By Allison van Tilborgh
Most of us are pretty aware that we are living in an unprecedented time—and not just because of the ongoing health crisis we find ourselves in. A widespread work exodus, dubbed “The Great Resignation,” is transforming the landscape of business in significant ways.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many to reevaluate their priorities, in some cases leading them to withdraw from the workforce altogether. It’s a challenge for anyone needing to recruit people for their business, ministry or enterprise. Why are so many people opting out of the workplace? And what can leaders do to make them want to stay?
The trend began in March 2020 when widespread shutdowns saw nine core industries, with tourism leading the way, lose an estimated 700,000 jobs. This included both full- and part-time workers but didn’t factor in those who reduced their hours. Demand plummeted for certain services.
Those who were “still in business” made sudden changes in their workflow, including sending their workers home for a future of remote working if they were in an industry that could support this kind of work. Some loathed this new model which increasingly relied on programs like Zoom to remain connected to co-workers. They also began to feel the pressure of being at home with their children, spouses or roommates all day, every day, which strained many relationships and contributed to an already escalating mental health crisis of anxiety and depression related to the coronavirus.
Others warmed to this shift to at-home work. With commute times evaporated, they found time to sleep in a little longer, bake sourdough bread while they composed email and take their mid-day showers. These workers found peace of mind, knowing that they would not be exposed to COVID at work, which meant they could protect themselves and their families. They found a new sense of autonomy they had never experienced before—the ability to dictate the conditions of their own work. And, remarkably, productivity didn’t shrink significantly as a result. It dropped only 1%.
Pursuing their passion
Meanwhile, some began to reevaluate their work priorities for reasons mostly outside the control of businesses.
Many mothers found that working from home and taking care of their homebound children were too heavy a load. Or they preferred to just spend more time with their children or prioritize their other passions. Nearly 3 million women left the workforce. As the pandemic ensued, new problems arose. Vaccination requirements in some sectors (including health care and government) lead to a 5% walkout rate of unvaccinated people who no longer desired to stay at their workplaces. Others caught COVID several times, which meant that they were out of commission at work for extended periods.
Most of these factors were beyond the control of businesses and organizations. But they weren’t the only reasons people left. The pandemic caused a significant number to reevaluate the nature of their work and the type of environment they worked in. In April 2021, as many as 40% of workers seriously considered quitting their job. They no longer were willing to put up with inflexible, stressful working conditions, no matter the pay.
Some decided that it was more important to take a chance, quit their job and find work in a new sector focused more on their hobbies, passions and greater interests. They saw this action as an indication of personhood, a declaration of their autonomy that had been taken away from them.
In the light of all those changes, what is a business leader or entrepreneur to do? We can’t control whether moms want to spend more time with their children or if people are unwilling to risk catching COVID in person at work. But we can contribute to bettering our workplaces by restoring meaning and purpose to the lives of our employees—our lifeblood.
In Viktor Frankl’s famous memoir of his time at Auschwitz, Man’s Search for Meaning, he argued that humanity’s primary goal in life is to find meaning. This can be derived through a plethora of life experiences, which should certainly include our work.
The old view of work that dominated the American workplace was largely influenced by philosopher Adam Smith, for whom finding meaning at work was irrelevant. He believed that we only work to receive a paycheck, so working conditions needn’t be optimal. Given the opportunity, he was convinced, people would choose to not work at all.
Labor of love
The coronavirus epidemic may have heightened people’s awareness of dissatisfaction with work, but it was not an entirely new phenomenon. As early as 2013, Gallup reported that 87% of workers were not engaged with their professional lives. Nearly a fourth were actively disengaged from their jobs—in other words, actually hating what they did.
What was different about the 13% of workers who were engaged in their work? Researchers found they developed social relationships, they were given opportunities to express autonomy and they felt like they made a real difference in the world—somehow, someway—through their efforts. They identified with the company’s vision. The moments that made their work-life worthwhile were not found in their job descriptions, but in the ways that restored dignity to their work lives outside of these “efficient” confines.
Still, many people still believe that the only reason to work is precisely for the paycheck, which is why people unsatisfied with their pay were so ready to resign. They struggled to find value in the endless email chains and digital commercial platforms. When work is suffocating, why should anyone desire more than the bare minimum? When you are not professionally nurtured or mentored, why feel that your work has the power to create change in the lives of others?
The good news is that this is not an irreversible situation as evidenced by the exodus from the workforce. Good work is not only about paychecks or benefits. Good work requires more of us and is readily accessible to each of us. It recognizes that no increase in pay or benefits can subsidize the need for good leadership, flexibility, healthy work culture, an acknowledgment of personhood and a genuine sense of commitment to the reason for which the business exists.
Bad work—constricting, unthoughtful work—brought us into The Great Resignation.
Good work—work that listens to and respects the needs of workers that empowers and uplifts—can bring us out.
As The Great Resignation ensues, it is our responsibility as leaders to transform the nature of work into a more humane and meaningful model. Employees are not robots, and most people do not work merely for pay. Although increased job opportunities and financial rewards are needed, workers desire more than just a fatter paycheck.
It is not just about providing a better experience of work, however. It is also about fostering a better expectation of work. Good work is possible because work is essentially good. When God created Adam, he “put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). Mankind was being invited to join God in his great adventure of creation. Work was intended to be a delight, not a duty—the sweat and the painful toil God spoke of in Geneses 3:17-19 only came after the fall.
The Great Resignation should be a wake-up call to employers that their people are demanding more of them—flexibility, autonomy, the ability to work from home, the ability to prioritize their health and their families. By imbuing our workplaces with a healthier vision and equipping our workers with the tools they need to become engaged at work, we contribute to the next phase in better work for our organizations and global work as a whole.