Quiet quitting: the trend of employees choosing not to go above and beyond in their jobs is a Gen Z-inspired term that went viral in a TikTok video earlier this year. Some might define it as doing the bare minimum—or coasting.
But in industries like advertising, known for its long hours and poor pay, quiet quitting is proving to be more than just another flaky social-media trend.
“Having been personally invested in building a strong agency culture over the years, the cost of quiet quitting is very high," says Mei Ling Yeow, deputy regional director, APAC, at Archetype.
"Less engaged employees, lower levels of drive and ambition, unwillingness to engage and work towards concerted goals is putting pressure on everything. At the most basic level, we have the bodies but they aren’t fully engaged. It’s creating gaps that strain an already stretched talent bench. Teams suffer, the work suffers, creativity and collaboration suffers, the company suffers."
Some say the origins of quiet quitting actually began in China, where overworked and burned-out employees named it tang ping or ‘lying flat’—concluding that going above and beyond is not worth the continuous sacrifice of their health and wellbeing.
"I think it's important not to see quiet quitting as a problem on the part of employees," says a VCCP Singapore staff member who chose to remain anonymous.
Like how all relationships work, it goes both ways. You give what you get. If people feel the company doesn’t care for you, it’s natural that you wouldn’t give more than what you’re getting either.—VCCP Singapore staff member
In addition to only giving what you get, quiet quitting is a mindset that some believe has become more apparent post-pandemic as people reprioritise what’s important in their lives.
"I know a few 'quiet quitters' but they're doing it for sanity reasons—to take back their personal breathing space," adds the VCCP staff member. "Especially when life is moving too fast, you’re burning out or losing control of your wider environment and you’re trying to find that balance by keeping the lines between work strictly black and white."
A misnomer for those seeking work-life balance
Whether it's quiet or not, the very notion of 'quitting' has a negative connotation, but some argue the term is not an accurate descriptor of what this movement is really all about.
"While the intention of the movement is to take back control, ‘quiet quitting’ as a name gives this healthy behaviour a negative connotation and a false impression that workers are taking advantage of a cultural sentiment," says Zoe Chen, strategy director at Virtue APAC.
"Setting healthy work boundaries is a long overdue attitudinal and behavioural shift needed from both employers and employees. No one needs to be ‘quiet’ about having a healthier relationship with work. To make work sustainable in the long term, we should be loud about this to open conversations, and involve both employers and employees to create changes towards a more sustainable workplace environment."
Chen believes that the quiet quitting movement is far from negative, and is part of a larger cultural shift where Gen Zs are rejecting harmful social norms in search for new modes of living, fundamentally motivated by not letting their identities be solely defined by work.
"Both employers and employees need to stop buying into things like presenteeism, hustle culture or feeling like you need to be productive at work 24/7, and allowing such behaviour to permeate the workplace."—Zoe Chen, Virtue
"We need to look beyond being cogs in the machine. It is a broader sign that employers and employees need to have open conversations about expectations and working styles to build a productive and healthy working relationship based on trust and teamwork."
Does quiet quitting even work?
While many in advertising subscribe to the belief that it's important to strike a good balance between work and ensure mental health is taken care of, some aren't convinced that quiet quitting is the way to go about it.
"I don’t think quiet quitting really works," says Christel Chong, creative director at DDB Hong Kong. "Especially if you’re in the creative industry where time and effort is really a personal choice. If your heart is not in it anymore, I’d say it’s better to take some proper time off to find purpose and meaning in another role or other forms of work somewhere else."
And for others, the concept of quiet quitting defeats the objective of working in a creative industry altogether.
"I do think that there should be some type of work-life balance, but, personally, I find that if I ever reach a point where I feel like I am starting to treat my job like a punch in and punch out role, that doesn't really work for me," says Saransika Pandey, a strategic planner at Brave New World Communication. "Especially working in a creative industry, you are here because you choose to think differently. And it's an industry of inspiration, so you're trying to do something different. The job is to find solutions to problems, not run away from them."
Burnout, boredom or both?
Craig Mapleston, CEO of VCCP Singapore, says that what sets creative industries apart is the essential elements of creative opportunities and the freedom to realise them. Without these, the fear is not burnout but boredom.
He adds that making work sustainable in advertising must be a shared responsibility by both agencies and clients.
"Unnecessary pitches, endless revisions, unrealistic budgets, unclear briefs and creeping scope all impact on our ability to provide fair and motivating opportunities," says Mapleston. "And while almost every client business commits to sustainable people and business practices, agencies need to be more united and convicted in making sure those commitments are met when working with agency partners."
Beyond providing enough opportunities to keep employees motivated, connected and creating, Rogier Bikker, managing director of MediaMonks China, believes that giving enough recognition is also key to preventing disengaged team members.
“I believe people disengage and purposely underdeliver at work, or ‘quietly quit’ as some call it, when they are not given the recognition they deserve."—Rogier Bikker, MediaMonks
“As managers in our industry, we should always do more to create environments where employees are given proper recognition, hearty encouragement and celebration for their individual achievements.”
Communication is key
If workers are checking out mentally and quietly quitting, what can be done to alleviate or prevent it happening in the first place?
"What’s important is having avenues where employees feel psychologically safe to voice-out what’s not working for them," says Yeow of Archetype. "Do they feel comfortable to push back or ask for change? Empower them to co-create the solutions and be part of the change that needs to happen. Language is action and changing the current narrative towards one that goes beyond quiet quitting vs burnout needs to happen."
At Brave New World Communications in Bangalore, India, one of the ways they are helping staff to voice out any issues is through a mental-health clinic where staff can consult a therapist, at any time, for free.
"For us it's very important to create open systems where everyone is actually free to talk about issues openly with their seniors," says Joono Simon, founder and chief creative officer, Brave New World Communications. "It's very important because enclosed opaque systems, even if there's a burnout, you will not really know. And that person is actually suffering in silence. But if your system is very open, these things will come out."
For Ronald Lee, associate strategy director at DDB Hong Kong, he believes that the conversations around quiet quitting are doing more to fix workplace culture than the act of quiet quitting itself, which just further proves the point that good communication is what solves most problems in the workplace.
"Like most problems in the workplace, it all boils down to a problem in communications," says Lee. "If you don't feel your employer is giving you a fulfilling career, then it is up to you to let them know and help them to help you."