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Is it possible that quiet quitting is actually burnout? Risk factors to consider.

We have all been hearing the big buzz words lately. First it was the Great Resignation. Then it was COVID fatigue. Now it’s Quiet Quitting. From what little I watch of the news, it seems that most segments are exploring this as a trend (both from the quitters’ side and the employers’ side). News segments and articles describe the effects of all this “quitting” on the economy, the labor market and on the stock market. I watch sometimes as CEO’s lament the fact that being a quiet quitter is not a good look, could get you fired and could even ruin your career prospects.

There have been different definitions offered as to what quiet quitting is, but commonly, the idea is that an individual will stay at their job and just do the bare minimum, or their expected tasks and will not go above and beyond their job duties. Employees want more flexibility, more pay, more work-life balance and they don’t want to give more than they should.

The sense that I get overall about this trend, is that this is a bad thing. I cannot speak to the trend, but I can offer a possible theory about why quiet quitting is a thing. I am seeing a lot of clients in my practice, for whom they are referring to themselves as quiet quitters. This is the label that they have given themselves, based on the narrative that is currently out there, but I have also presented to them another possibility. I would suggest that in a lot of ways, this behavior is actually burnout.

Why burnout?

We seem to have forgotten that we are just coming out of a global pandemic. In fact, we are still in it, although to a lesser degree. Many of us, stepped up and banded together for the good of society. Many essential workers put fear on the shelf and showed up to work to keep our society going. There was no time for deeply processing the effect that this pandemic was having on our physical health, our mental health, our families and on our careers. We were asked to sacrifice for the greater good and many did. And many lost their jobs, their lives, their loved ones, their sense of security.

We held our breaths for fear of death. But we did more. We worried about how our children were managing. But we did whatever it took to keep things normal for them. We worried about how we were going to put food on the table. We depended on assistance and went without. We lived in survival mode. In some ways we still are.

Seemingly, just like that, after two years, it was over. We were expected to get back to normal. We were expected to carry on. We were expected to go back to the office, go back to restaurants, go back to socializing, go back to vacations. Our pockets seemed flush with cash and we were told that it was an employee’s market, where they became more demanding. Employers had to pay up if they wanted to get workers.

We seemed to have gone from one extreme to another. There never seemed to be an in-between. A pause to reflect on what just happened. A reflection of lessons learned and an unpacking of the destruction this pandemic had on us, physically and emotionally. No dialogue seemed to emerge on the toll of this pandemic and figuring out how to take care of ourselves so that we could heal and process the devastation we experienced. It was as if the pandemic was “Breaking News” and now we moved on to the next “Breaking News” topic of the week. We tend to do that as a society. We are all consumed by something, then something new shows up and we focus on that.

Many realized that they could not go back to normal and so change became necessary. And in those instances where change could not occur, people had to learn how to cope. In my practice, I have not seen people get back to normal, mentally and/or emotionally, even though they are trying really hard. So, the alternative is to shut down. And this is what I call burnout.

What is Burnout?

Burnout is often talked about, but we really don’t explore how it manifests itself. Burn-out is included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as a job related phenomenon. According to the World Health Organization:

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion

  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and

  • reduced professional efficacy.

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

The causes of burnout.

“According to the Mayo Clinic, some of the causes of burnout include:

  • Lack of control. An inability to influence decisions that affect your job — such as your schedule, assignments or workload... a lack of the resources you need to do your work could lead to burnout.

  • Unclear job expectations. If you're unclear about the degree of authority you have or what your supervisor or others expect from you, you're not likely to feel comfortable at work.

  • Dysfunctional workplace dynamics. Perhaps you work with an office bully, or you feel undermined by colleagues or your boss micromanages your work. This can contribute to job stress.

  • Extremes of activity. When a job is monotonous or chaotic, you need constant energy to remain focused — which can lead to fatigue and job burnout.

  • Lack of social support. If you feel isolated at work and in your personal life, you might feel more stressed.

  • Work-life imbalance. If your work takes up so much of your time and effort that you don't have the energy to spend time with your family and friends...”

Now do a search for Quiet Quitting

Do any Google search for quiet quitting and you will find employer-based articles about quiet quitters and what to do about them. In a Forbes article titled: How to recognize quiet quitters among your ranks, the article identified indicators of a quiet quitter.

The six indicators, according to the article were:

1. Disengagement on a chronic basis.

2. Performance only to the minimum set of performance standards

3. Isolation from other members of the team

4. Withdrawal from any non-necessary conversations, activities or tasks

5. Attendance at meetings but not speaking up or taking action

6. Teammates report a sudden increase in their workload in having to pick up the slack

The similarities seem eerily similar. Burnout as a definition is only applied to the work sphere and not anywhere else. And quiet quitting only seems to be happening in the work sphere. I have not heard of quiet quitting our families or our friends. So, can it be such a coincidence that quiet quitting is so pervasive?

Again, the parallels seem too similar to be dismissed.

Most of the articles I read attribute quiet quitting to being generational, with Millennials and Gen Z’ers leading the charge about rewriting the definition of success and wanting work-life balance. The articles I read indicated the frustration of managers and employees by this apparent laissez faire attitude about work. In the dozen or so articles I read, only one mentioned the possibility of burnout.

I would argue that burnout is the pervasive issue taking place but we just do not want to talk about that because it seems like such an abstract concept.

And I am not here to solve the world’s problems, but I think it is worth having a more nuanced conversation about what we are seeing and open the door to various hypotheses beyond an employer vs. employee battle. I think that there needs to be more reflection and communication within the institutions and the individual.

As a therapist who works with the individual, I am asking you to look within your own life and circumstances and consider whether you are experiencing burnout. If that is what is going on, you have the capacity to better address what is going on and reframe the narrative to focus more on your overall recovery and well-being.

Is it burnout?

According to the Mayo Clinic Website, you should ask yourself the following questions.

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?

  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?

  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?

  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?

  • Do you find it hard to concentrate?

  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?

  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?

  • Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?

  • Have your sleep habits changed?

  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might be experiencing job burnout.

Ask yourself if these variables are present in your life. The following factors contribute to job burnout:

  • You have a heavy workload and work long hours

  • You struggle with work-life balance

  • You work in a helping profession, such as health care

  • You feel you have little or no control over your work

Please note that you could be in any profession and experience burnout. Burnout seems to be studied extensively in the healthcare profession and so greater attention is placed on these professions but please note that if you are expected to perform and/or have performance markers, you may be at risk of burnout.

So now that you have considered the possibility that burnout is present at work, what can you do about it? Check into my post next week to talk about steps you can take to address and combat your burnout. Let me know if you have experienced burnout and what have you done to support yourself. Comment down below.

My name is Eddie and I am a mindfulness-based therapist in Bordentown, NJ who specializes in trauma, anxiety and Mom stress. I provide online counseling throughout the state of NJ and specifically in Mercer and Burlington County, NJ (Bordentown, Chesterfield, Robbinsville, Hamilton and Princeton). Find me on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. Subscribe to my website to be informed about any new updates, goodies and newsletters.

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