Published Monday 29th November 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic rocked the global economy as businesses everywhere scrambled to adjust to the ‘new normal’. However, one of the knock-on effects is how the pandemic – and employers’ responses to it – impacted workers.

This workplace transformation is manifesting itself as a phenomenon known as the ‘Great Resignation’, where large numbers of people are quitting their jobs, often without another role in place. In the US alone, over 19 million workers have left their jobs since April 2021.

A recent study by McKinsey has examined this trend in more detail, and the results are surprising. Out of people surveyed across Australia, Canada, Singapore, the UK and the US, McKinsey found that 40% are likely to quit their jobs in the next three to six months and that 53% of employers said they are experiencing higher voluntary turnover than ever before. These findings were consistent across all countries surveyed and across all industries.

Additional surveys carried out by Microsoft and HR software company Personio also revealed the scale of the problem – 41% of the 30,000 global workers surveyed by Microsoft said that they were considering leaving or changing their professions this year, and 38% of workers in the UK and Ireland surveyed by Personio said they plan to quit in the next 6-12 months.

What is the Great Resignation?

Organisational psychologist Anthony Klotz coined the ‘Great Resignation’ to describe this ongoing trend of people leaving their jobs. Klotz predicted this in May 2021, partly because so few people resigned at the height of the pandemic. “When there’s uncertainty, people tend to stay put, so there are pent-up resignations that didn’t happen over the past year”, Klotz said.

This prediction has been confirmed by Glassdoor economist Daniel Zhao who stated that 3.7 million people (in the US) would have likely quit their jobs if not for the pandemic. Those “missing quits” were stored up and are one reason we’re seeing such an increase in resignations now. However, the situation isn’t as black and white as this.

Why are So Many People Resigning?

Participants in the McKinsey survey cited not feeling valued by their organisations or managers, or because they didn’t feel a sense of belonging at work as the main reasons for resigning.

Although these factors are common at any time, it appears the COVID pandemic has profoundly affected how people see themselves in the world, including what they want from their jobs.

Klotz believes that the pandemic has made workers reevaluate what they are getting out of work. Some people have chosen to step away from their jobs because of increased workload and pressure, whereas others want to capitalise on the greater flexibility they enjoyed as the pandemic offered new ways of working.

Ultimately, Klotz says that this is a conversation about mental health and burnout. Dr. Laura Hamill, chief science advisor at Limeade, an immersive employee well-being company, echos this:

“The mass exodus workplaces have experienced over the past several months is unprecedented—burnout levels reached an all-time high. There was a societal breakdown when it came to the ecosystem of work, home and well-being. People reached their limits.”

The pandemic led to epiphanies about family time, working from home vs the office, commuting time, and ultimately, what life is all about, which caused workers to rethink their priorities.

People working for companies that did not treat them well during the pandemic felt their loyalty ebbing away when confronted with an existential threat like COVID-19. Put simply, workers have stayed at companies that supported them throughout the pandemic and left those that didn’t.

“Quitting is about an employment boundary and a personal decision to prioritise self,” says Dr. LaNail R. Plummer, CEO of Onyx Therapy Group, speaking to Forbes. “People feel like they need to instil a boundary around themselves when they quit so they can focus on their needs and desires—including their physical and mental health.”

How Can Businesses Retain Staff?

It’s no secret that businesses are struggling to address the Great Resignation, often because they don’t fully understand the reasons behind the phenomenon. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to adopt – the specific reasons for mass resignations largely depend on the company or sector.

‘Easy’ solutions like wage increases and more benefits will help retain staff, particularly in blue-collar or frontline industries which don’t have the same flexible working options that white-collar workers do. However, as we’ve seen, the Great Resignation is about more than just material concerns and taps into work’s overall meaning.

One of the significant causes of burnout during the pandemic is how the boundary between work and home has become increasingly porous. While technology has allowed for more flexible working, it has also made it easier for people to work during unsociable hours, which has become normalised. A survey by the Finery Report found that 83% of millennials believe that working overtime is expected, and nearly 70% regularly work on weekends.

Companies need to set clear boundaries – backed by policy – that prevents work after a particular time or on the weekend. Instead of feeling ‘chained’ to the computer, they also need to celebrate life outside of work. Unless this is advocated by leadership, burnout is inevitable.

Similarly, paid time off should be mandated, not just encouraged. Studies have shown that taking annual leave increases productivity and creativity, and even reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes. We’re increasingly seeing forward-thinking organisations implementing company-wide shutdowns, such as dating app Bumble who recently gave all their employees a week off at once.

Be Flexible

The pandemic also heralded a remote working revolution, which employees have embraced. A study by EY found that more than half of employees globally would quit their jobs if they were not provided post-pandemic flexibility. 54% would choose flexibility in when they work, and 40% want flexibility in where they work. A further survey among technology companies found that 43% of 423 Amazon employees surveyed said they would quit if they could no longer work from home.

This flexibility is essential for working women, who have faced an additional burden during the pandemic, juggling their careers with their traditional role as caregivers. A survey by the Trades Union Congress showed that 50% of mothers who had requested flexible working had been at least partly refused. That is half of those asking for the ability to meet their caring responsibilities being told it isn’t possible.

Companies who refuse flexible working will lose good workers, as will those who don’t clearly value their employees. Businesses who actively support their workforce’s mental and physical health – and treat them as human beings – will fare much better.

Don’t lose your best employees to the Great Resignation. Contact our expert team at Expense Reduction Analysts for professional advice on workforce retention and supply chain management in the post-pandemic era.