How Did We Get Here? The Perfect Storm of Loss, Overworking, and Safety

Author: Britt Andreatta
Posted On: December 16, 2021

Post 2 in a 3-Post Series. In case you missed it, here’s Post 1 on Why Are People Quitting Their Jobs? Burnout & The Great Resignation.

As I researched The Great Resignation, it became clear that the perfect storm of several critical factors has brought us to this unique time in history. If we are to move forward, we must understand the impact of each of these factors and how, combined, they have magnified each other.

Overworking & Under Resting

In Post 1 we looked at burnout, the top reason employees are giving for quitting. Burnout comes from a combination of overworking and under resting.

The pandemic broke through long standing resistance to working from home. While studies have shown that remote employees work just as hard as their in-person counterparts, and often more so, executives were able to see that data in real time. Old myths were shattered in weeks, causing everyone to rethink what work is and where it gets done.

However, the lockdowns also contributed to burnout as people began overworking and under resting. According to a 2020 survey, 70% of workers who transitioned to remote work because of the pandemic say they now work on the weekends, and 45% say they regularly work more hours per week than they did before the lockdowns. In fact, during the pandemic, the workday increased from 9 to 12 hours. Work has even crept into our sleep time. One of the symptoms of burnout is insomnia and email providers often see spikes in logons from midnight to 3:00am.

During the height of the lockdowns, when people lost access to how they normally rest and recharge—going to dinner, traveling, getting pedicures, going to the gym, etc.—they often leaned into doing more work. Gone were the clear boundaries that commuting to a workplace provides, and many found that working seemed to sooth the uncertainty and anxiety caused by the pandemic.

Many companies not only held profits steady during 2020 but actually had one of their best years ever. I get worried when I hear executives tout that success because that short-term gain is not sustainable. We’re paying the price now with record-setting burnout and resignations across every sector.

Loss and Grief

Not only did the pandemic drive burnout, it also created waves of grief. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 72% of Americans personally know someone who has died or been hospitalized by Covid-19. These rates are even higher for Hispanic (78%) and Black (82%) respondents. Grief touched every country as the death toll rose with every surge.

Grief is an intense physical and emotional experience. Consider these typical symptoms, which go beyond the expected emotions of sadness and anger.

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Many people were grieving the loss of family and friends, but nearly everyone was grieving some kind of loss. David Kessler, author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Griefsays, “We’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has… The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”

Grief is exhausting just on its own, but we have also been in fear of becoming sick and dying. Nightly images of hospitals, body bags, and funerals, have kept us in a constant state of worry for our own safety. Any cancer survivor will tell you that when you face your mortality, it brings your values and priorities into sharp focus.

People became clear about what mattered and started making moves to change their lives. This included relocating (leaving urban areas in record numbers), ending or redefining relationships (breakups and divorces are on the rise), and leaving traditional work altogether to start their own business. A record number (4.3 million) of new businesses were createdin the U.S. last year, many people taking the leap to pursue a long held dream.  Social media channels are bursting with side giggers who transitioned to verified influencers with six figure salaries, many finding their audience during the lockdowns.

For those who want to stay in traditional jobs, many are still eager to make changes. In a recent poll, 65% said they’d like to work remotely full time and another 31% are willing to work in a hybrid format. Some have said they’d be willing to take a pay cut for this enhanced freedom but that may not be necessary. Labor shortages are forcing many employers to compete for talent, offering higher wages and better benefits. According to the Conference Board, budgets for wage hikes are up by nearly 4%, the biggest jump since 2008.

Safety Moves to the Forefront

Working from home created its own zeitgeist. People saw how much time had been dedicated to commuting and dressing professionally. Instead, they spent their days surrounded by décor they enjoyed, foods they preferred, and pets they loved. A sharp contrast to sterile workplaces.

Over recent decades, we have slowly stripped people’s humanity out of the workplace. We went from offices where people could create a sense of space for themselves to cubicles where those personal touches had to become much smaller to open floor plans where you can’t have anything personal at all since you just grab whatever table is free. While this shift may have saved organizations’ money, it did not boost collaboration in any significant way, and instead, it made people less emotionally attached to their workplaces.

Many tech organizations had wooed employees with free food and fun furniture as a way to convey a positive workplace culture. But when lockdowns cut off access, employees were left with their laptops and their workloads.

For many, losing access to the office was not really a loss and instead, it showed them how much happier and productive they are when surrounded by things they love. And it’s not just happiness that people gained. It’s also a sense of safety. With all communication planned (via meetings) and miniaturized (via screens), people also got a break from all the negative interactions that impact us at work.

We were protected from the insensitive comments of our peers, or the inappropriate touch of our colleagues, or the microaggressions from our boss. In a NY Times article, Emma Goldberg writes how one African-American woman quit her job because she faced persistent microaggressions at work. It is not surprising that women and people of color are leaving their jobs in record numbers.

Are you aware that 75% of workers experience workplace bullying, either as a witness or a victim? Workplace bullying is defined as abusive conduct that is characterized by regular repetition, ongoing duration, and escalation with increasing aggression. It’s four times more common than either sexual harassment or racial discrimination on the job. But employees got a break from those too.

While burnout is the number one reason that people are leaving their jobs (at 40%), instances of discrimination came in third at 20% (second was organizational changes at 34%). As the pandemic wore on, people started to notice things like how often their own voice went unheard in video meetings (48%), or how much their colleagues’ voices went unheard (57%).

All of this combined to create a setting for which the murder of George Floyd would spark global protests for months. Those horrifying 9 minutes and 29 seconds launched ongoing conversations about critical issues like systemic oppression, privilege, and microaggressions. Workers demanded that their leaders do listening tours, take a stand on policies, and even weigh in on state and national matters. Some people found themselves in alignment with their organizations’ values and others realized they needed to move on to another organization where they could feel safer.

A recent study by the American Staffing Association shows that 64% of Hispanics/Latinos and 49% of Blacks/African Americans are planning to look for a new job within the next year, rates that are much higher than their White counterparts at 34%.

Political division and the climate crisis have also played a role in rising resignations. People are inundated with a flow of divisive messages about everything from election results to mask mandates and the vaccine. Social media messages are designed to elicit strong emotions like anger and outrage—people are exhausting themselves with media when their reserves are already depleted.

And nightly footage of the growing climate crisis adds more to be worried about. In every region of the world, people are struggling to survive as their neighborhood is inundated with tornados, floods, hurricanes, fires, and polar vortex storms. It’s estimated that climate change will cause a financial crisis more than double that created by the pandemic. “Workers… are actually questioning the whole meaning of the daily grind. Why do we put so much of ourselves into our careers? And are we getting a fair deal from our employers in return for all this stress and heartache?”

To misinterpret The Great Resignation as just a temporary fight about working from home misses the larger reality. 

Hitting the Tipping Point

The bottom line is that people are exhausted, burned out, and scared, and they are trying to create a better life for themselves and their families. To misinterpret The Great Resignation as just a temporary fight about working from home misses the larger reality. People have hit a tipping point and they want a different future.

In her article for Inc., Jessica Stillman states, “Workers aren't just looking for higher pay, more time off, or more days at home (though those things would surely help in the short term). They’re actually questioning the whole meaning of the daily grind. Why do we put so much of ourselves into our careers? And are we getting a fair deal from our employers in return for all this stress and heartache? Holding on to employees then isn't just about scheduling. It's about showing them their work has meaning and that the company actually cares about them as human beings.”

The pandemic has forever changed us, making it impossible to go back to the “before times.” These past 24 months have clarified our values and profoundly shifted what people want. Companies that thrive will move forward from this point in time, crafting a new future of work, one that we never could have contemplated before the pandemic began.

This is the end of Part 2. In Part 3, we will look at strategies leaders can use now to overcome The Great Resignation.  If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.

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