Nikhil Shedge does not let work consume his life. He puts in the required number of office hours, working on the required assignments, and then switches off—no responding to work emails or checking Slack conversations. After 7 pm, it’s his time. It’s a practice he started following just before the pandemic started over two years ago after realising the impact of overwork, and has now become stricter about it with the increase in workload. “If we go to work at 9 am and get home at 10 pm just to sleep and repeat the routine the next day, where are we heading? After a decade, I realised nothing is changing. Why should I keep working like this?” says Shedge, 30, a sales and procurement professional with a Mumbai-based travel company. “Now, I do not put in extra time unless I see a monetary benefit or a project requires it. I will do whatever possible within work hours, the rest will happen tomorrow.”
While companies across sectors continue to talk about employee initiatives that help fight burnout and overwork, there is enough research to reflect that people are working way too much in today’s hyperconnected world. In the Gallup 2022 State of the Global Workplace Report, researchers highlighted that the global workforce’s high-stress levels in 2021 surpassed early pandemic levels in 2020. South Asia, with India topping the list, had the lowest well-being globally at 11%.
Such is the work pressure that in July, a term started trending on social media: quiet quitting, which isn’t about quitting your job but drawing boundaries at work. Think limiting emails and official calls to work hours, switching off on vacation or refusing extra projects. The reasons for doing so vary, from being overworked and underappreciated to doing only what is necessary until one perhaps finds a better opportunity, to questioning existing work culture norms and prioritising well-being.
Shedge, like many others across the world, chose his mental and physical health over overwork. “I feel happier as I have time with my family and friends,” he says. “Earlier, I was always working and felt guilty to take long leaves or breaks.”
For many workers, switching off completely after work might be a luxury, especially since, in the pandemic era, the conversation has shifted to work-life balance. More and more people, like Shedge, don’t want to live a life chained to their phones and laptops. They want a better life and are drawing a bolder line between work and life.
Life, after work
“Quiet quitting” is not new. The pandemic changed perceptions of what was necessary to get work done. It also came with uncertainty, added pressure from work and home responsibilities and, often, little reward. These experiences brought about a shift in employee attitudes.
Take the case of Bhaskar Baruah, 43, a senior development resource at a global hospitality company in Gurugram. Over the past two years, his priorities have shifted.
“The pandemic was a pause on an otherwise running treadmill. Earlier, I would try and do everything, using my energy to the limit, so I felt no guilt,” says Baruah. “Initially, pausing felt like punishment, like going to rehab.” But over time, the pandemic reminded him to appreciate family and personal time. With his recently diagnosed health issues, staying well takes precedence. Baruah works within office hours, plans a few days for business travel, unlike earlier, pushing himself to complete it the same day, and switches off while on vacation.
One of the big reasons for quiet quitting is feeling underappreciated and disrespected. Delhi-based marketing professional Surabhi Yadav, 30, recently joined a global consumer goods company after quiet quitting for a year at her previous organisation.
“At my previous company, I wanted to prove myself and went above and beyond the role. In the third year, I realised I was being underpaid as compared to some of my peers,” says Yadav. “Management promised to correct it, but when covid hit, appraisals stopped, and nothing happened.” She was so unhappy with being repeatedly taken for granted, despite proving her worth, she started refusing extra projects and checking out mentally and emotionally from work. When a promised promotion was withdrawn with no valid reason, she felt hurt and angry but chose to leave on amicable terms.
She appreciates the supportive and reasonable culture at her new company, but her experience has made her wary. “I will do my best during work hours,” she says. “But I will no longer work myself to the bone for a company.”
Yadav’s experience is echoed in a 2022 Harvard Business Review article by Jack Zenger, chief executive, and Joseph Folkman, president, leadership development consultancy Zenger Folkman, about bad managers being the key reason behind quiet quitting. The authors explain their company’s research (data gathered since 2020 on 2,801 managers, who were rated by 13,048 direct reports) indicated that quiet quitting was “usually less about an employee’s willingness to work harder and more creatively, and more about a manager’s ability to build a relationship with their employees where they are not counting the minutes until quitting time.”
Going against the tide
How are companies reacting to those who are becoming more assertive about work-life balance? Shedge has observed that compared to older colleagues, younger management is better at understanding the concept of people withdrawing from work after office hours. He admits being single without loans or family responsibilities makes it easier for him to be assertive. But he also highlights a changing power dynamic: “Work is back with a bang, but many companies are struggling with a shortage of people. My company needs me.”
Baruah believes that companies are still figuring out how to define the new normal. “The organisation may want people to return to the treadmill, but I choose to go to the gym for light exercise. I stay within boundaries and timelines. If I am unavailable from 6 pm to 9 am, people do adapt to my workstyle,” he says.
He highlights how the pandemic has indelibly changed many people. “Some have aged faster in the recent few years. Earlier, I would try to adapt my pace to someone a few years younger than me, but now I am adjusting to a pace that suits me,” he says. “I am now the shy worker, in the shadows, not trying to overachieve. Now I want perfection in health and personal life and adequate work life.”
Can companies really not do anything to protect their workers from burnout?
“Organisations may take a proactive approach to understand the underlying reasons that lead to employees opting for quiet quitting. Leveraging mobile-first, intuitive, and AI-enabled HR technologies can help organisations understand the employee pulse and employee-specific factors to enhance their engagement and experience,” says Sumit Sabharwal, chief executive of Teamlease HRTech, an HR technology solutions company.
Companies also need to foster channels of open communication and trust. But they may not have matured to that point yet. Yadav says voicing dissatisfaction is difficult because a slighted manager can make life difficult for the employee.
In their article, Zenger and Folkman suggest organisations recognise that individuals want to be engaged with deserving companies and leaders. Their research suggests that managers can foster trust by nurturing positive relationships with all direct reports, being consistent and delivering on what they promise.
But Baruah has observed that only a few companies are able to manage a healthy dialogue or counsel employees meaningfully. Shedge agrees that open communication, though desirable, is not always an available option.“If there is no one to listen to you, people will leave or just do the bare minimum,” he says. “Companies need to figure out ways to deal with burnout. At least with good monetary benefits and recognition, people will feel more invested in their work.”
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