Why Quiet Quitting Is Not the Solution to Our Burnout Crisis

Finding meaning, purpose and joy in our work doesn't mean accepting burnout.

Getty Images
Getty Images

“Quiet quitting.” It’s a term, and an idea, that’s not-so-quietly gathering steam. I first noticed it in July, on the heels of a viral TikTok video by @zkchillin. “You’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond,” he says. “You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life. The reality is, it’s not, and your worth as a person is not defined by your labor.” Since then, like an invasive species, the term has caught on, with recent write-ups in The Wall Street Journal, TIME, USA TODAY and The New York Times among many others.

As the Times notes, the term means different things to different people. For some, it simply means quitting on hustle culture, which is a great thing. But for many others, it means just going through the motions, accepting a lack of engagement, joy and purpose in our work as a long-term solution to burnout. That’s the version of quiet quitting we need to quit.

A Collective Wakeup Call

There’s a reason quiet quitting is resonating so widely. It’s a response to a very real problem — the global epidemic of stress and burnout. It was bad long before anybody had ever heard of COVID-19, and, as we all know, it’s only gotten worse since the pandemic began. What we’re seeing is the breakdown of a model of working that goes back to the Industrial Revolution. We’re living through a time of profound disruption and transformation, so it’s only natural that there are going to be a range of responses when it comes to what should replace the old model. 

On a personal and visceral level, I fully understand the dangers and costs of burnout. In 2007, I collapsed from burnout and broke my cheekbone on the way down. I cared so much about burnout, I founded a company in 2016 with the sole mission of “ending the stress and burnout epidemic.” And before the company there was Thrive the book, rejecting burnout, hustle culture and the idea of defining ourselves by our jobs. The subtitle of that book is “the Third Metric to redefining success and creating a life of well-being, wisdom and wonder.” It’s a call to put an end to a definition of success based solely on the metrics of money and status — a broken definition that’s a driver of burnout culture. 

A False Choice

The idea that burnout and quiet quitting are our only options is clearly a false choice. There’s a third alternative — being engaged in our work without burning out and sacrificing our health and happiness. I love people who are interviewing for Thrive and say, “I give 100% when I’m working, and these are my boundaries.” That’s very different from, “I do the bare minimum to get by.”

We’re not, after all, just in a crisis of burnout, we’re also in a crisis of purpose and meaning. And in recent years, study after study has validated the ancient wisdom that having a sense of purpose is deeply tied to our physical and mental well-being. Implicit in quiet quitting is the idea that finding purpose and engagement in our work somehow saps us, or makes us more susceptible to burnout. But in fact purpose is an antidote to burnout. 

While we are much more than our jobs, and our identities and our worth are not based on what we do at work, our jobs take up a lot of our lives. Burnout is costly and damaging, but quiet quitting also has its costs. As Matt Spielman, a career coach, said, “There is no sadder thing to waste all this time in your life trying not to enjoy and be engaged and being excited in the work you are doing.”

There is also the impact quiet quitting has on our co-workers. As Gabrielle Judge, whose job is in customer success, put it, “Some people are taking quiet quitting as in passive aggressively withdrawing, and that doesn’t win for everyone. It isn’t always about you. You’re on a team, you’re in a department.”

A Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity

What’s encouraging about this new trend is how profoundly young people are rejecting burnout and hustle culture. They’re the first generation not to brag about working 24/7, being always available and “sleeping when they’re dead.” And that’s cause for celebration. But they deserve more options than burnout or quiet quitting. And that’s up to employers recognizing that employee well-being is directly tied to performance — including how present, productive, creative and empathetic people are at work. How many hours we work does not reflect the quality of our work. And that’s why investing in employee well-being and mental health is increasingly seen as critical to business success, including recruitment, retention, productivity and healthcare costs.

Here are some of the tools and strategies that we have implemented at Thrive as well as many of the companies we’re working with:

  • The Entry Interview: A conversation between a new hire and their manager on day one in which the first question is: “What’s important to you in your life outside of work and how can we support you?”
  • Compassionate Directness: Empowering employees to share feedback and surface problems in real time. Nobody should be quiet about setting boundaries and taking care of themselves at any time, let alone if they’re at risk of burnout. 
  • Thrive Time: Additional time off — from a few hours to a few days — to recharge after a period of intense work to meet a deadline or complete a project. 
  • Giving Days: Paid time off for employees to volunteer and give back — using the proven power of giving as another way to boost well-being.
  • Thrive Pulse: A daily question for employees that prompts a moment of reflection and gives leaders real-time, anonymized insights into their people’s mental health and well-being.
  • Microsteps: Small, science-backed steps to help people make changes in their daily lives around sleep, movement, nutrition, focus and connection.

These tools are based on the truth that not only is there no trade-off between recharging and performance, the two are directly linked.

The paradox in the quiet quitting trend is that Gen-Zers are very unquietly working to change the world in so many long overdue ways. They’re not content to accept the world they’ve been handed, when it comes to race, climate, mental health, the economy and so much more. So why give up on changing how their companies work? Why not take advantage of this once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine how we work and live? That’s a goal we should never quit on.

Subscribe here for Arianna’s On My Mind Newsletter, where you’ll find inspiration and actionable advice on how to build healthy habits, resilience and connections in our unprecedented times.

    Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.
    We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.