Contemplating quiet quitting

Instead of quiet quitting a stressful job, take a moment for a contemplative pause to focus on what is really important.

I have been seeing more and more headlines recently about people “quiet quitting” at their work. Much of this discussion is driven by – or refers back to – social media videos (such as a popular one by Zaiad Khan). Simply from the phrase – quiet quitting – my first impression was people were talking about making a move to disengage from their job, without actually quitting.

@zaidleppelin On quiet quitting #workreform ♬ original sound – ruby

Over the past year, during what has been called the “Great Resignation,” we have seen millions of people leaving their jobs during the pandemic. In some cases, people decided to retire, or found new opportunities during the volatility of the pandemic. Or, they wanted to keep working, but were unwilling to return back to the pre-COVID routines (preferring to continue working remotely, for instance).

Not everyone who has felt overwhelmed or unhappy has quit or changed jobs. In my own profession (higher education), I have seen more conversation about concerns that people are less fully engaged in the work of our colleges and universities. In January, The Chronicle of Higher Education did a story about The Great Faculty Disengagement that captured some of the concerns. While there has been some turnover for faculty, as people are able to pursue new opportunities, there are others who remain at their institutions, but are approaching their work in a more detached way:

… most faculty members aren’t making big job moves. For them, the Great Resignation looks different. We would describe it as disengagement. They are withdrawing from certain aspects of the job or, on a more emotional level, from the institution itself. Faculty members are not walking away in droves, but they are waving goodbye to norms and systems that prevailed in the past. They are still teaching their courses, supporting students, and trying to keep up with basic tasks. But connections to the institution have been frayed. The work is getting done, but there isn’t much spark to it.

Kevin R. McClure and Alisa Hicklin Fryar, The Great Faculty Disengagement

So, with this in mind, I felt that I already recognized quiet quitting as another example of this kind of disengagement: keeping one’s job while putting in the bare minimum required. And, this does seem to fit some examples of quiet quitting. For instance, in a BBC news article, Emma O’Brien described her own experience of quiet quitting when was turned down for a raise (even after taking on significant new responsibilities): “That was why I literally ended up doing what I was supposed to do to get the job done and nothing more. I felt empowered and motivated because I had mentally checked out of that job a few weeks before.”

However, as the discussion around quiet quitting has spread, a number of voices have argued that the term is not primarily about disengagement, but about finding balance in one’s life:

Despite what the misleading name may suggest, quiet quitting, as many have pointed out, has nothing to do with quitting, doing the bare minimum or slacking off at work. It is more a way to set boundaries at work and not do extra work outside one’s scope without fair compensation. Shutting down one’s laptop at 5 p.m. or saying “no” to doing someone else’s job may be how one chooses to quit quietly, but these examples are by no means prescriptive.

Kuan-lin F. Liu, What happened when I sprinkled a bit of ‘quiet quitting’ in my workday

This feels like a more positive approach, to me, by framing quiet quitting as a kind of mindfulness to our work/life balance. Many people who are building this positive frame for quiet quitting position it in opposition to “hustle culture” or grind culture – much of which has glorified taking on as much work as possible. Zaiad Khan points to this kind of quiet quitting in his video: “You are still performing your duties, but you are no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentally that work has to be our life.

In the struggle over how to define quiet quitting (and perhaps the rush to pass judgment on it?), I see several threads. One seems to be about how we respond to burnout and fatigue (which have been elevated for many in recent years), especially if we are not prepared or able to leave our current job. This feels like the main reason we might feel attracted to the “quitting” part of the phrase.

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Other people seem to looking more closely at the roots of our feelings of burnout and exhaustion. And what they see is a culture that has glorified work (hustle, grind culture). Or, where one is asked to do more and more, without any real discussion or appropriate compensation. Both cases can feel like an empty, futile use of our time. This part of quiet quitting, taking a moment to be mindful and aware of how our habits and attitudes around work can be harmful is very important. It can help us identify what we want to change: in how we approach our work, and in how our workplace functions.  

But, while this second sense of quiet quitting – the one focused on work/life balance and setting appropriate boundaries – has a strong appeal, I am concerned that the conversation is always going to be limited by the term, “quitting.” Today, here and now, to quit is to give up some pursuit, or some effort. The associations we have with a word, like quitting, have a weight, a gravity. Because of that, our efforts to frame quiet quitting in terms of boundaries or health hve merit, but they struggle against our deep, automatic associations with the term “quitting.” Those associations, the meanings of the word, can certainly shift over time. But, it is a slow process.

So, I cannot really find much personal enthusiasm for quiet quitting (as something I would recommend to people who are unhappy with their jobs, but unable to leave). However, I am quite fond of the quiet part of the phrase.

Instead of quitting, I might suggest that we find how to take a moment of quiet for a contemplative pause. This was a phrase that I had heard recently at a workshop by Dr. Karolyn Kinane, who was speaking to our faculty in the context of teaching. While faculty often focus on what (the stuff) we plan to do in a course, Dr. Kinane noted that we may habitually ignore how we want be in the classroom (the dispositions that we believe are critical to seeking and using knowledge). From a related blog post she asks, “What might happen if you shifted your attention from what you should do to how you want to be?” Dr. Kinane proposed that a contemplative pause could be a way to help us look carefully at that point, of how we wanted to be, in any part of our lives:

One way to think about contemplation is as a pause or gap between a stimulus and a response. For example, when I get stressed, I tend to work on autopilot: I react swiftly to stimuli (such as emails, texts, or a biting comment from a relative) and unleash some reactions I am not proud of…

A contemplative pause—a moment to breathe, a quick walk around the block—helps me more objectively notice what is happening externally (this person is making a request) and internally (I’m feeling resentful) and consider how or whether I want to respond.

Karoyln Kinane, Contemplative Pause: Tool for Engagement

I found the idea very refreshing, and timely. And, it is one that certainly can be valuable in any part of our life (not just teaching!). And, if we feel drawn to quiet quitting, then this probably is the perfect time for a contemplative pause. This pause can take many forms, but involves some intentional reflection, that opens up some space for us to choose new ways of responding. At work, a contemplative pause could help us be more aware of what parts of our job are associated with any stress, or frustration. It could help us identify when we may be overwhelmed in other parts of our life, and may need to pull back from some duties. It can also help us notice when other people around us are struggling, and help us find ways to ease their burdens as well.

How do we want to show up and be in our work? Personally, I hope that those who are employed find work to be something of value in their lives. A place where we find community, and make some contribution to the lives of the people around us. I hope we are engaged in our work, just as I hope my students and I are engaged in our classes. I hope we are in this together – after all, our communities – in our work and every part of our life – are only as humane as the people who make them up. We need everyone to show up as they can and are able.

Child exiting tunnel

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