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Author's profile photo Kerry Brown

Should we resign ourselves to the Great Resignation?

Since spring 2020, most of us have been pining for a return to “normal,” a normal social life, workday, travel schedule, interactions with family, friends and coworkers. As we waited for the pandemic to end, we kept our eyes on that prize, making do with whatever we had: we worked from home; homeschooled our children; social-distanced from anyone not in our pod; zoomed with everyone; ate our own cooking; binge-watched tv; and, whether we were alone or not, suffered from the kind of loneliness and isolation that most of had never before experienced.

So now, post-vaccine, when “normal” is finally within sight, why are so many of us making major life and work changes?

A recent Microsoft survey of 30,000+ global workers found 41% were considering quitting or changing professions. It’s not just daydreaming and wishful thinking – they’re taking action. More than 15 million people. quit their jobs since April 2021. A study from EY found that over half of surveyed employees worldwide would consider leaving their job post-COVID-19 pandemic, the reasons why are personal and nuanced.

The exodus is not just burned-out boomers eyeing retirement. A new poll reveals that about 20% of U.S. workers have seriously considered changing careers since the pandemic began. For workers under 40, it’s ~30%. Among workers 18-25, over 50% are contemplating quitting.

What’s fueling this mass retreat from the world of work? Why are so many workers asking themselves, “Should I stay or should I go?”

Politicians reflexively blame laziness, lack of work ethic or the adverse side effects of generous benefits. Economists point toward labor shortages and the increasing availability of higher-paying jobs as the economy rebounds. Some complain that millennials and zoomers have outsized expectations and are just too entitled.

History offers a more universal and objective view.

The 1919 influenza pandemic, a global crisis that infected 500 million people and killed 100 million worldwide, is the closest historic comparison to our current pandemic. Known as the Spanish flu, it occurred in three highly infectious waves, its mortality being highest among healthy young men and women aged 15-34.

Obviously, such a lethal health crisis had huge health and economic consequences, reducing overall economic activity as well as private consumption. Studies found that Spanish flu caused significant declines in health and educational outcomes in survivors as well as people born during the pandemic. But what I find more interesting is the effects that the 1918 pandemic had on societal behavior and attitudes.

A recent paper titled, “Epidemics and trust: The case of the Spanish Flu,” found “evidence that experiencing the pandemic likely had permanent consequences in terms of individuals’ social trust…” and “that lower social trust was passed on to the descendants of the survivors of the Spanish Flu.”

Is our current pandemic disrupting our ability to trust in each other and our institutions?

I do believe working remotely helped many of us develop a better appreciation of the roles of essential workers because we personally experienced the intensity and difficulty of their jobs: Parents forced to homeschool children now see teachers in a more sympathetic light; delivery workers have earned new respect for their long hours and diligence; and healthcare worked are rightly lauded as heroes. These dedicated workers deserve our trust.

We were all forced into a sudden and drastic change in routine at the onset of the pandemic, many discovered the time and space to reassess priorities and rethink how to live. Rebalancing relationships, juggling competing demands, facing losses and disappointments, many looking for ways to exert control over their lives.

For some of us, stepping away from an office opened our eyes to employment relationships that weren’t balanced. Employees gave a lot – and gave up a lot – during the pandemic. When employers don’t give back in kind, workers naturally feel overlooked, undervalued and unsatisfied. If we can’t trust our employer to have our back, there’s simply no reason not to leave.

So, is the Great Resignation a temporary trend or a long-term structural change? There’s no way to know but my money is on the latter. Life-changing events change lives, whether or not we realize it as it is occurring.

An individual crisis changes individual behavior, worldwide crises cause lasting social and cultural consequences. The pandemic completely upended the employee experience, and while many employers continued to monitor productivity, most didn’t devote nearly the same amount of effort to soliciting real-time, real-world feedback from remote workers about the challenges, struggles and stresses they were facing. McKinsey identified “employees prioritize relational factors, whereas employers focus on transactional ones”.

By neglecting to engage with remote employees, not listening to nor addressing their issues and concerns, employers missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build trust in within the organization and loyalty from workers. As the Great Resignation plays out and the workforce reshuffles, it will be interesting to see if employers and workers can engage, listen, and trust each other enough to find common ground.

Employers, are you listening?


Previously published on October 2021

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