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Setting healthy boundaries is not quiet quitting

By John M. Bremen | December 14, 2022

Quiet quitting remains a hot topic in the business and popular press as leaders continue to separate reality from hype.
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Effective leaders understand that while quiet quitting may simply be a new label for an old phenomenon, actions associated with certain definitions of quiet quitting are consistent with productivity loss while others actually can improve productivity (and are not really quiet quitting).

Setting healthy boundaries

In this definition, employees proactively set boundaries between work and non-work activities. In 2020, hundreds of millions of employees around the world shifted to remote or hybrid work arrangements, often without a playbook. Boundaries became blurred or forgotten altogether. While many employees reported higher productivity due to elimination of commute times and greater focus, the reality is that overall workforce productivity gains were a result of large swaths of workers increasing their working hours, often dramatically.

During this time, stress, anxiety and depression levels also increased, causing employees to be less productive during each hour they worked and often offsetting the benefits of working longer. For many employees, overall output went up, but productivity per hour actually went down. They became aware of the toll that being “always on” had on their wellbeing (physical, mental, social and financial). As work arrangements began to restabilize in 2022, many workers proactively defined or redefined their boundaries for greater wellbeing, often in consultation with their managers.

Reducing discretionary effort

Here, employees stop putting forth discretionary effort at work, a reduction in energy toward one’s work and declines in advocacy toward the organization. Some people call this “working to rule” and others refer to it as not “going the extra mile” for customers, bosses or coworkers. Experts concur that this concept of quiet quitting is not new, as proven by employee engagement surveys that have been conducted for decades. In 2022, the impact of low engagement has amplified into the quiet quitting trend reported in the media due to many factors, including employee exhaustion from the pandemic, severe staffing shortages, concurrent isolation from remote work and anxiety from returning to workplaces, inflation and reduced employee purchasing power, as well as dependent care challenges.

These definitions contain important differences: Lack of discretionary effort can be either active or passive – generally evolving over time and perceived as negative, whereas setting boundaries generally is more active, intentional and immediate and can have positive outcomes. Many employees who set boundaries do so to remain actively engaged during their work hours as opposed to others who “quit and stay,” not putting in discretionary effort regardless of work hours. Unlike employees who have left the organization as part of the Great Resignation, this latter group of employees quit and stayed.

Effective leaders know research shows 30% of U.S. workers are struggling financially, 43% are having difficulty meeting basic needs, and 62% feel burned out from work. Effective leaders strive to meet employees’ unique physical, emotional, financial and social wellbeing needs, and foster the physical and psychological safety that enable employees to remain engaged and thrive under even the most trying conditions. Eighty-six percent of employers are making it a top priority to address stress, burnout, anxiety and depression, and to reduce presenteeism among their workforces.

With thanks to WTW’s Jill Havely and Steve Young, research shows effective leaders also are taking the following additional actions to help drive higher levels of employee engagement:

  1. Talk with employees and listen to what they’re saying — and not saying. Effective leaders use employee surveys and focus groups (virtual or traditional) to gather input from their people. Employees want to know they are being heard and understood.
  2. Close the wellbeing “say/do” gap and support employees’ healthy choices. Effective leaders show employees they care about them and their wellbeing through actions, not words. This often means supporting their choices and the resources they need to thrive.
  3. Define and design the experience leaders want their employees to have. Effective leaders define what will it take to deliver on their desired employee experience. They build the plan and execute through thoughtful planning, time and commitment from all levels of leadership.
  4. Inspire people through clarity of direction and purpose, with authenticity and compassion. Effective leaders cut through the noise with clear messaging around their business’ vision and path to get there. They help employees see how they are creating value for their organization.
  5. Help employees understand the full picture of their pay and benefits. Employee benefits are often referred to as the hidden paycheck. Beyond base and incentive pay, showing employees the full value of their total rewards can increase awareness of programs and resources and improve the perceived value of what the company provides.

Effective leaders know that more than half of U.S. employees are either looking for new opportunities or at risk of leaving their employer and that others are at risk of quitting and staying. These leaders take action to re-prioritize engagement and curtail the rise of quiet quitting.

A version of this article originally appeared on on October 31, 2022.


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