Quiet Quitting: The Evolution of Modern Work & Occupational Burnout

Quiet Quitting: The Evolution of Modern Work & Occupational Burnout

What is occupational burnout? The pandemic has impacted many facets of our lives, from how we interact to how we choose to spend our time.

However, one of the most apparent impacts that the pandemic has done is on the private sector. For those who have since returned to the workforce, there’s been a realization that the status quo isn’t desirable anymore.

We’re going to explore the evolution of the modern workplace, how the definition of work and the average work schedule have changed, and how these changes have bred an existential crisis in the modern workforce.

The Status Quo: Pre-Pandemic Professional Landscape

Before the great change brought on by COVID-19, the professional world was a humming machine. There was a steady stream of workers and a consistent cycle of work to be done.

Those in the corporate and financial sectors found themselves working long hours, often late into the night and playing catch up on the weekend. Their professional lives began to bleed into their personal and obscure the fine line that separated the two. 

Shift workers in the service industries and retail sectors found themselves working for minimal pay that was ever shrinking in value. Along with the dwindling of their dollars’ value, these workers were met with a workplace that was emotionally taxing, systematically grueling, and ethically toxic.

As prices rose, satisfaction shrank and the day-to-day lives of those working in the public sector began to feel used as well as coming to terms with the fact that they believed themselves to be a faceless, nameless cog in a greater machine that didn’t truly value them. Worst of all their pay, which had, by and large, stagnated through the ups and downs of the economy, couldn’t match what was necessary to functionally live.

There was an overwhelming drive for something drastic to be done, something to shake up the system. A cultural and sociological movement began to blossom in response to growing frustration and desperation from the average worker. Broken and beleaguered, workers began to a new term that began to grow in popularity that simplified the complex set of symptoms that seemingly everyone was experiencing: occupational burnout. 

Pre-Pandemic professional landscape

Occupational Burnout: Real Response or Rotten Excuse?

Occupational burnout seems like the new catch-all phrase for the mishmash of emotions that stem from a dispirited employee in a stifling professional environment.

However, it’s not as recent as we all might think. The term occupational burnout can be traced back all the way to Shakespeare utilizing it, although loosely, in one of his sonnets in 1599. ¹

Still, the word and the emotional state it represents didn’t become a part of the modern American lexicon until the mid-1970s, when Herbert Freudenberger, an American psychologist, coined “burnout” as a psychological affliction. ² 

Nowadays, burnout is mainstream and it seems like everyone has it or is going to have it eventually.

Used as almost an umbrella term to define worker frustrations, complications, and exhaustion, burnout is actually an already-defined phenomenon. The World Health Organization has included burnout in their International Classification of Diseases or ICD and listed it as, “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” ³

Dimensions and Risk Factors of Occupational Burnout

Burnout has three dimensions, as universally defined by both the WHO as well as RAND, and the Mayo Clinic. Those three dimensions are: ⁴

  1. An overall increase in exhaustion. 
  2. Exacerbation of negative feelings towards one’s occupation, including but not limited to cynicism and frustration. Also noted is a detachment to workplace responsibilities and belonging. 
  3. An apparent reduction in overall job performance, upkeep in responsibilities, and completion of tasks. 

There are many factors that can contribute to burnout. These are the most common contingencies: ⁵

  • Workload, 
  • Improper work/life balance
  • Job autonomy
  • Lack of trust or collaboration with workplace leadership and co-workers
  • Preexisting mental and physical health complications can exacerbate the stress that is felt by a job
  • Lack of peer socialization can be a contributing factor
Occupational burnout

Quiet Quitting: What is It?

“Quiet quitting” is a phenomenon that has become prevalent only recently. The definition of quiet quitting is the practice of doing the minimum of what an occupation requires within structured work hours.

It isn’t necessarily a gradual process of termination of one’s own employment, but rather the follow through on work commitments strictly during work hours.

When the method is spelled out, it seems self-explanatory: You are hired to do a job, to complete various tasks during a set time in a workplace. However, what the modernization of work has shown us is that idea of work now holds a more malleable definition.

Supervisors can monitor their employees outside the confines of a work environment. Work can be accessed from a slew of devices: phones, computers, and tablets. Tasks don’t have to sit, lying in wait until a worker returns to their offices in the morning. What this all means is that there isn’t a proper work/life balance, something that is imperative to all facets of success for workers.

Quiet Quitting: Excuse for Laziness or Boundary Setting Behavior?

Quiet quitting isn’t necessarily a revolutionary revolt against work itself, but rather a response made to establish and maintain boundaries.

The constant need to have work somehow bleed through into personal life has created a society that feels that their lives are work. This is an antithesis to how it should be: Working in order to live. Quiet quitting is the forcing of a work/life balance, which is an imperative need.

Work/Life Balance: A Scale Never Set Straight

Striking for a fair work/life balance is among some of the biggest deal breakers for those job-hunting.

Studies have shown that having a work/life balance when it comes to employment with a company ranks higher than having a short commute to work or belonging to an unpleasant work environment. ⁶

Furthermore, a whopping 72% of American workers found a proper work/life balance is very important when considering a job. ⁷

Work/Life Balance: Plans to Put Into Action

However, the burning questions that linger are what is a work/life balance and what does it actually look like? These simple questions have much more complex answers and may vary from job to job and person to person.

What may be a healthy balance for one occupation or worker may not be for another. However, there are essential guidelines that most work/life balance programs utilize: 

Scheduling practices ensure employees are not overworked while meeting their needs inside and outside of work.

The correct schedule can also prevent any work from being brought home, from the employee feeling like they need to be bothered outside a work environment. 

Allowing employers and employees to create and further cultivate an environment of open communication, problem-solving, and compassion.

Studies have shown that a more communicative and open office as far as employer/employee communication has dramatic positive impacts. This includes an increase in productivity, reduced turnover rates, and increase in overall morale within companies of varying different industries.⁸

A focus on the physical and mental well-being of staff.

Having a negative place to work doesn’t just affect one’s ability to perform a job, it has an impact on their overall physical and mental well-being.

Research into the repercussions of a negative work environment and a detrimental work-life balance has presented a stark and devastating portrait of the beleaguered employee with a noticeable drive in self-destructive behaviors for coping and, in extreme cases, even suicide. ⁹

Proper practice of structuring and taking breaks.

Most jobs offer lunch breaks, which are essential – however, even small breaks from micro-breaks which can last 30 seconds to a minute to full five or ten-minute breaks have shown promise for the health and productivity of employees.

Micro breaks allow for a reprieve during highly stressful situations as well as through the rush of an average routine while structured breaks and meal breaks allow for a detachment and even a reward from the workday. ¹⁰

Ensuring time away from the workplace is truly time away from work.

Anxiety is a byproduct of stress and stress usually comes from our occupations. When we take time away from an environment that provides stress, we cannot only recharge from the reprieve but can also re-contextualize our routine and find solace in the storm of stress. ¹¹ 

Work/Life balance

Final Word: Fight Occupational Burnout By Working To Live

Quiet quitting, walkouts, burnouts. The reality is clear: We are an overworked society. The hustle-and-grind practice that is cliched now, isn’t helping us in the long run.

Working is a given, we have to work in order to live, and that’s a fundamental truth. However, when did we allow ourselves to collectively flip the script, to have to live to work? 

Burnout is a real affliction and a response from overworking. As people, we have fundamental needs that exist outside the four walls of an office building, store, or warehouse. Fortunately, more and more employers are starting to take heed of this growing epidemic of occupational burnout.

If you are on the precipice of burnout, you need to take care of yourself. Your health and well-being are far more important than a nine-to-five. Perhaps by speaking up, by addressing your needs, you may inspire others to do the same. It only takes one ripple to create a current of change.

Your Questions

Do you still have questions about occupational burnout?

We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any further knowledge to share – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.

Reference Sources

¹ Professional Burnout – Recent Developments in Theory and Research by Wilmar B. Schaufeli, Christina Maslach: Chapter 15 Professional Burnout 

² Wilmar Schaufeli: Burnout – A Short Socio-Cultural History

³ World Health Organization: Occupational Burnout: A Classification

⁴ Mayo Clinic: Job burnout: How to spot it and take action

⁵ RAND: Burnout Literature Reviews of Definition, Prevalence, Risk Factors, Prevention and Interventions

⁶ Walden University: Work-Life Balance Programs to Improve Employee Performance 

⁷ Statista: Importance of work-life balance among employees in the U.S. in 2018

⁸ Edin Cowan University Optum Press: Why communication practices are important in the workplace 

⁹ National Library of Medicine: Impact of work environment on mood disorders and suicide

¹⁰ CNN Health: Microbreaks can increase your well-being

¹¹ American Psychological Association: Vacation Time Recharges US Workers

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