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What is 'quiet quitting,' and how it may be a misnomer for setting boundaries at work

A tired man sits at a desk in a modern office.
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Closing your laptop at 5 p.m. Doing only your assigned tasks. Spending more time with family. These are just some of the common examples used to define the latest workplace trend of "quiet quitting."

Some experts say it's a misnomer and should really be defined as carving out time to take care of yourself.

Ed Zitron, who runs a media consulting business for tech startups and publishes the labor-focused newsletter Where's Your Ed At, believes the term stems from companies exploiting their employees' labor and how these businesses benefit from a culture of overwork without additional compensation.

"If you want people to go 'above and beyond,' compensate them for it. Give them $200. Pay them for the extra work," Zitron told NPR over email. "Show them the direct path from 'I am going above and beyond' to 'I am being rewarded for doing so.'"

A TikTok video on quiet quitting posted in July by @zkchillin (now @zaidleppelin) went viral. Many TikTok users shared their own experiences in response, with #quietquitting gaining 8.2 million views on the platform as of 4 p.m. ET Thursday.

Quiet quitting doesn't actually involve quitting. Instead, it has been deemed a response to hustle culture and burnout; employees are "quitting" going above and beyond and declining to do tasks they are not being paid for.

How employees have changed their approach to work

Workplace culture has gone through many changes during the COVID-19 pandemic, including with the "great resignation." Some workers are negotiating for better work conditions and benefits with newfound leverage.

Some workers have expressed a desire for a less rigid line between their work and personal selves. Professionals told NPR's Morning Edition how during the pandemic, they have made changes in their work lives, from how they dress to their career field, to align more closely with their personal values.

"I started to realize that all of the hang-ups about being away from work to spend time with my kids, that was all me wanting to be a really good employee," Kristin Zawatski told NPR's Morning Edition. "But my work speaks for itself."

Zawatski works in project management, a job that has afforded her the flexibility she needs as a mom of two. Although she would always make sure her work was done, she felt guilty whenever she needed to leave early or take a day off. That changed with the pandemic.

"Knowing that life could be short, I didn't want to waste it anymore all the time just worrying about what kind of employee I was, because my kids don't care what kind of employee I am," Zawatski said. "My kids care what kind of mom I am."

Quiet quitting is in line with a larger reevaluation of how work fits into our lives and not the other way around. As Gen Z is entering the workforce, the idea of quiet quitting has gained traction as Gen Zers deal with burnout and never-ending demands.

However, Gen Z is not the first generation to experience burnout, and quiet quitting is not a new idea. Zitron shared his frustrations with the framing of the term, because it mischaracterizes doing the tasks you are paid for with the idea of quitting your job.

"The term 'quiet quitting' is so offensive, because it suggests that people that do their work have somehow quit their job, framing workers as some sort of villain in an equation where they're doing exactly what they were told," Zitron said.

Employers benefit financially from workers doing extra work without compensation and it is reasonable for employees to push back against that, he added.

"It's part of an overwhelming trend of pro-boss propaganda, trying to frame workers that don't do free work for their bosses as somehow stealing from the company," Zitron said.

For employers that are dealing with workers who may be exhibiting signs of quiet quitting, Zitron has one simple message for them: Pay them for extra work.

If you are experiencing burnout at work, setting boundaries can help you regain some control. Additionally, working on addressing workplace conflict head-on can make a situation easier — or be a sign it's time to move on.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Amina Kilpatrick
Amina Kilpatrick is an assistant engagement editor for the Newshub team distributing stories to Facebook, Twitter, third-party platforms and more.