severine finds values work a useful tool to help clients. “Helping a person figure out their values, their strengths and their weaknesses can help them find a job that provides the highest amount of satisfaction,” she explains.
Severine also recommends counselors use acceptance and commitment therapy to help clients who can’t change their career find solutions. She says she often tells clients, “We have three choices. We can accept the situation as it is, we can change the situation that we’re in or we can leave the situation that we’re in.”
Schroeder cautions counselors against relying on cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which isn’t enough to properly deal with burnout and the stress of the workplace. “Exploring our issues on a cognitive level is not going to get us to where we need to go. Feelings don’t happen in our brain. They happen in a much different part of us,” she says. “Feelings are not cognitive processes; they are energetic responses to what’s happening in our environment. Feelings happen in your body and in your heart, not your brain.”
“Since quiet quitting [and] burnout are essentially about someone who has blown through their own boundaries around what they need in their life to be happy and satisfied, we have to address these deeper issues in a noncognitive and experiential way,” Schroeder continues. Because issues with boundaries are related to childhood experiences, counselors need to be able to access these issues on a deep, somatic level so their clients can truly heal.
She finds Gestalt and somatic therapies to be more effective than CBT because they focus on clients accessing and connecting to feelings, which helps them integrate their feelings and transform.
“Transformation happens when someone can integrate on the energetic level what’s happened to them,” Schroeder explains. “And cognitive approaches will never be able to help someone integrate emotional experiences in the deep way necessary for transformation. … CBT approaches are strictly cognitive in nature and only address the rational, logical, linear thinking parts of your brain. …[They] are far more about understanding than about deep transformation.”
Learning how to communicate one’s feelings to coworkers and bosses may also help relieve some work-related stress. Sometimes counselors overlook simple solutions such as assertiveness training and communication skills in work-related situations, Severine notes. “We spend 40-plus hours a week with our boss and our coworkers so oftentimes if those relationships are unhealthy, it’s going to be dissatisfying,” she says.
When to quiet quit
One way counselor can determine why a client wants to quiet quit is to explore how intertwined clients’ work identity is with their own sense of self, Harris says. She finds that narrative therapy, as well as CBT, work well in unraveling these ties. For example, she may ask clients, “What are the thoughts about why you want to quit your job? What beliefs do you have around work? Where did that come from?”
The idea is to use these therapies to figure out why the client feels the way they do. She really wants clients to dig into the why they’re quiet quitting, so they can figure out whether the solution is leaving one company for another or going down a different route completely. She sometimes asks, ““Before you send that resignation, do you really want to quit this company or do you just not like your job?”
“As clinicians, we really need to help our clients tap into naming those emotions, being able to recognize how that emotion is showing up in their body,” Harris says. Helping clients become more emotionally fluent and in tune with what their body is telling them (such as if they get a certain pain every time they pull up to their office) will help them make a decision.
Employees don’t quit jobs; they quit bosses, Severine stresses. Workplaces can help is by acknowledging that employees should be given a lot of say in how their workplace functions. In addition, giving employees more control over how and when they work will make them more engaged in the workplace and make them less likely to quiet quit.
What most employees need, Severine says, is flexibility. For example, if an employee has to drop their child off at school at 9 a.m. but they’re also expected to be at the office at the same time, then giving them an extra half hour to get to the office (and letting them work a half hour later) could fix an issue that is causing them stress.
Quiet quitting can have many benefits if people do it for the correct reasons, such as taking care of their health or of a family member, instead of just doing it because they hate their job, she adds.
Schroeder says that unless someone is in a toxic situation, quiet quitting should not be their go-to move. If someone is slacking off at their job because they feel the job is overwhelming or difficult, then that issue may still be there if they start a new job. Instead, they need to figure out why they’re slacking off and then address that issue, she says.
Often, the underlying reasons behind quiet quitting revolve around the need for people to set better boundaries, which can help them create a healthier work-life balance, Severine says. Setting boundaries takes a lot of effort. For some, it can mean improving time management skills, so they don’t have to work overtime, or it may mean they don’t do extra work on the weekends or holidays, she adds.
“If you are quiet quitting over hating your job, I think that quiet quitting will likely do nothing to improve that,” Severine says. “Getting clear about what is the problem and being able to effectively communicate that to leadership to see if there are solutions to be found would be much healthier. Or using that information to find a job that would be better suited and lead to more satisfaction.”
Samantha Cooper is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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