A photo of an empty workspace.
A photo of an empty workspace. Credit: Craig Garner / Unsplash Credit: Craig Garner / Unsplash

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Audre Lorde, wrote this powerful sentiment in her 1988 book A Burst of Light. She was an African-American writer, womanist, radical feminist, professor, and civil rights activist who dedicated her life to challenging racism, sexism, homophobia and classism.

When I first came across this quote I was inspired and uplifted. I remember thinking, “Damn right I need to put myself first because no one else will!” I see strength, grit, and confidence in Lorde espousing that taking care of one-self is an act of ‘political warfare.’ Really it’s an analogy for self-care in the workplace. Where a nation employs all of its means short of war to achieve its national objectives, employees are doing exactly what is expected of them so that they feel energized, fulfilled, and healthy.

As far as I’m concerned, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. The world of work has for too long pressured employees to think and feel like they have to go “above and beyond,” that they have to do more than what is written in their job descriptions, that they have to sacrifice dimensions of wellness in order to succeed. This my friends, is a fallacy that the trending 2022 concept of ‘quiet-quitting’ is bringing to light.

What is quiet-quitting?

The term quiet-quitting may be trending in our newsfeeds and on social media platforms, for example, on TikTok the hashtag #quitquitting reaching an astounding 368.3M views at the time of this article being written, but the essence behind quiet-quitting has been around for a long time. Traditionally known as “work to rule,” a fabulous strategy used by unions in response to employer exploitation and manipulation. In 2022 there are two perspectives of quiet-quitting being described: one that I believe has a negative slant and one that aligns with self-preservation. The negative descriptions include references of employees being  “quiet quitters” or “not going above and beyond.”

The descriptions that align with self-preservation are ones that describe quiet-quitting as doing your work and seeing work as one aspect of your life versus it being all consuming. For example, in a World Economic Forum article quiet-quitting is described as “Doing what’s required and then getting on with your life – having more work-life balance.” Perhaps quiet-quitting is a woke-response, regardless of being in a unionized environment, to the chain-reaction responses to COVID and elevated focus on human rights in workplaces.

What’s the point of quiet-quitting?

According to Global News, Forbes, and CNBC articles, quiet-quitting is a symptom of burnout or a strategy to prevent it from occurring. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), defines burnout as “a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.” The CAMH connects burnout to employment by addressing how to ‘show-up at work.’ This is an important distinction, quiet-quitting may be a symptom or strategy related to burnout, whereas burnout can occur for a variety of mitigating factors and if someone is burnout they will show up at work very differently than when feeling good.

What’s missing is that the point of quiet-quitting might be similar to ‘work to rule’ and life-balance. Both of which in my view are about self-preservation. It’s about employees knowing what they need and how they want to be treated. It’s about making a conscious decision to do what they are getting paid to do while nurturing other aspects of life balance or wellness dimensions. These are empowered decisions being made and should not be put in a negative light or by linking it to burnout, letting employers off the hook for their impact on the employee experience.

Other ways to self-preservation

Self-preservation is to protect one-self from harm and if work-to-rule or quite-quitting provides protection for employees to feel safe and to be healthy then I say all the power to employees. As well, if it sends a message to employers to truly think about their people, to truly be employee-centric than all the better. There are other ways employees can protect themselves from harm at work. Strategies that I have seen work include:

  • Establishing boundaries
  • Living your values
  • Showing up with integrity
  • Intentional focus on the eight dimensions of wellness: emotional, physical, occupational, intellectual, financial, social, environmental, and spiritual

There is one other consideration, and that is to live with and on purpose. I can’t help but to recall the words of Viktor E. Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl writes, “a [human’s] search for meaning is the primary motivation in [their] life and not a “secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives.” Frankl further explains that this meaning is “unique and specific” and must be found by each individual human. What I love about this existential perspective is the personal power it highlights. Each of us can create our lived experiences on our terms and in our way because we have found meaning. When we have found meaning we live boldly with self-perseveration – and this is a human right.

Jodi Rai

Jodi is a People & Culture + HR Consultant, Coach, and Trainer on a mission to create a world where humanity is prioritized in workplaces and their communities. She has reimagined the traditionally...