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Act Your Wage: How Quiet Quitting Is a Symptom of the Workplace Mental Health Crisis
Quiet Quitting. Hustle Culture. Burnout. The Great Resignation. These terms are everywhere you look, populating articles, blogs, and social media posts all trying to make sense of the latest trendy term in an ongoing saga of workplace upheaval. Quiet quitting is described by the Washington Post as, “a bit of a misnomer, because quiet quitters aren’t walking away from their jobs. Instead, they’re renouncing hustle culture, quitting ‘the idea of going above and beyond at work.’” However, their description and many other descriptions misunderstand a key aspect of this term. Quiet quitting, or “acting your wage” isn’t about doing subpar work or taking away from one’s employer, but rather about restructuring one’s values and resetting the employer-employee relationship and the contract of salaried work. Quiet quitting seemed to ruffle a lot of feathers, and one after another, journalists, pundits, and business leaders acted shocked at this latest “trend” originally brought into the public consciousness by TikTok creators and anti-work message boards on Reddit. Mr. Wonderful himself, Kevin O’Leary, of Shark Tank fame even commented on the phenomenon when he advised workers not to engage in quiet quitting.
This is indicative of a major shift in the landscape of labor in America. Workers are no longer willing to be disrespected, underpaid, and overworked, and they are collectively taking back their power. Combined with an explosion of interest in and understanding of mental health and the lack of support for it, particularly in the workplace, workers across the country are prioritizing their well-being and rethinking the agreement they make with their employers when they sign up for a salaried position.
Much has been written about what quiet quitting means for employers, and how burnout is affecting the bottom line. However, what is often left out of the conversation is the workers themselves, their inherent value, and how these trends are just the latest indicator of what is effectively a major mental health crisis in the American workplace. What can be done to remedy this issue? As Labor Day is upon us, there is no better time to reflect on the current state of labor and laborers in the US. What can be done to support them and return us to a stable, prosperous, and healthy work culture? Read on to explore some of the implications of and possible solutions to this phenomenon.
For years, sentiments toward unfair work practices, toxic work cultures, and unrealistic expectations of work-life balance have been growing. Covid-19 and the ensuing Great Resignation and remote work revolution taught the world many difficult lessons. Employers and employees learned the hard way that many jobs can easily be done remotely with no loss in productivity or efficiency. This led to a large-scale rethinking of work-life balance. It also empowered a huge number of employees to search for jobs unconstrained by geographic location for the first time. Facing burnout from years of grinding away at their jobs amid stagnant wages, lack of career growth, and soaring corporate profits and executive salaries, workers were getting fed up. Combined with the massive perspective from the pandemic, employees everywhere reconsidered their priorities and aligned themselves with employers that offered the flexibility, benefits, balance, and support that they felt they deserved.
Quiet quitting, and its older cousin burnout, are products of these difficult times. During this period of upheaval, the term burnout began gaining steam to describe the experiences and symptoms of a workforce that was struggling with their mental health. For decades, American workers and business leaders have promoted an entrepreneurial spirit that, when pushed to extremes, spun to be positively accepted as the hustle culture.
For many years, the accepted ideology was that employers and large corporations held all the power, and workers should be so lucky as to force their way into a job. To get or keep a good job, they had to consistently stand out by going above and beyond the call of duty, constantly working overtime with a smile on their face, or taking on another position’s responsibilities due to layoffs. When even this became too little to make a good, livable wage, hustle culture emerged, claiming that workers needed to be industrious enough to cultivate endless side hustles and entrepreneurial endeavors while working themselves to the bone just to make ends meet. The paradigm around work and the relationship between workers and their employers was ripe for disruption, not unlike it was at the end of the 19th century when Labor Day was first introduced.
Labor Day, Employee Well-Being, and the Path Forward
Labor Day was made a federal holiday in 1894 to celebrate the contributions of workers to the fabric and well-being of the US. This was especially important as this was a time when many workers were taken advantage of and exploited with unfair pay, long hours, and no regulations governing the protection of workers. This holiday has continued to remind Americans of the importance of respecting and supporting employees in a country that relies on them for growth and prosperity. The sentiments and activism that helped Labor Day become a holiday continued to push back against unfair working conditions throughout the early part of the 20th century and laid the groundwork for future generations of workers to stand up for their rights.
Fast-forward to today and it is clearer than ever that businesses and leaders need to understand the importance of supporting their people. Quiet quitting is not the issue. Quiet quitting is not even an accurate term for the phenomenon we’re seeing, because it is inherently anti-worker. Instead of vilifying people for engaging in practices like quiet quitting, business leaders should consider the conditions that lead to this language and these phenomena. Already this is becoming a priority for forward-thinking, growth-minded businesses that want to attract and retain top talent. Many companies are beginning to see the value of mental health in the workplace and are taking steps to support it by improving work-life balance, offering comprehensive well-being benefits, and rethinking what it means to care for their people.
Labor Day is a time to reflect on the role of workers in our society, and this year it’s a perfect opportunity for us all to think about what role work should play in our lives. If American work asks that employees go “above and beyond” for their employer, employees should rightfully ask, “How does my employer go ‘above and beyond’ for me?” Business leaders that want to be successful and build a foundation for longevity should consider these questions and ask themselves if they are doing enough to support the well-being of their teams. A foundation of mutual respect is the basis for a thriving business relationship and supporting the mental health and well-being of your employees is the first step toward long-term, sustained success. Quiet quitting, burnout and high turnover are of no concern to employers that listen, understand, and meet the needs of their team members.