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Pandemic Triggers ‘Great Resignation’ As Employees Reassess Work/Life Balance

Rachel Hutton Star Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Rachel Hutton reports, "The pandemic has led to millions of Americans losing their jobs, but a large number also are choosing to leave voluntarily. In April, nearly 4 million people, or 2.8% of the workforce, resigned. That's the highest one-month "quit-rate" in decades."

Minneapolis

During his 25-year career as a KARE 11 broadcaster, Eric Perkins covered all the pro sports teams, the Super Bowl, the Olympics. He playfully pitched with the Twins, dunked with the T-wolves' mascot, fell off skateboards and floating logs.

But Perkins' schedule — typically 2 p.m. until nearly midnight, plus traveling for road games — made it hard to spend time with his wife and kids. Working from home during the pandemic, he realized his "life/work balance" was out of whack. "I was missing too much of their lives," he said. "I asked myself, 'Is what you're doing worth it in the long run?' "

Perkins announced his resignation in July.

The pandemic has led to millions of Americans losing their jobs, but a large number also are choosing to leave voluntarily. In April, nearly 4 million people, or 2.8% of the workforce, resigned. That's the highest one-month "quit-rate" in decades.

The growing national "great resignation," as the trend was recently described by Prof. Anthony Klotz of Texas A&M University, is due partly to pent-up desires to quit that were put on hold last year. But it may also be emerging from employee epiphanies during the long lockdown about their workload, feeling undervalued or a re-evaluation of what they want from their lives.

The resignations are reaching all the way to the top of the professional heap. Even those with enviable dream jobs are now seeing their work — and themselves — through a very different lens.

Workers have resigned for many pandemic-related reasons, from the stress and risk of front-line roles to the need to supervise children. For some, COVID-related downtime and flexibility spurred them to become entrepreneurs or, like Meg Steuer, leave jobs they formerly loved.

Before the pandemic, Steuer found her job promoting the region's startup community so energizing that she didn't mind attending as many as six work-related evening events a week. But working alone at her kitchen table in St. Louis Park, Steuer questioned why she'd let her job overtake so much of her life and identity.

She had harbored dreams of marking her 30th birthday, which she celebrated in July, with extended travel. Her old self, Steuer said, would have pushed the idea back several years, and prioritized her job. Instead, she gave notice. She plans to travel for a few months before pursuing another job — perhaps one with flexibility to work near her extended family or while exploring the world.

"Our mental health, physical health, emotional health, and personal lives are equally deserving of our time and attention as our work — and we live in a society where that's sometimes hard to remember," she said. "COVID provided me some time to be not busy, and to spend time with myself and my thoughts."

Simone Biles' decision to pull out of Olympic competition might serve as a symbol of the great resignation, said Andy Challenger of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement and executive coaching firm. At a moment of peak opportunity, Biles listened to her inner compass and, for the sake of self-preservation, drew a boundary.

Challenger said his company's recent survey of human resources professionals suggests that remote workers' mass return to the office will be a reckoning of employers' and employees' differing expectations.

Companies overwhelmingly reported that they were not only having trouble filling roles but were concerned about an exodus of talent, he said.

More than 80% experienced pushback from their workers about returning to the office full time. Flexibility was the top reason behind employees' exits.

Burnout was cited as workers' second most common reason for quitting, Challenger noted. "It's the psychological component of the last year and a half that just built up," he said. "In the midst of the worst part of the COVID crisis, people were in emergency mode and carrying on, putting on a brave face. And now that it's subsided a little bit, people are letting themselves feel it and just being really burnt out."

"Overload," a recent book co-authored by University of Minnesota sociology Prof. Phyllis Moen, dissects how modern expectations of professional work — 24/7 availability, doing more with less — lead to employees' chronic stress, underperformance and high turnover.

The feeling of not having control over one's workload, or where and when work is performed, often drives resignations, Moen said.

That was the experience of recent college grad Sophie Vilensky who, last winter, landed a "dream job-ish" position writing for Us Weekly. Covering breaking celebrity/entertainment news from her Minnetonka home, she wrote multiple stories during each shift — a pace she found overwhelming, which led to frequent panic attacks.

It was a huge contrast from earlier in the pandemic, where, following a layoff from a restaurant gig, Vilensky spent her downtime focusing on long overdue self-care: eating well, exercising, reading books, attending therapy sessions and simply allowing herself to rest.

"Having lived last year feeling very much like myself, I could tell that I was not feeling like myself anymore," she said of her time at Us Weekly. She quit to freelance, which she hopes will give her the control to work hard without depleting herself.

If not for her experience during the pandemic, Vilensky said she likely would have eventually moved to New York and stuck the gig out for years. "I really would not have known anything different and thought, 'This is just what a job is.' "

To Moen, the "great reassessment" taking place as employees rethink how they're willing to work and what they're willing to do creates the possibility of redesigning work — if employers change outdated mind-sets. Foremost is focusing performance assessments on contributions vs. mere presence, Moen said.

Another key change is reducing low-value work (unnecessary meetings, unread reports), so employees feel their loads are manageable and can take true breaks.

The final piece, Moen said, is supporting employees' personal lives. Especially for younger workers, who see little reason to be loyal when employers won't respond in kind, and view careers as self-charted personal development involving a wide range of frequently changing opportunities.

"Smart employers have to recognize that the workforce has changed and in order to keep talent and recruit talent, they're going to have to be attentive to the goals and needs of today's labor market," Moen said.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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