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Watch out when workplaces turn too quiet

  • October 13, 2022

It’s the new buzzword, popularized by a recent TikTok video, to describe the strategy a significant chunk of the workforce is now pursuing: “quiet quitting.”

It’s unclear how much of the Canadian workforce is quiet quitting. A September 2022 Gallup poll  says that “at least” 50 per cent of the U.S. workforce are quiet quitters, with an additional 18 per cent being activity disengaged.

“Quiet quitting” may evoke a sense of panic or foreboding. The actual meaning of this workplace trend — perform only those tasks outlined in the job description and meet the obligations required of the job during working hours — seems relatively benign at first.

Indeed, limiting the scope of our duties and circumscribing the number of hours we spend working is an obvious way of achieving a healthy work-life balance. This also can prevent, or help us cope with, job burnout, a condition experienced by 35 per cent of all employed Canadians, according to a January 2022 Mental Health Canada report.

Whether quiet quitting is a benign way of setting boundaries for better work-life balance or reflects a more menacing movement depends on several factors.

One key determinant is the level of employee engagement, which Gallup defines as being “the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace.”

Engaged employees are enthusiastic, involved and feel a sense of connection to their employer, with their efforts contributing to the growth and success of their workplace.

Employees who are not engaged are “psychologically unattached to their work and company,” says one workplace software company’s blog. Employees are clocking in but not putting energy or passion into their work.

Actively disengaged employees act out their unhappiness and resentments over their needs not being met, often undermining their colleagues in the process.

Those who pursue quiet quitting with the goal of achieving work-life balance or combating burnout can still be engaged employees. They can bring interest into their work and care about their role in contributing positively to their employer’s mission while placing limits on time and energy invested in the job.

Employees can map out realistic work plans achievable within their work schedule, ideally in consultation with their supervisors when possible.

This is made easier in Ontario with the passage in late 2021 of the Working for Workers Act, which requires workplaces with 25 or more employees to have a written policy on disconnecting outside business hours.

The law defines “disconnecting from work” as “not engaging in work-related communications, including emails, telephone calls, video calls or sending or reviewing other messages, to be free from the performance of work.” 

Quiet quitting is insidious if it becomes a passive-aggressive way of showing anger or resistance against the employer. An “I don’t give a hoot” attitude, doing as little as possible to barely get by, cutting corners in quality, taking extra-long breaks and other such behaviours eventually bring us down and infect our colleagues with negativity.

The situation works both ways. A second buzzword out there is “quiet firing,” also a passive-aggressive behaviour in which employers demoralize those they want to fire so that the besieged employees end up quitting.

There’s a range of signs of quiet firing that include being assigned the least desirable tasks, having interesting projects reassigned, being excluded from meetings and not receiving needed feedback.

Quiet firing and an ill-intentioned quiet quitting ultimately degrade the dignity of the person doing the work. A point of Pope John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens is that “the basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person.”

It’s crucial we have some level of workplace engagement. Laborem Exercens describes a “spirituality of work” in which we come closer to God by sharing in His work of creation. Using our divinely-given gifts and talents to participate in God’s creation is His plan for us and is deeply satisfying.

Work expresses and increases our dignity and enables us to be “‘more a human being,” says the encyclical.

Quiet quitting can serve a beneficial purpose by helping us carve out time for daily prayer and Bible reading, family, friends, hobbies, caregiving and other uplifting activities.

But if we’re truly unhappy in our current work situation, we need to do what we can to transform our work life or seek a new opportunity elsewhere where our work is in tune with our life goals and values. 

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer specializing in research at an Ontario university.)

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