What is ‘quiet quitting?’ ‘Quiet firing?’ How workers and employers can address burnout in the workplace

Professors say addressing worker burnout and ‘quiet quitting’ requires setting boundaries, having open dialogue

You don’t have to go far to find workers who are burned out, fed up and looking for a new job.

“We don’t get paid enough to do half of what we’re doing now,” Robin Kristoff said.

His best friend, Lidiya Poltavskiy, agreed, saying, “We pretty much feel burnt out. And then on your days off, you don’t have energy for life. I had to force him to come out with me today.”

The pair work as hairdressers at competing salons and both said they’re close to quitting.

“I don’t feel the same. Sometimes I feel like a shell. You know what I’m saying?” Kristoff said.

“I had to actually cut my hours down this week, because I’m constantly going and getting shots for my nerves because I’m on my feet nonstop,” Poltavskiy said.

“The last place I worked at, she ran 20 different stores and I don’t understand how you can do that as one person,” Kristoff said.

Worker burnout is getting worse, according to Indeed, a giant job aggregator site. Its survey of 1,500 U.S. workers compared findings in 2021 against a pre-pandemic study.

It found more than half (52%) of respondents feel burned out. And more than two-thirds (67%) believe the feeling has worsened over the pandemic.

Those who work virtually are more likely to say burnout has worsened over the course of the pandemic (38%) than those working on site (28%).

“We’re finding everywhere we go if the employer does not tie to the values of the employee, and vice versa, then what we see is more burnout, more disengagement because they don’t see the point of being there,” said David Strubler, a professor in the Department of Organizational Leadership at Oakland University. “There’s no question that burnout causes people to leave now there’s other things that happen with burnout, ‘I become a cynic, I become toxic, I become negative.’ And of course that has a terrible effect inside the workforce, because you end up with a whole culture of toxicity.”


“Quiet quitting” is the latest workplace buzzword getting a lot of attention. Definitions vary -- some focus on either setting realistic boundaries to prevent burnout, or not going the extra mile at work.

“You mentioned this expression, ‘quiet quitting.’ In some ways, it might be unfair, because it captures all people as being slackers. And, of course, there can be slackers, but there are people who have legitimate points about the notion that, ‘Well, you want me to give up my life for work and be this so-called ideal worker,’ and businesses love the expression of organizational citizenship behavior, which means unpaid labor. But at the same time, you can’t have a sustainable organization where there’s no trust,” said Jeffery Sanchez Burks, a professor of management organization at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “This ideal worker notion in the past, that you separate your personal life and focus on your professional life, while at work, at least, is not sustainable.”

Both professors said addressing worker burnout and “quiet quitting” requires setting boundaries and having an open dialogue.

“Something employers need to pay attention to is, often they think, ‘Oh, the most important thing is that you’re here from eight to five. But what if I’m doing ‘quiet quitting’ on the job? Because I can’t manage my work life and family at the same time. So my productivity goes down,’ that costs a huge amount of money,” Strubler said.

Strubler said replacing a worker who quits costs the company about 45% of the worker’s salary.

“Just figure you 45% of their wages, that should encourage employers to start, are creating environments of civility, environments of respect, environments of engagement,” he said.

“I have a wonderful colleague, Amy Roseneski, over at Yale, who talks about purpose, and if we can find purpose in our work, then that whole facet of life can be much more rewarding,” Sanchez Burks said. “And while we want to think about ways in which we can make work more rewarding for us personally, at the same time, I think it’s quite legitimate for people to say all of my non work life matters a lot. The times with my family and friends and our pets, whatnot, matter and so I do need to craft a life that allows me to devote the energies I want to that as well.”

Then there’s the phenomenon of “quiet firing,” when you feel like you’ve been given no choice but to quit. For example, if you’ve been overlooked for promotions or haven’t gotten a raise in years.

“Companies don’t listen to the people that are working for them,” Poltavskiy said. “And then the people that have been loyal and have worked through the whole pandemic and stuff. They’re just being put on the back burner. And then they hire new people that don’t show up. They don’t do anything and they get put on at a higher pay rate than we do, and that’s not fair. ‘What are some solutions then to kind of address worker burnout?’ Just listen to what your employees are saying, don’t say, ‘Well, I’ve been doing this for so and so years. Well, clearly something’s wrong because everyone’s quitting.’ So listen to the people that are actually working for you -- not what you think is right.”

There are steps companies can take to retain quality workers.

“Before the pandemic, a lot of organizations, a lot of leaders thought things like emotional intelligence or empathy were things that was that would be great if I had it, but I don’t need to,” Sanchez Burks said. “I’ve got plenty of work, times are good and so forth. Now, I’m not finding as many leaders who are so cavalier. They’re hungry to find ways to make closer connections with their workforce, with new talent, with ... trying to make sure that when people start, if they’ve hired them, they stay and don’t quit after the first day, which is happening as well.”

There are limitations to addressing worker burnout. Not everyone can quit until they find a better fit, and not everyone can work remotely.

“A clear limitation to everything I’ve said is I’ve completely omitted entire discussions about wages, and what’s a fair wage and what’s a fair split between profits to shareholders versus wages and profits or profits, they should go to wages,” Sanchez Burks said. “No amount of empathy can make up for the fact that equitable compensation matters.”

“We’re in what we call the hyper modern world now -- hyperspeed, hyper anxiety, hyper individualism, hyper everything,” Strubler said. “And because of that, that’s the context in which we’re swimming, so to speak, the sea in which we’re swimming. This is a limitation that we’re faced with. But we have to find a way in it.”

“I’m optimistic about the number of companies and the number of leaders who are taking this seriously, that if we come up with a more empathetic approach to the organization, we’re going to have something that’s more sustainable in people’s lives,” Sanchez Burks said. “It’s going to help them with happiness, which we know is all-time lows. We’re stressed, which is extremely high with burnout with unfair compensation. This is an interesting time, an interesting reckoning and I’m optimistic that the relevant issues are being talked about, and I think that increases the odds that they’ll be given the attention they need, rather than just brushed under the table.”

About the Author

Priya joined WDIV-Local 4 in 2013 as a reporter and fill-in anchor. Education: B.A. in Communications/Post Grad in Advanced Journalism

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