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Understanding The Neurobiology Of Quiet Quitting And How It Can Revitalize Workplace Culture

Written by: Dr. Charryse Johnson, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

According to recent Gallup research only 15% of employees are actively engaged at work, which means up to 85% of employees worldwide may be quiet quitting. A report on workplace data by Pew Research shows that 47% or nearly half of all US employees believe that work is just way to pay the bills. Further research has found 79% of employees report they would stop quiet quitting if given more recognition.

A picture of young businessman experiencing stress during at work.

Quiet quitting is commonly defined as a form of employee disengagement where team members stop going above and beyond and fulfill the bare minimum job requirements to keep their job. It’s a relatively new term, yet not a new concept. Generally, quiet quitting is considered a “rebellion” and a form of “silent non-compliance” that is threatening employee retention and hurting the nation’s labor productivity. However, it is more than data, dollars, and dogma. It is a clear indicator that leadership, community, and resilience are struggling to coexist in the workplace.


Contrary to popular belief, “quiet quitters” are not chronic under-performers, they tend to be disillusioned and disappointed high performers who realize their efforts and expectations are being undervalued and unmatched within the work environment. This reality creates a physical and emotional tug of war, ultimately leading many to pull back, reduce enthusiasm, and withhold their opinions. When employees begin to disengage and blunt their natural personality states, this can lead to apathy, low mood, and pervasive dissatisfaction. These mental states are a threat to employee wellbeing and often become a precursor to resignation.


We are living through a collective breaking point that adds a burden to every aspect of life. Employers can’t afford to lose more workers and employee disengagement is on the rise. In parallel, employees who leave one environment in exchange for another, will carry the same unresolved concerns into the next workplace culture.


Quiet quitting is a neurobiological and psychological response to stress, burnout, and overwhelm that has exceeded our capacity to manage and regulate. It is both a conscious and subconscious response to the acute stressors and traumas that are unresolved and being held in the body. The desire to “quit” is a defense mechanism, an autonomic response that the brain activates to create psychological safety. Thus, reactive approaches such as quiet firing, increasing consequences, and performative compensation, will not create a sustainable path to reducing this issue. Sustainably addressing quiet quitting will require employers to broaden their understanding of human behavior and how the nervous system’s fight-or-flight mechanisms show up within workplace culture.


The fight-or-flight response, also known as the acute stress response, refers to a physiological reaction that occurs in the presence of something that is perceived as threatening, either mentally or physically. The response is triggered by the release of hormones that prepares the body to either stay and deal with the threat or to leave and seek safety. The fight-or-flight response plays a critical role in how we deal with stress and danger in our work environment.


Employees will differ in their level of reactivity to stressors, that is, anything physical or psychological that provokes stress. Perceptions on the severity of stressors are influenced by our neurobiological diversity (nervous system variability), genetic makeup, general physical health, and other psychological and personality factors. Additionally, the stressors we manage outside of work will directly influence the way we respond to stressors at work. The intersection of neuroscience and employee mental health, offers a critical interpretation on quiet quitting that is being overlooked in mainstream communication.


“The stress response begins in the brain… When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.” (Harvard Health Publications)

Whether employers are managing in person or dispersed workers, the neuroscience remains the same. The body and the brain are integrated systems designed to seek regulation. When we physically or intellectually position ourselves within a workforce, coregulation is a natural byproduct that modulates based on the collective health of the team. Coregulation (interpersonal) is a form of emotion regulation (personal) that is all about what’s being communicated—whether that is words, tone of voice, intonation and expression, body language, or the nonverbal messages that emerge when an employee does not feel seen or heard.


Healthy emotion regulation is essential in the workplace and a highly effective and sustainable way to proactively reduce quiet quitting. Employees need to regulate their own emotions as well as the emotions of others to enhance collaboration, the quality of interactions, and achieve organizational outcomes. Research has also demonstrated when employers strategically address systemic barriers to emotion regulation it positively correlates to better communication, team resilience, building trust, and improved customer experiences. When this is carried out through an integrative framework of employee wellness, organizations will move towards initiatives that:

  • Collectively consider the developmental, cultural, and contextual factors of employees

  • Honor and value the dichotomous identities that affect an individual’s felt sense of safety.

  • Train managers and leaders to model coregulation and mutual respect.

  • Strategically identifies and eradicates oppressive language that is commonly used in verbal and written communication

Initially, the process may be uncomfortable and even more of an investment than you desire to make. Yet, the cost will be paid in one form or fashion. It is estimated that disengagement reduces productivity, increases turnover, and costs the economy $500 billion a year. The average expense to replace an entry-level employee can be up to 50% of that employee’s salary. For a supervisory role, that replacement cost could go as high as 150% of the annual salary. Compare this to the cost of investing in an expert mental health consultant, training & development, or HR consulting.


Strategic integration of employee wellness is an intricate and complex process where we must ask employees tough questions such as the ones below:


“Do all bodies regardless of position or privilege feel safe to communicate and express their needs and opinions?”


“Do you have healthy work-life balance?”


As an action step, consider developing a brief, anonymous workplace culture survey. This goal of this survey is to assess the everyday working life of the people within it. It is an opportunity to determine the distance between the mission and vision of your business and what employees actually experience. If an employee does not trust their work environment, they will be hesitant to use the resources the environment provides.


Employees are not quitting quietly. The signs and symptoms of dysregulation are loud and clear and have been minimized and overlooked for decades. So, what has changed? Businesses have come face to face with a new generation of employees that values balance over their bank account and an older generation unafraid to create their own lane. The loss and uncertainty caused by COVID-19 has exposed the foundational cracks within organizational structure and awakened the demand for managing human capital through competent communication, transparency, and liberation.


Quiet quitting is not a solution-focused problem to fix, it is neurobiological paradigm that necessitates a shift. It is not a rebellion, but a fundamental call for revolution within the workplace.


How is your organization answering?


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Dr. Charryse Johnson, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Dr. Charryse Johnson is an author, speaker, and mental health consultant whose work focuses on the intersection of integrative wellness, neuroscience, and mental health. She is the founder of Jade Integrative Counseling and Wellness, an integrative therapy practice where personal values, the search for meaning, and the power of choice are the central focus. Dr.Johnson works with clients and organizations across the nation and has an extensive background and training in education, crisis and trauma, neuroscience, and identity development.

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