‘The Cure for Burnout Is Not Self-Care’

Amelia Nagoski discusses quiet quitting.

An illustration of a man sitting at a desk but his silhouette is all sky and clouds
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic; Getty

The first thing you need to know about quiet quitting is that it’s not actually quitting. Instead, the quitter keeps their job and chooses to do only the bare minimum rather than go above and beyond. The second thing you need to know is that the term is brand-new, so everyone is still figuring out the rest. To cite the Oxford English Dictionary of our very online times, Google searches for quiet quitting were basically nonexistent until this past August.

But now it’s everywhere. TikToks dissecting the concept have amassed millions of views, prompting many national media outlets to publish explainers on the topic. The polling company Gallup found that at least half of Americans—maybe more—fit the definition of quiet quitting.

Is this really anything new? Many people have criticized the term, saying that it’s just another phrase for having a job. “Back in the day it was called a regular work shift,” reads the top comment, with more than 24,000 likes, on one TikTok. Others have argued that scaling back at work is too risky for women and people of color.

Amelia Nagoski, a co-author, with her sister Emily Nagoski, of the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, thinks the new term is useful—although she isn’t surprised by the discourse around it. “This is all very familiar to me,” she told me over email. “I’m glad to see younger generations opting out of exploitative work cultures.”

I was curious about the relationship between quiet quitting and the more scientifically established phenomenon of burnout. Nagoski and I discussed that—and quiet quitting’s deeper link to a broader push for better labor protections—over email.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Caroline Mimbs Nyce: How do you think quiet quitting relates to burnout?

Amelia Nagoski: I expect quiet quitting can be a part of a lifestyle to prevent burnout or help someone recover from burnout. Burnout begins with unceasing demands and unmeetable goals—the kinds that employers thrive on as they squeeze their employees not just for their time and labor, but for their obedience, their humanity, and their souls. A lot of those demands are unspoken cultural expectations rather than actual work requirements, and they comprise the bullshit that workers abandon when they quiet-quit.

If we don’t abandon the cultural demands that require us to conform in ways that aren’t natural to us, burnout progresses as we worry about the gap between who we are and who we are expected to be. When we understand that we will never cross that divide, and we see that we truly don’t want to be the people that we are told we “should” be, we are freed to understand our worth on our own terms.

Nyce: Because it’s so new, I imagine there hasn’t been much research on quiet quitting. But based on what we know about burnout, how rooted in psychological phenomena would you expect it to be?

Nagoski: We talk about the research on frustration and quitting very early in the book, because understanding it is so fundamental to managing burnout. Basically, when we have unmeetable goals, our brains can’t handle it. Our frustration grows into rage until eventually we are dropped into a pit of despair. Then we oscillate between frustrated rage and hopeless despair, where we get stuck in a cycle of I hate this job; they can shove it! Oh, no, I have bills to pay and children to raise, and I can’t just quit—but holy moly, I want to set that building on fire!!!

And how you get out of that cycle depends on whether you can or cannot control the thing that’s causing your frustration (the “stressor”). Quiet quitting is a strategy for when you can’t control the stressor. The revelation for lots of folks is discovering that they have the option to change how they approach their work, that they are not obligated to burn themselves out. And the challenging part is dealing with the feelings that arise after implementing the change.

Nyce: Some people have pushed back on the term, calling it a misnomer (i.e., you’re still working) or just another term for doing one’s job. How useful do you think the term itself is?

Nagoski: Quiet quitting comes from the perspective of folks who have been selling not just their time, but their selves to their employer. So their experience feels like quitting. In that context, the term makes a lot of sense and is helpful.

If an incurious person wants to say, “That’s just called ‘doing your job,’ duh,” then that person is missing out on learning something new about the experiences of others.

Nyce: What kind of psychological relationship with work would you expect to see in someone who is considering quiet quitting?

Nagoski: If someone is thinking, Quiet quitting might be for me!, I would expect that they have, in the past, invested a lot of themselves into their work and felt like some of their self-worth is derived from their contribution to their employer.

Workers throughout history have found the strength to detach their senses of self-worth from working conditions that are unreasonable, to do their jobs without giving in to the pressure to value themselves based solely on their contribution to the economy.

For folks who got their sense of meaning and purpose from work, quiet quitting might come with a sense of disillusionment, loss, and grief. But the good news is that all of us can get a sense of meaning from a variety of activities, even though capitalism and grind culture tell us that we’re lazy if we don’t commit our whole selves to our work.

Nyce: Is it realistic for a person to just stop caring about work? How easy is it, practically speaking, to change your own mindset?

Nagoski: Every individual will vary in how easy it is for them to change their mindset about work. Once you see evidence that quiet quitting would be better for you, the real challenge is grieving the loss of something you thought was valuable, mourning the time and energy you invested into a relationship where you were not valued the way you deserved to be, and finding something new in your life that does give you what you thought (and were told) you would get from your work.

Nyce: Your book focuses in particular on burnout in women. Would you expect quiet quitting to look different for women?

Nagoski: In broad terms, because systemic sexism is a thing, it is usually assumed that women should and will be caretakers as well as whatever their job description says. So I would expect women to face more consequences if they choose to stop performing the emotional labor and intuitive tasks that we so often do without being asked.

Let’s also zoom out to an intersectional feminist perspective, where we can recognize that it’s not just misogyny but a broad spectrum of bigotry that will make folks suffer for protecting their boundaries. The consequences will be harsher for those who already experience the most prejudice—people of color, those with less access to education, anyone with a disability or who lives in poverty, anyone who has lost or never had a family to provide a safety net due to being LGBTQ.

Nyce: A lot of quiet quitting seems, to me, to have to do with the amount of psychological space we give work. Do you think culturally we’re overdue for a recalibration?

Nagoski: It’s not just that we’re overdue for a recalibration. We’re overdue for a revolution.

The psychological space we give work is not just a choice we make as individuals or even just in our minds. It’s a cultural shift that must be impelled and supported by legislative support. Quiet quitting is a step toward rational and fair labor practices, but not everyone will have that choice. This is why we say in our book that the cure for burnout is not self-care. The cure for burnout is all of us caring for each other.