Why Quiet Quitting Is a Problematic Misnomer for Boundaries

Why Quiet Quitting Is a Problematic Misnomer for Boundaries
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Recent discourse surrounding the topic of “quiet quitting”—a term that took off from a viral TikTok, meaning simply doing your job as described, minus the extra hustle—has been anything but, well, quiet. As the phrase gained buzzword status, articles on what it means for workplace engagement and what managers can do to mitigate the practice proliferated. But so did articles of another flavor, taking issue with the back half of the phrase: the “quitting” part. Why should simply abiding by your job description be associated with quitting, and what does that say about our relationship with work? As it turns out, the connotation of the term may do more harm than good, giving a bad name to the very legitimate boundaries it entails.

“I believe the discussion on quiet quitting is focused on the wrong thing, and the phrase is flawed,” says burnout coach Erayna Sargent, founder of workplace wellness consultancy Hooky Wellness. The idea of “quitting” comes with a negative context, putting the onus on the employee for somehow shirking their responsibilities at work—and worse yet, doing it sneakily or quietly—when in actuality, they’re just dropping the “above and beyond” work they’ve been expected to do without pay or recognition. That’s more a reflection of how our culture incentivizes exceeding expectations, and the ways in which companies exploit that tendency for profit, rather than an indication of workers suddenly wanting to coast at work or “quit.”

“The conversation on ‘quiet quitting’ is being spun as if employees don’t want to do their job, but the real discussion should be focused on what companies have done to deserve their employees’ discretionary effort.” —Erayna Sargent, burnout coach

By contrast, Sargent suspects that many employees actually want to do well at work and are willing to volunteer for extra responsibilities. But this supplemental work has long been “undervalued and often completely overlooked,” she says, despite the time and energy it takes and the benefit it provides to a person’s employer. “The conversation on ‘quiet quitting’ is being spun as if employees don’t want to do their job, but the real discussion should be focused on what companies have done to deserve their employees’ discretionary effort.” Until that “extra” is proven to count for something, there’s no reason employees should feel pressured to do it—and choosing not to is far from “quitting” a job, quietly or otherwise.

In fact, stepping back from the extras and the hustling can be a major boon for your mental health, as it involves setting and upholding effective work-life boundaries. This very important detail gets lost in the name. While “quiet quitting” implies disengaging or checking out from work, the concept underpinning the name is just about placing healthy boundaries around the work you do, so that you can live a life outside of work, too.

Why having work boundaries is the most important takeaway of the “quiet quitting” discourse

Perhaps the reason why having boundaries around work can feel so radical (and for some people, equivalent to “quitting”) is just how ingrained and powerful our hustle mentality really is. “We often buy into the myth that relentless productivity only comes with rewards, when in actuality, it comes with a costly price, too,” says psychologist Jacinta M. Jiménez, PsyD, vice president of coach innovation at virtual coaching platform BetterUp. “Eventually, the quality of our output goes down, our creativity plummets, and our ability to be empathetic drops, too.” Keep at it, and you’ll eventually arrive at burnout, a place where so many of us currently reside.

“We often buy into the myth that relentless productivity only comes with rewards, when in actuality, it comes with a costly price, too.” —Jacinta M. Jiménez, PsyD, psychologist

The extent of our burnout epidemic seems to have caused the pendulum to swing as far as possible in the opposite direction, arriving at a term like quiet quitting. But in reality, there’s no need to view work as this all-or-nothing game, says Dr. Jiménez. “The trouble here is when we think, ‘I’m going to completely overwork,’ or ‘I’m going to totally check out.’” In the middle is where you ideally want to be, she says. And that’s where quiet quitters actually put themselves. They’re not disengaging or slacking, despite what the name implies, just doing their work without overextending—aka setting boundaries.

Reframing the idea of “quiet quitting” as setting healthy boundaries with work makes it both more empowering (you’re drawing certain lines, not giving up) and sustainable (quitting can’t last forever, but boundaries can). Having work-life boundaries can also help protect you from burnout, thus moving you closer to success, not quitting.

To set effective boundaries, Dr. Jiménez suggests starting with a list of what you value. Think about what makes you feel fulfilled and what makes you uncomfortable, the qualities of people who inspire you, and the kinds of things that someone would need to know to understand you. From there, consider the needs you have based on those values in order to figure out what you will or won’t do to meet those needs. Those are your boundaries. “For example, if you value focus, you may need periods of uninterrupted time in your schedule,” says Dr. Jiménez. “So, what you will do is communicate those time blocks to your team, and what you won’t do is accept calls or chats during that time.”

Of course, you can work some flexibility into these boundaries or make exceptions to them when necessary—but the key thing is that you’re conscious of both the boundaries you’ve set in place and any decisions you’re making to flex them, says Dr. Jiménez.

This is very different from just agreeing to extra requests whenever they’re thrown at you. “With values-based boundaries, you create certainty around what you will and won’t do, which gives you what we call an internal locus of control,” says Dr. Jiménez. “You are intentionally choosing who, how, and when you want to help or get involved, and in turn, you’ll feel empowered to amplify or dampen your level of engagement in accordance with your needs.”

In this way, you may be quietly quitting from the demands of hustle culture, but you’re certainly not quitting any element of work. In fact, you’re enacting even more agency over your actions in the workplace. And with that, allow us to quietly quit from the quiet-quitting conversation—and replace it with loud boundaries from here on out.

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