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Why small business employees are quiet quitting and what you can do about it

Thanks to pop culture, our collective idea of leaving a job involves a loud, satisfying, “I QUIT!,” followed by a dramatic exit through the workplace, carrying all of one’s earthly possessions in a brown box. Amid rising inflation, hiring challenges, and preparing for a busy season, small business owners do not want to hear any “I QUIT”’s right now (or ever!). 

But lately, we’ve been hearing about another potentially more troubling form of quitting. “Quiet quitting” happens without any loud proclamations or cardboard boxes — or even a written notice. Quiet quitting refers to an employee deciding, for a variety of personal and professional reasons, to do just the tasks in their job description during prescribed work hours. They clock in, do exactly what they need to do, then call it a day. Quiet quitters might not intend to actually quit their jobs; they just quit going above and beyond. 

Quiet quitting can be a challenge for smaller businesses, where team members frequently wear several hats and take on additional responsibilities to keep the business moving forward. But consistently taking on extra work and striving to hit the ever-moving target that is their job expectations can cause these employees to feel undervalued and burnt out. As a small business owner, it’s up to you to balance the needs of your growing business without sacrificing the needs of your employees.

Gallup estimates that quiet quitters make up at least 50% of the workforce, and probably more. Should small business owners be worried? Yes and no. Here, we’ll break down how to identify the problem and be open to feedback and productive changes — without sacrificing your authority or business needs. 

What exactly is quiet quitting?

Quiet quitting is a term that originated on social media to describe employees who aren’t necessarily quitting and leaving their jobs but have quit participating in the “rise and grind” culture perpetuated by older generations. These employees may have no intention of actually quitting, but they have quit caring. They’re psychologically detached from their work — they’ll go through the motions, but they won’t go above and beyond, often at the expense of productivity and job satisfaction.

Much virtual ink has been spilled attempting to brand quiet quitting as the provenance of employees who have no professional ambition (often focused on Gen Z, though people of all ages are doing it). But that’s not the case. According to a recent LiveCareer study, employees define quiet quitting as creating healthy boundaries at work, prioritizing their personal lives, or just rejecting extra job duties. With those definitions in mind, almost all employees (94%) consider themselves “quiet quitters.”

You might picture a quiet quitter as an employee sitting in front of a computer in their home office, working for a corporation with hundreds of fellow employees to pick up the slack. But quiet quitting can happen anywhere, even in your small business. If you pause to look, it’s easy to spot the potential warning signs. Maybe an employee is doing duties far outside their job description with no notice or reward. Someone might be staying late every night to close up without management realizing. We’ve all done things at work and felt like no one noticed. With quiet quitting and the “great reshuffle” top of mind, it’s time to revisit that.

3 causes of quiet quitting and how to avoid them

Many factors can cause quiet quitting among employees, namely dissatisfaction in the workplace. That dissatisfaction can stem from feeling unrecognized at work, conflict among team members, or feeling stuck on a stagnant career path. We’ve narrowed down the myriad possibilities to three main reasons employees stop putting in extra effort at work and what you, as a business owner, can do about it. 

1. Employees are underpaid 

In a perfect world, employees choose to work because they get fulfillment from their job. In the real world, employees work to get paid (the “live to work” versus “work to live” ethos). The LiveCareer survey found that for most employees, money and family duty are their main motivators to work, passion and ambition come second. 

Today’s employees simply don’t feel they’re paid well enough to put in extra time and effort at work. According to QuickBooks data, the employees of almost 500,000 small businesses in the US, Canada, and the UK received big pay increases in 2022. But, due to inflation, the real incomes for these employees dropped by over 1%. While business owners could argue that they’re also being pummeled by inflation, at the end of the day, they need to incentivize employees to stay motivated and continue working at their business. 

Unfortunately, 75% of small businesses say they’ve tapped out their labor budget and can’t afford to hand out any more raises. And at least half of these business owners expect this to make it harder for them to retain their talented workers in the coming months. If those employees don’t quit, they might still “quiet quit.”

The solution: Sweeten the pot 

This would be a great time for a business genie to appear and grant you a magic wish. Surely you’d wish for a bigger labor budget or bonuses for your employees, right? Unfortunately, magic wishes rarely work that way. Solving the problem of underpaid employees requires effort and creativity on your end. 

You might not be able to afford pay raises or bonuses for your employees — inflation has hit you where it hurts, too! But you can sweeten the pot with important employee benefits like paid time off, flexible work options or schedules, and better health benefits. You’d be in good company; nearly 6 in 10 small business owners say they’ve expanded their benefits in an attempt to attract and retain employees in lieu of offering pay increases, according to QuickBooks data. 

But these basic benefits are just the beginning. Today’s employees expect to earn paid time off and to enroll in a health care plan. Benefits that go above and beyond can inspire your employees to do the same. Invest in employee training and development to show your employees you’re invested in them and their career advancement. Career coaching provides opportunities for personal and professional development. And a well-stocked break room (plus respected break times) shows your employees that you care about their basic needs and well-being. Just don’t make the mistake of throwing a pizza party in an attempt to distract employees from poor pay and benefits — they’ve caught on. 

2. Employees are overworked

The pandemic quite literally blurred the line between work and home when, for many employees, the two locations became one and the same. Employees who once allowed their work life to bleed into their home life suddenly found themselves drawing a harder line between the two — a line that’s held strong throughout the return to work. 

For those who didn’t have the luxury of working from home (our frontline workers), protecting their mental and physical health suddenly took much higher priority. After a long shift manning an understaffed restaurant or supermarket, walking the tightrope between good customer service and staying six feet apart, employees aren’t so willing to give more than they get.  

According to the LiveCareer survey, the vast majority of today’s employees believe personal health, family, and friends are more important than work. And more than 8 in 10 employees believe that constantly pursuing career advancement negatively affects their quality of life.

@thedailyshow Is it quiet quitting...or just doing the job? #DailyShow #foryoupage #fyp ♬ original sound - The Daily Show

And yet, 85% say they still work more than is required for their role. They’re checking emails, answering phone calls, and working up to eight hours beyond their official work hours each week. That number jumps up to 94% at smaller businesses with fewer than 50 employees. 

Whether they’re picking up the slack from another employee, taking on extra responsibilities, or just doing what their manager asks them to do, these employees feel overworked, unrecognized, and burnt out. Their only recourse to maintain the delicate work/life balance they’ve carefully created is to quietly disengage. 

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The solution: Prioritize employee wellbeing

Post-pandemic employees are more stressed and anxious than ever. Many employers have been quick to respond by offering wellness benefits like meditation app subscriptions or mental health days. But these efforts, while appreciated, only serve to remedy the symptoms of employee burnout rather than addressing the cause: overworked employees. If your employees are exhibiting signs of burnout or quiet quitting, it’s an indication that your business, not your employees, needs to make some improvements. 

Start by setting clear expectations for you and your staff. Remember, most employees define quiet quitting as setting healthy boundaries at work, something that should exist anyway. It might be tempting to expect your employees to wear multiple hats or take on extra responsibilities, but a jack of all trades makes a master of none. When employees are spread too thin, it can lead to mistakes, tasks falling through the cracks, and, well, resentment. Three things that aren’t exactly conducive to a productive workplace. 

Create a culture where employees feel comfortable discussing a too-heavy workload and other workplace issues. Employees who fear appearing incompetent or jeopardizing their jobs might keep their struggles on the down low, leaving them feeling frustrated, stressed, and alone — a fast track to burnout. Check in with employees regularly and offer real solutions. 

Part of checking in is knowing the signs of an overworked employee or an employee on the verge of burnout. You actually know these signs already. It’s how you feel when you have too much work on your plate and not enough help or acknowledgment: tired, irritable, and unmotivated. Burnout in the workplace can surface as low productivity, decreased quality of work, or a shift in workplace culture. 

Finally, a quick and easy way to ease employee burnout is to intentionally work downtime into employee schedules — and respect that downtime. That means no working through break times or calling employees in on their days off. Employees who feel like they’re always “on call” or unable to decompress are quick to reach their limits. (And if you think covering an employee’s day off is tough, think about how tough it might be to cover their workload when they inevitably quit). 

3. Employees aren’t engaged

We’ve seen the stats on employee engagement: Employees who are engaged with their work are happier, more productive, and more likely to stay with your business longer. Gallup reports that little more than three in 10 employees are actively engaged at work, but 18% are actively disengaged — the highest percentage in almost a decade. Disengaged employees are actively seeking other jobs or planning to quit (loud quitters, if you will). 

That leaves roughly 50% of employees somewhere in the middle, or “quiet quitting” territory. They’ll put in the time, but they won’t do it with energy or enthusiasm. If we’re speaking brass tacks, they’re a major flight risk. 

It’s especially hard on a small business when an employee decides to quit. Other employees have to step in to cover additional shifts or responsibilities until a replacement is found (see: “They’re overworked”). And according to QuickBooks data, 63% of small businesses say it’s increasingly hard to find applicants for their job openings, meaning you might not be able to fill those positions as quickly as you’d like. 

The solution: Increase engagement 

We know. This solution feels very “draw the owl.” Increasing employee engagement in the workplace is one of those things that’s easier said than done. But here’s the good news: The two things you’ve already committed to work on (offering employee benefits like career development and coaching; prioritizing employee wellbeing) both increase engagement. In fact, a lot of things do, and they aren’t very expensive or difficult to execute. At the end of the day, employees just want to feel valued and recognized for their hard work. They want to know their work is meaningful and contributes to overall business success. 

Beyond benefits and wellness, develop an employee recognition program that demonstrates appreciation for employees — and participate often. There are lots of ways to recognize a job well done: a public shoutout, a small token of appreciation like a gift card or handwritten note, or a celebratory event for the whole team (pizza parties are allowed, in this instance). Building a culture of recognition ensures employees feel seen and appreciated, improving employee engagement and reducing turnover. If you’re not sure how your team prefers to be recognized, go straight to the source. Ask your employees what makes them feel valued.

Last but not least, give your employees a seat at the table. A voice. Two minds are better than one, and you have a team of great minds eager to make your business better. Asking for employee input shows your team that you trust and value their ideas and opinions, and it might just lead to more creative solutions for your business. 

Address quiet quitting before it gets too loud 

Quiet quitting isn’t the major employee issue some make it out to be. Quiet quitters are simply setting healthy work/life boundaries and protecting themselves from burnout at a business that hasn’t prioritized their needs or recognized their contributions. If you find yourself with a team of quiet quitters on your hands, you might want to take a long, hard look at your business processes and think about making some systematic changes. If quiet quitting goes on for too long, you might find yourself hearing some very un-quiet “I QUIT”’s. Investing in employee growth and development, prioritizing health and wellness, and finding creative ways to make employees feel valued all contribute to a stronger, more engaged team.

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