“The Great Resignation” is a term first coined in 2019 by Anthony Klotz, a Texas A&M Mays Business School associate professor of management, to predict a mass, voluntary exodus from the workforce. At the time, some might have paid scant attention to Klotz’s prediction, especially since so many — especially in the hospitality and events industry — were hanging on to their jobs for dear life after seeing their colleagues furloughed and laid off during the pandemic, and since the health crisis was causing so much economic uncertainty. But Klotz seems to have been prescient: According to the U.S. Department of Labor, during April, May, and June 2021, a record 11.5 million workers quit their jobs.
Alex Alonso, chief knowledge officer at SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) sought to put those numbers in context at the SHRM21 Annual Conference & Expo, held Sept. 9-12 in person in Las Vegas and virtually. On Sept. 11, Alonso presented highlights of the results of SHRM’s new survey report on the Great Resignation, which was conducted among 1,150 working Americans, 799 managers, 200 executives, and 1,187 HR professionals in early July.
More than 40 percent of U.S. workers are actively searching for a new job now or plan to soon, according to the survey. And nearly half of U.S. executives surveyed said that over the past six months, their organization has experienced higher or much higher turnover than usual.
Millennial and Gen Z workers are more likely than Gen X and Boomers to indicate that they are actively hunting for a new job, the research revealed, and Black and Hispanic workers are more likely to be looking for a new employment opportunities than white workers. “This means our inclusion efforts,” Alonso said, “aren’t as effective as we thought.”
Workers in professional and business services, technology, and administrative roles are most likely to be job searching, and HR professional respondents to the survey said recent voluntary turnover has been concentrated in operations, customer service, and logistics.
What’s causing workers to leave en masse? One-third of respondents to the SHRM survey said they were looking to make a career change, something Alonso chalked up to “COVID clarity” — the opportunity the lockdowns and WFH gave many to reflect on what they want out of their jobs and their lives. In fact, nearly seven out of 10 respondents who were job-hunting said they decided to make a change during the pandemic and 64 percent said that their expectations for what they want out of a job have changed since the pandemic.
More than half were seeking better compensation, which better enables people to do the things they love outside of work, Alonso said, and 42 percent were looking for a better work/life balance.
On the flip side, the uncertainty caused by COVID has caused many workers to stay put. Around six out of 10 SHRM survey respondents said job security outweighs their desire to leave and 45 percent agreed that they have stuck with their current job longer than they wanted because of the pandemic.
In that respect, SHRM’s survey results align with those of Convene’s COVID-19 Dashboard survey, conducted in mid-August. Although we didn’t specifically ask respondents if they were looking for other work, their open-ended responses to one of our questions — What do you consider your biggest achievement during the last six months? — demonstrated that many count staying gainfully employed as their most important success.
While the majority of planners who wrote in said that producing hybrid and digital events was their biggest achievement, holding on to their jobs was what many other planners — and suppliers — cited, echoed in these comments: “staying alive,” “just keeping my head above water,” “not quitting my job,” “not getting fired, furloughed, or laid off,” and “still working in the field despite exhaustion and constant change.” These kinds of responses far outnumbered mentions of a new job or efforts to find new work.
But the planner who responded with this, “Have been in this industry for over 30 years. Thinking of getting out of events industry completely — career change!” to the question of what new skills are necessary to prepare for success in the events industry during the recovery, underscored a key Dashboard finding: Sixty-three percent of planners and suppliers said the pandemic has changed everything about their job. And that kind of change is stressful.
Stemming the Tide
People analytics company Visier analyzed more than 9 million employee records from 4,000-plus companies to understand the root causes of the Great Resignation. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article by Visier VP Ian Cook, the data revealed that resignation rates are highest among mid-career employees (between the ages of 30 and 45 years old) and in the tech and health-care industries. “In general, we found that resignation rates were higher among employees who worked in fields that had experienced extreme increases in demand due to the pandemic,” Cook wrote, “likely leading to increased workloads and burnout.”
Nearly one-third of the planners responding to the Dashboard survey reported feeling exhausted and burned out.
Work overload is just one cause of burnout, says Liz Fosslien, head of content at data company Humu and co-author of No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work. “Too often, organizations fail to acknowledge — let along address — other dimensions,” she wrote in MIT Sloan Management Review. “Our research at Humu shows that lacking a sense of meaning and not receiving the emotional support you need to thrive are also strongly related to feeling stretched too thin.”
The Great Resignation is part of that existential quest for meaning, concurs therapist and host of the “How’s Work” podcast, Esther Perel. “Attrition is really the consequence of the fact that we are living through a global crisis,” she said in a Quartz at Work article. “The period of prolonged uncertainty of a year and a half is going to make people consider their priorities on many, many levels, including the work they do.”
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.