Quiet Quitting is Nothing New: It’s Time to Prioritize Employee Engagement

A hand holding a briefcase next to the text "'Nobody wants to work anymore' is a phrase that has appeared in the media each decade since at least the 1890s." Source: MarketWatch, 2022

Rebecca Parrilla | Director of Content & Research
Emani Richmond | Consultant
Ashton Vicente | Communications Associate


The COVID-19 pandemic strained many traditional workplaces and led to mass burnout for countless employees. Amid blurred home and work boundaries, quiet quitting emerged as a means to reject the pervasive hustle culture and overwhelming workplace demands that persevered even through severe health and economic crises. The term “quiet quitting” is misleading, as workers aren’t necessarily looking to quit their jobs; instead, it involves abandoning the idea of uncompensated work that requires them to go “above and beyond” to prioritize personal values and mental well-being.

The trend has received criticism as a slackers’ fad and is often framed negatively by employers who lose productivity when workers stop exceeding expectations. In reality, quiet quitting is a new term for a global phenomenon spanning generations: a tool used to combat toxic workplace culture that pressures workers into duties beyond what they were hired to do. For as long as workers have pushed back against overwork, critics have tried to dismiss them by saying “nobody wants to work anymore.” Accordingly, this phrase has appeared in popular news media each decade since at least the 1890s.


The Bigger Picture

The enduring desire for a healthy work-life balance can be seen in the concept of “work-to-rule”—or performing job duties exactly as written—which has been used by employees for centuries to petition for workers’ rights while retaining compensation. In 1938, French railway workers in the UK utilized this method to cause major train delays via excessive safety inspections in lieu of a strike. Nurses and midwives followed suit in 2010, refusing to perform “goodwill” tasks not included in their job descriptions, such as administrative and janitorial duties, to inconvenience their employer without putting patients in danger.

Modernly, the tang ping (“lying flat”) lifestyle was popularized by young Chinese workers in the summer of 2021 as a rebellion against the government’s ultracompetitive, work-centric narrative. Like quiet quitting and work-to-rule, employees practicing tang ping refused to perform beyond their assigned duties to deliberately separate their personal and professional lives. Rather than addressing underlying concerns, employers largely dismissed the movement, and the term was even banned on social media. This response led to tang ping’s progression into bai lan (“let it rot”) as hopeless employees embraced apathy, feeling stagnant in their jobs no matter what they tried.

It’s important to note that while concepts like quiet quitting exist worldwide, not everyone can participate equally in the push for a healthier work-life balance. Employee engagement is nuanced based on industry, socioeconomic status, gender, race, age, ability, and the many other aspects of a person’s identity. Employees who do not belong to the most represented cultural group of their workplace tend to be judged differently because they already stand out, especially in more visible positions like leadership roles or frontline and service-oriented roles (employees working in retail, food, healthcare, delivery, etc.) For example, a 2022 study of retail workers found that women are already 14% less likely to be promoted than men, while Black employees felt they needed to work twice as hard as white employees to achieve similar results. In this case, women and Black retail employees also may be more harshly scrutinized for changes to typical workplace behavior—like quiet quitting—and disproportionately affected by negative consequences or termination.


What Can We Do?

Dwindling employee engagement is a longstanding issue that must be rooted out with proactive communication and boundary-setting. Quiet quitting, work-to-rule, and tang ping/bai lan should serve as calls-to-action for a shift in focus toward developing sustainable, healthy workplace environments that promote engagement on diverse teams.

Creating an intentionally inclusive workplace takes time, effort, and organizational buy-in, but here are some steps you can take to begin transforming your team:

1) Encourage Regular Check-ins Between Managers and Direct Reports

Frequent, honest communication is foundational in addressing employee engagement. While managers have a large role in building engagement, they cannot invest in their team’s best interest if they don’t have a complete understanding of each employee’s needs. Checking in via regular meetings and one-on-ones in psychologically safe environments is important for both managers and employees in setting clear expectations and acknowledging each person’s contributions. Managers also must be ready to act on feedback or share why certain feedback cannot be acted upon.


2) Engage in Inclusive Conversations with Team Members

To best serve their diverse teams, organizations must move away from narrow definitions of success and toward a more flexible workplace culture that better connects with and supports each individual. Active listening and collaborative reimagining of positions and duties are powerful tools to prevent employee burnout.

Managers might ask the following questions to drive regular, inclusive conversations with their direct reports:

      • Is there anything I can do to support you?
      • What do you like most about your job? Can we adjust your position to include more of this, or could this be reimagined into a new role?
      • How well do you feel you are recognized for your accomplishments and contributions to the team?


3) Help Managers Support Their Teams

Organizational change can only take place when all participants are provided with tools and resources that support culturally inclusive mindsets and systems. Employees become more engaged when given opportunities to learn, grow, and advance, such as through mentorship opportunities that upskill their abilities and build on their strengths. However, people managers tend to have limited bandwidth, with multiple competing priorities pulling them in different directions. As such, managers must be provided with the proper support, training, and tools that align with their team’s goals and the larger organization’s goals.


Trends like quiet quitting signify the need for deep, systemic change; these three tips are a good first step in prioritizing sustainable employee engagement and well-being at your organization. Employers looking to take the next step in creating an equitable and inclusive workplace culture are encouraged to contact us for additional resources and personalized solutions.

See other related posts

Skip to content