After more than a year of fear and uncertainty, Americans are quitting their jobs in unusually large numbers.
The coronavirus pandemic offered many people an opportunity to take stock of their working lives as they were either forced to work from home; their job disappeared or they were furloughed; or they suddenly found themselves under huge pressure, performing essential functions in difficult circumstances.
Whichever was applicable, traditional working norms have been upended across the board, allowing people to reevaluate what they want to get out of their jobs, and what matters most to them.
As the economic impact of the pandemic eases with high rates of vaccination across much of the US, life is beginning to return to something close to normal. However, this transition to a post-pandemic era in work-life is being defined by what has been called “the great resignation”.
The term was first coined by Professor Anthony Klotz, associate professor of management at Mays Business School, Texas A&M University in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek.
Mr Klotz noted that people who had hung onto jobs during the pandemic because of the uncertainty were now ready to make a move and leave their current job in favour of something better.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that there were 6 million fewer resignations in 2020 than in 2019, so there was already a natural backlog of people who would have resigned under normal circumstances.
That “something better” people are looking for could be one or more of a variety of factors. These include the freedom to work remotely, eliminating the need to commute; flexible working hours to accommodate a better work-life balance; better remuneration or benefits; improved opportunities for advancement; or a safer or more equitable working environment.
The pandemic brought many of these things into sharp focus. Some employers have found that they simply cannot hire people on the same terms as they could prior to the pandemic and are being forced to adapt by increasing salaries and changing internal policies.
There is a great deal of data to back this up from around the world. In April 2021, 4 million people in the US quit their jobs according to the Department of Labor — the biggest spike ever. Since then approximately the same number have voluntarily left employment every month, so far peaking at 4.3 million in August.
Outside the US, in the UK 38 per cent of workers said they planned to quit in the next six to 12 months, according to a survey by human resources software firm Personio.
Research by Microsoft found that 41 per cent of 30,000 workers surveyed around the world were thinking of leaving their jobs or switching professions. Almost half of those surveyed are considering moving because they can now work remotely.
Career site Monster found in a survey that 95 per cent of workers are considering changing jobs, and 92 per cent would switch industry for a new position, though such a high figure might be expected from a site for job hunters.
The mass exit from jobs is not confined to any particular sector. While there are many published anecdotes about white-collar employees working remotely then changing jobs when asked to return to the office, the in-person service and retail sectors are seeing an even larger wave of resignations.
These low-wage roles, often in direct contact with the public, were deemed essential during the pandemic, and many workers felt poorly treated when concerns regarding their health and safety were not taken seriously.
Faced with the prospect of crowded indoor spaces, low wages, staff shortages, long hours, and constant battles with customers who refuse to abide by Covid-19 safety measures, many are just saying no and quitting.
Workers are reportedly leaving positions in favour of junior roles in offices or in the field of logistics that may pay less, but offer better benefits and a better working environment.
A notable trend has therefore emerged of retailers and fast food companies raising wages and bringing in hiring bonuses, only to still struggle to fill positions. Small businesses are caught in a greater bind by being less flexible with fewer resources to draw on.
Reports of reduced hours, poorer service, harried employees, and closures are now common, with some businesses pleading for patience from customers given the circumstances. On the positive side for employees wages are rising.
What much of this boils down to is the question of how well a company treated its employees during the pandemic and how well it intends to treat them going forward.
At all levels of employment, people are asking how much their job contributes to their happiness and well-being, and whether their work is meaningful. For many, a job is no longer just about getting paid, but about quality of life.
Consequently, companies that do not invest in their workforce and its well-being will likely struggle for the foreseeable future.
They will find it difficult not just to onboard new talent and retain existing workers, but also to maintain standards, productivity, and potentially profitability in the longer term.