Quiet Quitting vs. Occupational Burnout: Understanding the Differences and Embracing Empathy


In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the importance of mental health in the workplace. As a result, the terms “quiet quitting” and “occupational burnout” have become increasingly prevalent in discussions about employee well-being. In this blog post, I will explore the similarities and differences between these two concepts, examine the factors that contribute to both phenomena, and provide an empathic analysis of the experiences of those affected by quiet quitting. To illustrate these concepts, I will share some fictional life stories and examples that bring these experiences to life.

All Quiet Quitters are Not the Same

Quiet quitting refers to a phenomenon where employees disengage from their work, only putting in the minimum effort required to maintain their job without actively seeking new challenges or opportunities for growth. Quiet quitters often go unnoticed because they continue to show up and complete their tasks, but they are not truly committed to their work – sometimes.

It is crucial to recognize that all quiet quitters are not the same. The reasons behind quiet quitting can vary widely, from a lack of clear purpose and impact to an absence of appreciation or opportunity for advancement. Therefore, it is essential to approach each individual experiencing quiet quitting with empathy and understanding, rather than making assumptions about their motivations or commitment to their work.

Consider the story of Tanisha, a talented and experienced software engineer. She had always been passionate about her work and regularly went above and beyond to deliver exceptional results. However, after several years at her company, Tanisha began to feel undervalued and unappreciated. Despite her hard work, she received little recognition or praise from her manager, and her efforts seemed to go unnoticed.

As a result, Tanisha gradually withdrew from her work and started only completing the bare minimum required to maintain her job. She was no longer motivated to seek new challenges or invest in her professional growth. Tanisha’s experience illustrates how a lack of appreciation can lead to quiet quitting, even in a talented and committed employee.

Quiet Quitting: A Cousin of Occupational Burnout

Quiet quitting shares many similarities with occupational burnout, a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged and excessive work-related stress. Both phenomena are characterized by disengagement, reduced job satisfaction, and a decline in productivity.

However, there are also key differences between the two. Occupational burnout often results from an excessive workload, unrealistic expectations, or a lack of control over one’s work environment. In contrast, quiet quitting is more commonly associated with an absence of clear purpose, impact, and appreciation, as well as limited opportunities for growth and advancement. For example, Jamal, a dedicated customer service representative, began to experience occupational burnout after months of working long hours and handling an overwhelming volume of customer inquiries. The constant stress of meeting demanding performance targets and dealing with frustrated customers eventually took a toll on Jamal’s mental and physical health, causing him to become disengaged and less productive at work.

In contrast, Keisha, a marketing specialist, started quietly quitting her job after she realized that her work had little impact on the company’s overall success. Although her workload was manageable, she felt disconnected from the organization’s mission and values and lacked a clear sense of purpose in her role. This led her to disengage from her work and focus only on the minimum requirements of her job.

Quiet Quitting: Not a Lack of Commitment

It is essential to recognize that quiet quitting is not a reflection of an employee’s lack of commitment. Instead, it is often a response to a work environment where employees feel disconnected from their organization’s mission, values, or goals. Employees may experience quiet quitting when they perceive that their work is not making a meaningful impact, or when they do not not feel valued or appreciated by their employer.

Research has shown that employees who receive regular feedback and recognition for their efforts are more likely to be engaged and committed to their work. Therefore, organizations can help prevent quiet quitting by fostering a culture of appreciation and support, where employees feel valued and connected to their work.

Consider the case of Doralis, a dedicated project manager who had consistently delivered excellent results. Doralis overheard several disappearing jokes made in the hallways against people in communities she identifies with. She is one of 27 people in her unit and the only minoritized employee. She also has been subjected to misogynistic overtures from senior male staff. Despite these repeated occurrences, she persists. However, her organization fails to provide meaningful feedback or recognition for her accomplishments. She observes some of her peers who joined th company after her and do subpar work receive bonuses and promotions. The job pays really well and the market is not stable enough to risk job searching. Her extended family depends on her income to make ends meet. Over time, Doralis began to feel unappreciated and disconnected from her work, which led her to quietly quit by only doing the bare minimum to maintain her job.

Quiet Quitting: Different Experiences and Lived Realities

The experience of quiet quitting can vary significantly depending on an individual’s background and lived experiences. Women, minorities, and individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may face additional challenges in the workplace, such as discrimination, unconscious bias, or a lack of access to resources and opportunities.

These individuals may be more likely to experience quiet quitting as a way to conserve their energy and prioritize their mental and physical well-being in the face of additional stressors. For example, employees from more privileged backgrounds may not fully understand the challenges faced by their colleagues from different backgrounds, leading to misunderstandings or a lack of empathy for the experiences of others.

Take the story of Akash, an immigrant software developer who was often overlooked for promotions and faced subtle discrimination from his colleagues. Despite his talent and hard work, he found himself consistently passed over for opportunities that were offered to her peers. Eventually, Akash began to quietly quit his job, withdrawing her engagement and putting in only the minimum effort required to maintain his position.

It is crucial for employers and colleagues to recognize and acknowledge these differences and to work towards creating a more inclusive and supportive work environment for all employees. This includes providing resources and opportunities for growth and advancement, as well as fostering open communication and understanding among team members.

Applying the Lessons to Student Affairs Professionals

The concepts of quiet quitting and occupational burnout are not limited to the private or business sector settings; they are also applicable to student affairs professionals. Working in higher education can be both rewarding and challenging, and it is essential to recognize the unique stressors and potential for burnout in this field.

Student affairs professionals may experience quiet quitting or burnout due to factors such as high caseloads, insufficient resources, unrealistic expectations, or a lack of recognition for their efforts. Additionally, professionals from diverse backgrounds may face unique challenges that can contribute to quiet quitting or burnout, such as discrimination, unconscious bias, or a lack of access to mentorship and professional development opportunities.

To address quiet quitting and burnout among student affairs professionals, higher education institutions should implement strategies to promote a supportive and empathic work environment, such as:

  1. Providing ongoing professional development and mentorship opportunities to help student affairs professionals grow and advance in their careers.
  2. Encouraging open communication and feedback, allowing professionals to voice their concerns and feel heard and supported.
  3. Recognizing and celebrating the accomplishments of student affairs professionals, fostering a culture of appreciation and support.
  4. Prioritizing work-life balance and mental health, acknowledging the importance of personal well-being alongside professional success.
  5. Actively working to create an inclusive and diverse campus community, recognizing and addressing the unique challenges faced by professionals from different backgrounds and lived experiences.

Understanding the distinctions between quiet quitting and occupational burnout is essential for creating a supportive and empathic work environment. By recognizing the factors that contribute to both phenomena and considering the individual experiences and challenges faced by employees, organizations can help to prevent disengagement and promote overall well-being.

Reflective Questions

  1. How have you observed quiet quitting in your workplace or among your colleagues? What were the underlying factors contributing to this disengagement?
  2. If you were a manager, what steps would you take to address quiet quitting and promote a more supportive and empathic work environment?
  3. How can you, as an individual, contribute to a more inclusive and understanding workplace culture, especially for colleagues from diverse backgrounds and lived experiences?

By implementing the strategies discussed in this blog post, organizations can create an empathic work environment that supports employees in overcoming quiet quitting and occupational burnout. Ultimately, this will lead to a more engaged and productive workforce, benefiting both employees and the organization as a whole. In the context of student affairs professionals, these strategies can help create a more supportive and inclusive campus community, promoting the well-being and success of both staff and students alike.

Suggested Readings

Kimpton, M., Wickramasinghe, M., & Sardeshmukh, N. (2017). The effects of employee recognition, pay, and benefits on job satisfaction: Cross country evidence. Journal of Business and Economics, 8(1), 1-12.

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