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The Great Resignation & the Benefits of Quitting

October 27, 2021

Outside a Burger King in Lincoln, Nebraska, employees put up a sign before leaving their posts. It read, “WE ALL QUIT”—and the photos quickly went viral. The employees who quit represent a major shift in U.S. employment, with increasing groups of people quitting, especially in industries like hospitality and health care. What has become known as “The Great Resignation” comes after more than 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. What exactly is happening with the country’s workforce?

Job Burnout & Compassion Fatigue

A study discussed in the Harvard Business Review, which analyzed more than 9 million employee records at 4,000 companies, concluded: “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, likely leading to increased workloads and burnout.”

Wayne Cascio, PhD, professor emeritus in CU Denver’s Business School and an expert in human resources management, pointed out that the Great Resignation doesn’t apply to everyone. “It is very telling to note the industries where it’s happening,” he said. In health care, people are putting in extraordinary hours in ICUs trying to take care of COVID patients. They burn out and they just can’t take it.”

Athena Baca-Chieza, PsyD, associate professor in the Clinical Health Psychology PhD Program and director of their student-run clinic at CU Denver, explained that, even before the pandemic, medical professionals can reach compassion fatigue (a precursor to burnout), a point where they can no longer emotionally invest in their patients. “In the health care profession, there’s a high burnout rate,” she said.

The technology sector also experienced extraordinary demand. “In February 2020, Zoom had 10 million daily meeting participants,” Cascio said. “And now it’s up to 300 million.” When people shifted to remote work, the change happened virtually overnight, stressing IT workers. “So it’s generally the tech sector and the healthcare sector that are seeing the largest number of resignations,” Cascio said.

Other industries have been disproportionately affected by the Great Resignation. The Washington Post Magazine reported on the increasing numbers of teachers who are quitting, and ABC Action News looked at hospitality workers leaving their jobs. The common denominator in all these industries is pandemic-related burnout.

What Is COVID Clarity?

Due to the pandemic, many people avoided long commutes, spent more time with family, or changed their work schedules. “A lot of people have gotten used to working remotely and they’ve really started thinking about what they want—out of their lives and out of their jobs,” Cascio said. “As a result of this ‘COVID clarity,’ we’re seeing a lot of movement.”

Employees are changing jobs or switching careers completely. “We just got an 18-month taste of what life could be like,” Baca-Chieza said. “The pandemic gave people a sense of their happiness. People are less tolerant of what they might have been tolerant of before.”

COVID clarity has changed the nature of work. For employees, “what’s most important is flexibility,” Cascio said. “We don’t call it work-life balance anymore. We call it work-life fit.”

The desire for a better work-life fit is affecting one generation in particular. “The largest increase [in employee resignations] is workers between 30 and 45, which is a big surprise,” Cascio said. This is what one might call the career sweet spot. Employees at this age have a lot of experience and are young enough to continue to be productive for some time.

The fact that people at the pinnacle of their careers make up the greatest percentage of employees resigning may speak to the impact of COVID clarity. “We’ve learned that life is very short,” Baca-Chieza said. “We need to live it to the fullest.”

Quitting Is the New Yoga

Is quitting really such a bad thing? The word has negative connotations, but the act of quitting can increase happiness. “We need to push back on the language we’re using and step away from the deeply seated cultural mentality that quitting is negative,” Baca-Chieza said. “You could say you’re resigning to look for a better situation. To quit means you have insight.” In this formulation, quitting can be seen as an act of self-care, like eating well or doing yoga.

Cascio discussed some salient differences in U.S. and European work cultures that affect employee happiness. “In European countries, there are strict regulations about work hours,” he said. “The French actually have a law that you don’t have to answer emails on the weekend. They [Europeans] work to live rather than live to work.”

Baca-Chieza advises people to make decisions after careful deliberation. “Are we making decisions we’re going to regret later? Plan out change and think about the implications,” she said. If quitting comes after reflection, then it might be the right decision. “If people are really having a true life shift—they only want to do what they’re passionate about—then quitting makes sense.”

Cascio also discussed passion. “It’s the power of purpose,” he said. “If people think they’re working for a cause that’s larger than themselves, they tend to be much more committed. Purpose is powerful—and that will make people happy.”