When an employee leaves unnoticed

The prevalence of quiet quitting inspires us to reflect on how to transform employees' emotions, rather than having them withdrawn, into fuel for the organization.
Psychology, Work

Silent resignations are not a new concept in the workplace environment, but they have gained immense popularity in recent months. What is this trend about? What are its benefits and drawbacks? Should we aim to eradicate it, and what crucial lessons does it teach us?

Quiet quitting does not equal leaving employment

The term ‘quiet quitting’ appeared on TikTok in spring 2022. However, I would not say that the videos posted there initiated a new phenomenon, rather they simply resonated with the feelings of many people. The term was used to describe a situation in which employees diligently carry out their assigned tasks, but do not engage in their work beyond what is necessary. They begin and end their working days at designated times, and do not check messages after hours. They do not take the initiative or volunteer for additional tasks. They maintain an emotional distance from their professional roles and do not identify with their organizations. They do not prioritize work over other important matters and are not willing to sacrifice themselves for the company. They detach themselves from unreasonable demands, and their professional identity is not built on their job position. Quiet quitting does not mean laziness or intentional neglect, it is not an Italian strike or complete indifference. It is rather a change in the way of thinking about work. Importantly, unlike actual resignation or formal changes in employment terms, the decision to adopt such an attitude is made independently and without the knowledge of the employer, hence we say ‘quiet’ resignation.

Should the managers be worried by the wave of silent resignations?

The trend of quiet quitting can give employers sleepless nights. If we assume that attitudes and their changes are not immediately apparent and only manifest over time, managers are left in a state of uncertainty as to what they can reasonably expect from their teams. Perhaps they can count on them to complete tasks, but will they also notice when it would be worth modifying them? Will an employee feel responsible for solving an urgent customer problem if there is a need to, or will they calmly shut down their computer at the end of their working hours? Such considerations are fully justified because the phenomenon is widespread. According to the Gallup Institute, quiet quitting affects at least 50% of employees in the United States – the remaining 32% are engaged and 18% are “actively” disengaged. In Poland, the situation is only slightly better. Enpulse research shows that 42% of employees are engaged. 23% identify with the company to some extent, but are not strongly connected to it, another 23% are disappointed with the organization and work for it reluctantly, and 12% feel unhappy in their workplaces and do not have a sense of being a part of the company.

What is the novelty about current attitudes towards work

Obviously, there have always been satisfied, dissatisfied, and passive employees in organizations. However, it seems that we are witnessing a significant change in the way these attitudes are expressed, undoubtedly linked to the entry of new generations into the job market. Older generations relegated categories such as a sense of purpose and personal fulfillment, the need to be appreciated, the impact of work on physical and mental health, and balance between different areas of life. Exploiting oneself in the name of ambition, career, company good, and performance appraisal “exceeding expectations” was many times accompanied by chronic stress, deep disappointment, burnout, and relationship breakdown, but it was not to be spoken of. Moreover, companies often and willingly benefited from the existing hustle culture, multiplying unpaid overtime, assigning additional projects, and expecting full availability. The different approach of young people can therefore be seen not only as a revolt against neglecting oneself but also against employer abuses. Millennials and zoomers openly say that workaholism does not appeal to them, and they do not want to overwork themselves. They set boundaries, and focus on “here and now” instead of toiling away in the hope of a “better tomorrow”.

What’s wrong with an employee doing exactly what you agreed on?

Nothing at first glance. A person who fulfills the contract 100% could even be considered an ideal employee. There is already enough trouble with those who do not do what is expected of them, so why bother about those who approach their duties with due diligence? It must be admitted that quiet quitting has many advantages, as long as it does not turn into doing the bare minimum just to avoid being fired. Balancing work and personal life can prevent frustration, lead to lower stress levels, and reduce the risk of burnout. Openly discussing expectations with employers allows for a more favorable work environment for all employees. Thus, negotiating the terms of additional work and discussing the impact of workloads on health become the norm. While older managers may say, “it’s entitlement,” “no one around us acted like that,” or “they will never learn the real world this way,” many acknowledge that setting boundaries and expecting employers to take an interest in the well-being of their team makes sense. Especially if we think about the long-term functioning and well-being – and we must do this because we are living longer.

What then is the problem with quiet quitting?

it is virtually impossible to successfully run a company in which tasks are simply enumerated and people come in to tick off the items on the list. In an uncertain and ever-changing world governed by non-linear logic (as the concepts of VUCA and BANI suggest), job descriptions cannot be carved in stone. Besides, who could create them so perfectly that they would fit all circumstances? Deloitte, a consulting firm, identifies moving away from job positions defined by a set of duties assigned to a specific person as one of the main HR trends for 2023. Instead, they propose leaning on skills and preferences. In some professions, this may not be possible for a long time, and it is difficult to imagine a courier network working in this way, for example. However, companies that want to be agile and adapt to their surroundings must increasingly rely on behaviors that elude confinement in rigid frameworks – critical thinking, recognizing opportunities, building relationships, utilizing new information, or challenging the status quo. And it’s difficult to exhibit these behaviors to someone who has decided to emotionally disengage.

Emotions gain recognition as a crucial factor in success

In the not-too-distant past, the role of emotions in business was debatable. If any were viewed favorably at all, it was probably only enthusiasm for performing duties and admiration for the boss. Generally, however, there was a belief that “work is not a place for emotions,” and a true professional should rather be composed and cool. Nowadays, we admit that emotional processes do not cease when we come to work, but continue, whether we want them to or not. And increasingly we want them to, because emotions not only do not conflict with business, but can actually be its driving force. And there is no need to sell our souls to the company, which some people might fear. Also maintaining reasonable boundaries when we do engage in work, we can do it with our heart, and both parties will benefit. Emotions play a pivotal role in properly interpreting situations and other people’s needs, in searching for and evaluating new solutions, and finally in utilizing our own potential. The employee’s withdrawal of emotions in a sense closes the access to what is most valuable in them. However, making it possible for employees to engage their emotions in organizations, and want to do so, is a true art.

People leave silently when they don’t feel like they can speak up

In one study, 85% of employees acknowledged that they had refrained from raising a significant issue at work, at least on one occasion. As the author of the book The fearless organization Amy Edmondson writes, many employees experience the painful reality of having something to say, but remaining silent out of fear of negative evaluation, damage to relationships, or their own professional situation. I see this inability to speak up as one of the causes of quiet quitting. If you have ever been in a situation where your ideas were met with indifference, your boss always knew better, questioning established solutions led to being labeled as a ‘difficult person’, admitting to a mistake was used against you, and asking questions resulted in eye-rolling and meaningful sighs, then you know how it undermines the confidence. Of course, our own communication skills also matter, but here I wish to draw attention to the environment that teaches us that speaking up is not worth it. Neither the leader nor the team may be aware of the consequences of this kind of silencing, which not only frustrates employees but can also harm the company when no one speaks up in time and asks ‘Why are we doing this?’ or ‘Is this really the right direction?’.

The significance of psychological safety

The environment matters. You can gather exceptionally talented people with rich experience and diverse skills, but it will be of little use if their potential doesn’t have favorable conditions to emerge. In a two-year study of 180 teams under the Aristotle Project, Google experts discovered that the success of a team depended less on who was in it, and more on how its members collaborated – the environment they created for each other. The most important need for people working together turned out to be psychological safety. The feeling that interpersonal risk associated with open communication is worth taking. Psychological safety is a condition for engaging emotions at work. We all observe its level in our own surroundings and draw conclusions whether it is better to be truly oneself or whether it comes with such costs that it is better to engage in internal emigration.

Do employees feel safe in your company?

If you want to evaluate the level of psychological safety in your own environment, read the statements below and consider to what extent you agree with them. There are no perfect workplaces where these principles are always fulfilled 100%, but if the thought “It’s some kind of utopia” appears in your mind, that’s an alarm signal. If you are a manager, you can ask employees for anonymous responses, using a five-point Likert scale. To increase psychological safety, think about what you can do to enable people to speak this way about their team.

  • On this team, I understand what is expected of me.
  • I feel my ideas are valued, and I feel safe in suggesting them.
  • If I make a mistake on this team, it is never held against me.
  • When something goes wrong, we work together to find the systemic causes.
  • I feel able to bring up problems and concerns.
  • Members of this team never reject others for being different and nobody is left out.
  • It is safe for me to take an intelligent risk on this team.
  • It is easy for me to ask other members of this team for help.
  • Nobody on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  • Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.

The underestimated role of appreciating employees

In addition to psychological safety, appreciation seems to be the second key ingredient in the recipe for quiet quitting. It is not mentioned in any employment contract, and many bosses still assume that it is not necessary – after all, if the work is well done, why talk about it? According to the „Power of appreciation 2022” report, however, appreciation is important for 99% of employees in Poland. Meanwhile, only 59% of people declare feeling appreciated. 43% believe that appreciation is a daily occurrence in their companies, and 37% confirm that teams are appreciated for their work together. So, there is still much to be done. Why does appreciation play such a role? Because it immediately activates emotions. Thanks to it, we feel seen, our self-belief grows, and we believe that our efforts are meaningful. It is a direct confirmation that engagement is worthwhile. Appreciation reduces stress, builds a positive atmosphere, and translates into effectiveness and loyalty. One can either rely on it to happen on its own in the company, or consciously implement in the organization through established systems and good practices.

When and how to appreciate employees?

It is worth listening to what employees themselves say about it. The aforementioned report shows that employees want to be appreciated during periodic performance reviews, but even more so on an ongoing basis – right after completing a task. The feeling of appreciation increases with the frequency at which people receive recognition. For those praised at least once a week, the figure is 95%, for those praised once a month it is 69%, and for those praised less than once a year it is 11%. There are many forms of appreciation available:

  • Simple “thank you” – “thank you for submitting the data”, “thank you for reviewing this material”, “thank you for asking such precise questions”,
  • Celebrating successes together – project summary, ordering pizza to the office or going out with the entire team,
  • Showing trust – involving employees in making important decisions, reducing control level, increasing responsibility,
  • Sharing positive feedback from clients,
  • Providing in-depth feedback that shows that the employee’s actions were truly noticed and remembered,
  • Asking employees for feedback,
  • Financial rewards – bonus for extra work, performance bonus,
  • Flexibility in approach to individual needs – for example in terms of working hours or remote work,
  • Recognition expressed in internal or external communication – in newsletters, bulletins, social media,
  • Dedicating time and attention to employees,
  • Enabling learning and development,
  • Providing good quality equipment and technology,
  • Small gifts – points in the benefit system, gift cards,
  • Nonverbal signals, such as a handshake or a thumbs up.

The best solution as usual lies in the middle

Clearly, in the effort to reduce the incidence of silent resignations, many possibilities for action lie on the side of companies. The change in work philosophy was initiated by employees, and now organizations need to respond to it. Dwelling on nostalgia for the times of the rat race and 16-hour workdays or quiet firing, which involves discouraging people from continuing their employment, is not a constructive response. However, it would be advantageous if these emerging trends fostered a mature dialogue between employers and their workforce. For example, it is reasonable for the employer to expect the employee to work more intensively in exceptional situations. But it is also reasonable for the employee to expect that this will not be the norm and that it will be appropriately appreciated. And if there is an imbalance or abuse, it should be possible to discuss it. Rigid positions such as “I want it on my desk in the morning” and “I’m leaving at 5 pm” do not promote cooperation. Instead, it is necessary to be ready for confrontation – not only with the other party but also with one’s own beliefs. Personally, I am pleased to see employees standing up for their rights, and I firmly believe that this benefits both sides. Employees get a better life, and the company gains engagement and emotional commitment.

Quiet quitting beyond the workplace

Although this article focuses on work, it appears relevant to add at the end that the phenomenon of silent resignations also occurs in other areas of life. Just as one can emotionally distance themselves from work, one can also withdraw their commitment in a relationship. Someone may not formally break up with their partner, not cheat on them, appear “okay” so it would be difficult to accuse them of anything. Yet, they distance themselves in a way that is perceptible to the other person and stop making an effort. It is usually acutely felt by the one being abandoned in this way because not only are their needs not being met, but they do not really know what is happening. Although the relationship continues, it does not bring satisfaction to anyone because there is no vitality in it. Various reasons can be hidden behind silent resignations in personal life, such as a sense that the other person is not fulfilling their promises, the existence of shared obligations, fear of losing the relationship, fear of loneliness, fear of responsibility for ending the relationship or fear of the reaction of the environment. As in the professional arena, the solution rests in engaging in an open and honest dialogue, receptive to all the potential insights it may offer.

Employees of companies covered by the ICAS Employee Assistance Program and their close ones can benefit from confidential 24/7 access to psychological and managerial support to talk about professional and personal problems.


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