Quiet quitting: Why should an employee doing the job they are paid to do and then going home be a problem?

Many workers suggest employers should not expect them to go ‘above and beyond’ as a matter of routine

It was the 17-second TikTok clip that launched a thousand think pieces, fiery cable news segments and anxious hand-wringing from business leaders.

In 2022, Zaid Khan, a Gen Z Pakistani-American musician, posted a video of himself catching the train on TikTok.

“I recently learned about this term called quiet quitting, where you’re not outright quitting your job but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond,” he says.

“You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle-culture mentality that work has to be your life.”


Half a million likes and a few months later, Collins Dictionary named it one of its words of the year.

The official definition has two entries but only one of them is right – depending on which faction you find yourself in.

The first is “the practice of doing no more work than one is contractually obliged to do”, which many have argued is how jobs should work, while the second has quiet quitting as “the practice of doing little or no work while being present at one’s place of employment”, which saw it being touted as a threat to the future of business.

McKinsey, the strategy and management consultancy multinational, ran some numbers and found “the costs of quiet quitting can be nearly as high as those of people actually leaving”.

Its research estimated the cost of such disengagement to add up to about 4 per cent of the wage bill “for the average large corporation with more than than half of employees likely to be ‘disengaged’”.

However, a closer look at the definitions and subcategories finds 32 per cent of this group were “mildly disengaged”, meaning people who were “fulfilling job requirements but no more”.

But why should an employee carrying out the job they are paid to do and then going home represent a problem for businesses?

When asked if perhaps business models have become too reliant on staff going “above and beyond”, Tera Allas, director of research and economics of McKinsey UK and Ireland, said: “We know from research that, unlike some unhelpful stereotypes, many employees want to go above and beyond.”

“People are intrinsically motivated to do a good job.

“If, as an organisation, you fail to tap into this intrinsic motivation, you are unnecessarily producing less output, and being less competitive, than you could be.”

When Sam, who did not want to give her real name, started her career in financial services at the tail end of the recession, she was “happy enough” to stay back late to mind clients in different time zones or attend after-work functions.

Struggling on a junior salary, she was grateful for the paid overtime.

However, as she advanced in senior positions the paid overtime stopped even though the longer hours continued.

“You were expected to stay, no matter what was going on. You didn’t get paid the overtime but you never got extra time back for it,” she says.

While never explicitly requested to work longer hours or for free, she felt it was ingrained in the demands of the job and company culture so deeply that “you couldn’t say no”.

“If you were leaving on time, it was like you would nearly get glared at,” she says. “You couldn’t just go at half five, there was something that had to be dealt with every evening.”

Sam eventually came to the conclusion that “there was no benefit” to donating her time. Where once it had been a path to promotion it became clear it was now just a company expectation.

“The shine wore off pretty quickly after that.”

When managing a client operating in a time-zone ahead of Dublin’s, Sam received her manager’s approval to shift her start and finish times early to keep her hours manageable.

Even though she often found herself “working an hour later than I should have worked, it was still seen as leaving early,” she says.

She says other managers complained that it could encourage their staff to leave earlier, and she cited the pushback as her catalyst to quit.

Now working in the public sector, she says committing to an agreed set of hours “is not quiet quitting, it’s standing up for your rights”.

Ezra, a tech worker, who declined to give his name, says he fits the dictionary definition of a quiet quitter by politely declining duties he says are “above his pay grade” or projects requiring weekend work, but adds: “I don’t see how doing your job can be classed as ‘quitting.’”

While passionate about his career, which saw him relocate to Dublin, he says he struggles to motivate himself to go above and beyond.

“I’m still doing my job and getting my work done in time. But if we get a last-minute, where once I would have worked late, now I’ll do it only within work hours,” he says.

“I’m just not going to eat into my time when I’m not happy with how I’ve been treated.”

However, his attitude was different under a previous employer where he was confident his efforts would be rewarded.

“I used to always take more on without being asked because after a tough period, I always felt appreciated and when it came to the times where I asked for pay increases they gave it,” he says.

“It just pushed you on to do it again.”

While paying workers more money seems like the solution to keeping workers engaged, Allas says according to McKinsey’s research it’s not that simple.

“Granted, ‘inadequate total compensation’ is at the top of the list of [employee disengagement] drivers,” she says.

“But very close behind it are: ‘lack of meaningful work’, ‘lack of workplace flexibility’, ‘lack of career development and advancement’, ‘unreliable and unsupportive people at work’ and ‘unsafe workplace environment’.”

However, broader economic forces such as the cost-of-living crisis, which means pay packets are buying less than they used to, tend to bring the focus back to pay.

“If inflation is high and real pay growth poor, employees’ concerns about pay and compensation become more elevated,” Allas says,

“The UK ONS [Office for National Statistics] has published an analysis in the past which shows that those people that move jobs tend to gain significantly higher pay rises than those who stay. So when inflation is high, the incentive for workers to move jobs becomes sharper.”

But, Allas warns: “If that high inflation is combined with a not-so-dynamic labour market – ie harder or more risky for people to move jobs - then many people are likely to become disgruntled with their pay.”

To some, the concept of quiet quitting sounds a bit like the old “work to rule”. A form of industrial action used by the trade union movement for decades directing workers to only carry out their contracted duties as a way of causing disruption when strikes were not possible.

Dr Laura Bambrick, head of social policy and employment affairs with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, says there are similarities between the two but remains wary of quiet quitting becoming a stick to beat workers.

“The social media term, or at least its latest iteration of it, has been very quickly hijacked by HR to shift the blame away from the employer to the employee,” she says. “[As if] we just don’t have the right attitude [and] it’s not about pushing back against understaffing or unpaid overtime.”

As employees in one of the only counties in the EU without an automatic right to pay for extra hours plus an overstrained health system, Irish workers are vulnerable to employers expecting unpaid extra hours, according to Barnbrick.

“Nobody, including trade unions, object to going above and beyond when an exception happens like when somebody is sick,” she says.

“It’s when you know the unusual becomes the norm. That’s the problem.”