Within a Prosecutor’s Office, Silence is Not Golden: How to Hear the Sound of Quiet Quitting


Contributing Author: Wendy L. Patrick, Deputy District Attorney, San Diego County (CA)

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

The concept of “quiet quitting” is often used to refer to an employee who while once passionate and productive, is now doing the bare minimum. No longer the enthusiastic go-getter working long hours and going above and beyond the call of duty, the quiet quitter “meets expectations,” as is often reflected on their annual evaluation. They do what is expected, and no more. This phenomenon is especially concerning when it happens to a prosecutor, entrusted with being a minister of justice, and held to a higher standard than other attorneys. What causes a previously engaged, lawyer “for the People” to lose passion and productivity? Research has some answers.

Perceived Autonomy Support

Rebecca J. Collie et al. (2018) investigated the impact of perceived autonomy support on workplace exhaustion, disengagement, and lack of commitment, using a sample of secondary school teachers. (Collie, Rebecca J., Helena Granziera, and Andrew J. Martin. 2018. “Teachers’ Perceived Autonomy Support and Adaptability: An Investigation Employing the Job Demands-Resources Model as Relevant to Workplace Exhaustion, Disengagement, and Commitment.” Teaching and Teacher Education 74 (August): 125–36. doi:10.1016/j.tate.2018.04.015). They defined autonomy support as “the interpersonal climate created by the manager or supervisor in the workplace, in which employees’ perspectives are acknowledged, opportunities for choice are offered, and self-initiation is encouraged.” They defined perceived autonomy support as teachers’ perceptions that their principal supports their sense of self-determination. This could be demonstrated by a principal giving teachers choices and options in developing curriculum and policy, attempting understand their perspective, expressing confidence in teachers’ abilities, encouraging questions, and listening to new ideas.

They noted that within their study, PAS was viewed as a job resource because it stimulates growth and development, allowing employees to attain professional goals. They found that PAS was negatively linked with emotional exhaustion and work disengagement. As they explain, when teachers believe their principal supports their self-determination, they are less likely to perceive their work duties as emotionally draining or feel disengaged.

Boundaries, Please

Devin J. Rapp et al. (2021) investigated the extent to which manipulating boundaries may work as a buffer against burnout. (Rapp, Devin J., J. Matthew Hughey, and Glen E. Kreiner. 2021. “Boundary Work as a Buffer against Burnout: Evidence from Healthcare Workers during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Journal of Applied Psychology 106 (8): 1169–87. doi:10.1037/apl0000951). Studying the experiences of health care workers during the Covid-10 pandemic, they found an increased frequency of boundary violations, described as “undesired disruptions between work and other important life domains such as personal and family life.” They note that these boundary violations were often linked to higher reports of burnout characterized by detachment, exhaustion, and inefficacy.

Photo by Danie Franco on Unsplash

The Sound of Prosecutors Losing Momentum

Recognizing what causes prosecutor burnout can enhance the ability of both supervisors and peers to perceive symptoms of quiet quitting sooner rather than later. Here are some signs:

When prosecutors experience a lack of support, either by supervisors or staff, signs of quiet quitting may be manifest through disinterest in office trainings, case roundtables, or after hours team building events, often coupled with increased requests for personal days or time off, indicators that reflect disengagement and feeling emotionally drained.

If prosecutors experience burnout as a result of boundary violations, signs may include a decreased willingness to handle a previously-manageable workload, irritation and resistance to after-hours communication or assignments, complaints about micromanagement, and general defensiveness about case assignment quality and deadlines. These behaviors may reflect detachment-related perceived inefficiency and exhaustion.

By learning what to listen for, supervisors and peers can address and ameliorate contributing factors with the goal of creating a vibrant, challenging, supportive workplace that will sustain meaning, purpose, and value for prosecutors in every stage of their career.

Portions of the research in this article were first published in Ms. Patrick’s column in Psychology Today



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