The topic of mental health is undoubtedly in our collective consciousness. The compounding trauma of the past three years—the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s racial reckoning, and the economic downturn, has made us even more aware that, as a nation, we are facing a mental health crisis. Mental health distress has broad implications for the people who experience those challenges directly, the people and communities surrounding them, and society at large. Conversely, as we confront the reality of these issues, our jobs are increasingly more demanding, both because of the competitive nature of the job market and the expectations of employers.
Time spent at work makes up at least one-third of the average American adult’s life, and physicians recommend, on average, eight-and-a-half hours of sleep. So when you consider that the average American adult works eight-and-a-half hours a day, and sleeps the same amount, it leaves only seven total hours of available time. In that available time, we must fit in physical activities, meals, personal care needs, social activities, leisure, and recreation. That does not even account for the demands of our primary relationships, such as parenting and partnership, nor the time it takes to commute to and from work. The reality for most adult Americans is that work is the relationship which consistently gets the most of our time, and quality time at that! In fact, many of our actions are motivated by our relationship with work. For example, the time we go to bed is tied to work, the people that we socialize with the most are those we work with, and the demands of work are most often what strain our romantic and parental relationships. This can be because we are neglectful due to the demand of work, or too stressed to meaningfully engage with our loved-ones, partners and children during the face time we have. The interactions are brief, surface-level and unintentional. What, then, are we to make of the dysfunctional nature of this relationship with work?
Human beings are extremely resilient and adaptable – we find ways to cope, survive, and thrive in the most challenging situations and environments. The term “quiet quitting” has been used to describe one such adaptation. Quiet quitting happens when someone does not outright leave their job, but rather, is no longer putting forth the same effort that they had in the past. This individual has effectively checked out of the notion of going “above and beyond” for the sake of the job—and, I would add, they have become more aware of the adverse effects of work on their psycho-emotional-social state. Quiet quitting has primarily been used to understand a relatively new phenomenon and its implications for the evolving relationship between a worker and a company. In doing so, we may be missing out on the opportunity that is before us – a pathway to creating a more reciprocal relationship between employer and employee. This begs the question: Have employers seriously considered the evolution of their role? Quiet quitting is a collective movement of a group of American adults who have decided that their wellbeing should no longer take a backseat to their occupational aspirations. Despite its negative connotations, I would propose that this is less an act of defiance than it is a concerted effort toward self-care and self-preservation.
As a society, we have made significant progress in mental health, including creating greater access for marginalized communities, reducing stigma, and diversifying our treatment approaches. For many communities, talking about one’s mental health challenges is no longer taboo and those who disclose their status are not ostracized but celebrated. Unfortunately, this is still not the reality in our workplaces and offices, where the topic of mental health does not form part of the daily routine. To the contrary, employees are wary of discussing these challenges in the workplace for fear of being labeled, being deemed incompetent, or losing out on opportunities for professional advancement. When was the last time a team meeting started with a question about mental health? How about the last time your mental wellbeing was considered as a part of your annual review? Does your management style include encouraging staff to take wellness days?
Most companies that provide some form of mental health support do so by outsourcing this care, through EAP referrals, in partnerships with mental health organizations and with medical insurance plans. Historically, the workplace was seen as being completely separate from other aspects of an employee’s life, and this was reflected in the relationship between the worker and their employer. Though we have come to understand that fragmenting our lives into disjointed parts is unhealthy, it remains an unspoken requirement of our workplaces. Mental health care is a thing that you attend to outside of work, that will hopefully help you function more efficiently on the job. Organizations largely do not view themselves as being a part of the ecosystem of mental health support, especially not within the walls of the organization.
Given that work is the place we spend the most of our (quality) time, and the significant effects it can have on our overall well-being, it should also be the place where it could be addressed. As a therapist who has worked with adults, I can attest that job issues were almost always something that clients sought support with. Disillusionment, feelings of being overwhelmed, conflicts with peers and superiors, and fear of losing one’s job were consistently concerns shared during sessions. In the case of relationship conflict, a therapist may propose that the partner of the primary client join sessions to find common ground and a pathway forward. Unfortunately, this rarely happens with people in the workplace that have conflict with each other. Furthermore, we live in a culture that praises those who go “above and beyond” with little concern for the impact that may have on their families, their friends, and themselves. These individuals, though “excelling” in the workplace, might have lives outside of it where they struggle to form and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships, have negative coping mechanisms, and neglect their self-care needs.
The relationship between employer and employee is a symbiotic one, and despite popular notions, employees should not be seen as, or treated like, they are expendable. Employee turnover has negative implications on the morale of staff, requires recruitment and training of new employees, can harm the perception of the company, and is stressful for the person that has been let go. Just as employees have a duty to show up and be at their best, the employer should play a key role in supporting and promoting their wellbeing. This can no longer be a passive role but rather a responsibility that is prioritized, well-planned, and implemented to support employee wellness, promote job satisfaction, and improve retention. This is especially true for people with marginalized identities who, in addition to work issues, may be facing other societal challenges that contribute to their mental health challenges.
People are Quiet Quitting because they desire to be healthy and they can no longer reconcile this with the reality of their work experience. Employers willing to change this dynamic should “Loudly Begin” to prioritize the wellbeing of their employees by improving their organizational culture, thereby creating office places that value, affirm, support, and empower their employees. The result will be holistically-healthy workers, more productive workplaces, and improved business outcomes. We would love to help you on that journey.