Who created the term “The great resignation”? It was Anthony Klotz, a psychologist and professor of business administration at Texas A&M University who coined this now somewhat hackneyed phrase when he said the great resignation is coming in an interview with Business week (May 2021).
Like any catchy phrase it caught the imagination of many a headline- seeking journalist, so that what started out as an indication of what might be happening led to a broad generalisation that it was in fact happening.
The situation is far more complex then the implied description of droves of people seeking a new life outside conventional employment channels as a result of the pandemic. Yet there are factors, pre- and post-pandemic, that are driving people to consider the possibility of making changes (not necessarily resigning from their jobs). Alistair Cox CEO of Hays* says there are several reasons for this apparent desire for movement. I have extrapolated from some of his points:
Burn out and exhaustion have affected many people: home schooling, the shrinking of human contact outside the home and the sheer volume of online activity have left some people craving alternatives. And people have had enough of constant and relentless Teams calls.
The taste of remote working has been great for those with a strong autonomy driver and/or the need to balance family considerations with work demands. An employer who requires the return of workers to the office may just tip the balance for some people.
Effects of Covid
The pandemic has affected many of us in profound ways. We have lost friends and family, been unable to visit sick loved ones, and know at least 1-2 people with long Covid. We have suffered a collective and individual shock, and we realise that life is too short. As we know, how are you a shock can lead to reflection on what really matters in life.
Career management confidence
Over many years employers have moved from a top-down career management model to one that fosters self managed career development. So perhaps this has worked and consequently workers are taking the initiative in their own interest, not necessarily in that of their employer. Whilst lockdown contributed to people wanting stability, there is a new energy and confidence for career development post-Covid.
Job seekers have access to better statistics about comparative salaries and their technical skills enable them to obtain that information quickly.
Pre-pandemic system failures
In some jobs, there were already signs of crisis pre-pandemic. Covid extended these systemic weaknesses, leading to a serious retention crisis among, for example, doctors, nurses and care workers. The situation is now so bad that the government has for some years operated a GP retention scheme to stop the rot and is importing thousands of nurses from abroad to make up the shortfall.
Health and wellbeing
There is an increased willingness of employees to demand, as a priority, consideration of their health and well-being. This is possibly a response to many employers highlighting the importance of health and well-being during the pandemic.
Rewards come in many forms, including the sense of being properly rewarded financially for the work, and receiving recognition for good work from managers. Many of the jobs that people leave are poorly rewarded, such as those in the care and hospitality industries.
We know there is no general truth in the term ‘The Great Resignation’, but it does perhaps indicate a seismic shift in attitudes to employment, employers and career development, which began long before the pandemic. Covid has perhaps accelerated the pace and skewed the nature of this shift.
We know that retirement was increasing prior to the pandemic, especially among more highly educated older workers. But even that statement hides a more complex picture, as many people from their mid-40s are re-evaluating their life and work choices as they contemplate the possibility of working well into their 70s. (see ‘The Hundred Year Life’ by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott).
The pandemic has hastened a wake up call for employers – to take more seriously the desire of their employees to be treated as ‘whole’ people, with lives outside of work that need to be respected. One example of an employer which is doing just that is a fast growing tech start up that allows its employees to work whenever and wherever they wish, as long as they get their work done.
Even if the Great Resignation is not strictly true, the evidence suggests that many people are considering the possibility of making changes. To retain good employees, employers need to act on that, by recognising them as fellow human beings. That means getting to know them, understanding their needs, helping them define their ambitions and aspirations while respecting their whole life considerations.