Quiet Quitting: A Step Down the Path Toward Complete Burnout?

August 30, 2022 David Witt

Burnout is a response to chronic job stressors people deal with on a regular basis. It’s a constant grinding that wears people away a little bit each day until they find themselves in a state of exhaustion, cynicism, and discouragement that is deep and pervasive.

It’s a condition many people have been facing lately.

One widely discussed technique people are using to ward off burnout is called “quiet quitting.”  It involves scaling back on work commitments, the amount of time spent achieving them, and their level of care and concern. This approach may bring temporary relief but it does little to address the underlying issues that trigger burnout. In fact, it might be an early warning sign of the condition.

In an article for Positive Psychology, Alicia Nortje, Ph.D. points to research pioneered by Christina Maslach, Susan Jackson, and Michael Leiter.  She writes:

Employees who are experiencing burnout initially try to distance themselves from their work. They take longer to respond to work requests, go into the office less frequently, and are less concerned with work. . . If left unchecked, the second step of burnout is activated, where employees develop feelings of negativity and cynicism toward their work. . .

In their research paper Early Predictors of Job Burnout and Engagement, Maslach and Leiter report the same phenomenon. They write that exhaustion “. . .prompts actions to distance one-self emotionally and cognitively from one’s work, presumably as a way to cope with work overload.”

Both of these descriptions sound very similar to the objectives of quiet quitting.

A better alternative to beating burnout is to take a second look at your work environment. In an article for Stanford Social Innovation Review, Maslach and Leiter outline six categories for individual or organizational focus to help diagnose the causes of burnout and tailor solutions to the problem areas.

  • Workload. A mismatch between high demands and low resources. Lots to do but not enough time, people, tools, or information to get it all done.
  • Control. How much choice, discretion, and say you have over what you do to innovate or do something better or differently.
  • Reward. Not just pay and perks, but recognition for having done something well and the social and intrinsic rewards of doing a good job.
  • Community. Specifically, workplace community. Who are the people you are in regular contact and interaction with?  Are those relationships supportive in working out problems and doing things better?
  • Fairness. The basic human need to be treated fairly whatever the system, whatever the problems.
  • Values. The meaning of the work and the pride you take in doing it well and contributing something.

Maslach and Leiter recommend a dialogue that uses these six areas as a guide for people and organizations to take well-informed action—first to identify mismatches that may be leading to burnout and then to collaborate on methods to target and find resolutions for the specific concerns.

Don’t Quit—Fix the Underlying Issues

Quiet quitting begs the question: What's wrong with the work in the first place?  If you look closer, the root causes that lead to quiet quitting may be deeper than just too much work.  Reducing your workload or level of caring may stop the pain short term, but if you leave other environmental factors in place, you’re merely tolerating the problems at hand—or worse, denying them.

There are a lot of great resources available today for addressing the root causes of burnout.  Don’t settle for less. Looking for self tests? Check out Warning Signs of Burnout: 11 Reliable Tests & Questionnaires. You can find Maslach and Leiter’s “Quick Burnout Assessment” in their article Reversing Burnout.

About the Author

David  Witt

David Witt is a Program Director for Blanchard®. He is an award-winning researcher and host of the companies’ monthly webinar series. David has also authored or coauthored articles in Fast Company, Human Resource Development Review, Chief Learning Officer and US Business Review.

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