‘Work won’t love you back’: adland workers share why they are quiet quitting
‘Quiet quitting’ has become the labor market’s latest buzzword. We hear the stories of advertising industry employees rethinking their work-life balance.
Is ‘quiet quitting’ just refusing to be exploited and manipulated? / Image via AdobeStock
The premise of quiet quitting is straightforward. A somewhat updated version of the work-to-rule form of industrial action in which employees perform their duties to the letter in order to slow productivity, quiet quitters no longer go above and beyond their pay grade, instead maintaining firm boundaries when it comes to their work-life balance.
Many of the people The Drum spoke to say it has helped them to sustain their mental health and wellbeing in the face of what has been a turbulent few years. However, others say the phenomenon is merely a reassertion of healthy work-life boundaries.
But moreover, is quiet quitting really the answer to poor working conditions? Or does advertising’s insidious toxic culture require more organized, radical action?
The root causes
Emma* had four years of experience under her belt when she was the first marketing hire at a startup, where she was offered a £23,000 ($28,000) salary.
“I was then promoted to head up the marketing team of three and became a line manager after about 18 months at the company, and my salary increased to £30,000 ($35,000). I pushed for a raise in line with my expectations as I had been solely responsible for the marketing strategy and execution for over six months but due to working in a pre-revenue startup, it didn’t happen. I had also been promised shares in the business (one of the key benefits of joining a startup) since I joined, but nothing materialized.”
Her frustrations meant she was forced to reassess how much effort she was putting in for little reward, she says. “I spent the following few months logging on and logging off when contracted and taking my full hour lunch break. In a startup they want people to grind, but being underpaid with no shares – there was no way I was doing this. I became unmotivated and unexcited, and I no longer bought into the company’s mission. After about four months of quiet quitting, I decided to start looking elsewhere and then two months later signed a contract for a new company.”
But tales of high expectations met with low pay and grueling hours are common throughout the advertising and marketing industry. Sarah* says the last several months in her marketing role have been “extremely demanding.”
“I have a broad and challenging remit – covering both internal and external communications. I work at least 15 hours over my contracted hours every week, rarely take proper breaks and struggle to switch off at weekends and even on holiday. There has been little to no let up from the pandemic period when things were even more challenging. Warning bells rang for me when, during what should’ve been a totally relaxing holiday, I was waking up plagued with anxious work thoughts; worries about the pile of emails and build-up of demands awaiting me on my return.”
‘Quiet quitting’ is just refusing to be exploited
Sarah explains she sees her decision to quiet quit as more of a reassertion of boundaries, of resetting and prioritizing self-care “rather than ‘slacking off’ or being unprofessional.”
“I’ve taken a conscious decision to change how I operate. I’ll never stop caring about doing a good job, but I’m taking steps to break the cycle of stress before it leads to burnout or worse. I’ll be logging on and off at reasonable times, taking daily breaks, declining non-essential meetings, blocking focus time in my diary and reclaiming headspace for the things that matter, rather than being all-consumed by work.”
Similarly, Simon* says: “Constantly going above and beyond in terms of workload and hours, despite receiving a salary far lower than the standard of pay in other professions and below what you really need to live a reasonably comfortable life in or around London, solidified the idea in my mind that work will never love you back.”
Another factor was the Covid-19 pandemic, he says. “Daily death-toll announcements, creaking public services and ongoing economic impacts really put everything in perspective. Brands and campaigns no longer felt like a big deal, and I started to resist the idea that I should spend any time beyond my working hours thinking about them.”
However, Simon says it is all these factors combined that have left him resolved to think of his job as just that. “A means of making money to feed my family, pay my bills and fund my lifestyle.”
He says: “I now strongly resist the idea that one’s job should be the sole avenue for self-actualization – life is finite and I don’t want to spend it caught up in the stress of work. Is this quiet quitting or just refusing to be exploited and manipulated?
”Has it cost me in terms of advancement, my relationship with management or my daily passion and motivation? Probably. But these are a price worth paying for a balanced life and a slightly freer existence.”
For some adland workers, however, the phenomenon of quiet quitting has its limitations. Frankie* says it’s a privilege to be able to act in this way because many marginalized groups have to go above and beyond to prove themselves within the workplace. “This is why in pop culture the coaster archetype is often a suburban white guy,” they say.
“At the start of my career [across journalism and marketing], I often worked nights and weekends for years. It took getting to director level to be able to quiet quit.“
Frankie says it’s also an unfulfilling position to be in. They describe quiet quitting as “an individual rebellion that doesn’t change anything.“
“For it to have real impact it needs to be organized and collective. This would also be more inclusive of those that just can’t afford to work to rule. In fact, in organizing circles, work-to-rule is an established tactic, so perhaps the future of this trend is in coordinating and organizing it.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities
For more stories like this, sign up to The Drum’s Work and Wellbeing briefing here.