Have you heard of the Great Resignation? Basically, it’s a “wave of employees who’ve decided to leave their jobs,” (M. Kornfield and A Van Dam, 2021). The pandemic has shifted our perspective on life, especially on these two factors: how we spend our time and how much we feel valued.
Many of us were sheltering in place and had to stop working. Or we were biding our time waiting for our employers to figure out how to transition our jobs to be remote-friendly. During the shut down, many Americans discovered what it was like to slow down, perhaps for the first time in their adult lives. And they liked it. When it came time to return to work, people felt there was no way they could go back to the way things were before. Corporate America wants things to return to “normal” but we know that the truth is that “normal” is no longer static and unchanging. “Normal” is flexible.
As a therapist, I can’t help but to wonder how much the psychological is in play here. Yes, people want want higher wages and more reasonable demands from their employers. But what is the collective psychological shift occurring in 4.4 million Americans in just September alone that leads them to quit their jobs (2021)? I have a few theories.
The Great Resignation & Employees
We are taught that our jobs help define us. Whether that message is blatantly stated or picked up unconsciously through American culture, we place a lot of value on people depending on their titles. People tend to appreciate a doctor more than they appreciate the cashier at their nearest Wal-Mart. However, the circumstances that the pandemic created placed both the doctor and the cashier employees at a similar value. We needed them both.
Doctors were saving lives while the cashier handed you your groceries. Remember how stores looked in Spring of 2020? Without grocery store employees stocking shelves and ringing us up, getting the bare essentials was nearly impossible. Toilet paper, am I right?
Suddenly, the cashier realized they are an essential cog in the machine and not everyone was willing to bag groceries during such an unprecedented time. We needed them. And what happens when the masses are in need of something? It’s value increases. The value of employees, in all sectors, increased when we suddenly realized how much society needs them. Society needed you. This realization that all employees are important but undervalued has contributed to the Great Resignation.
The Great Resignation & Time
It’s hard to decide if the shut down moved quickly or slowly. In a strange way, it’s both. Trauma messes with our perception of time like that. Sheltering in place made us realize how there was so much time in the day to be filled. When we don’t know how to fill that time, things move slowly. When we fill our time with connection, reward, and fulfillment, things tend to go by quickly. Many people found that spending more time with their children, engaging in hobbies they’ve put off in the past because they were ‘too busy’, connecting with nature, etc. were all values they weren’t prioritizing before the pandemic.
For those of us who were working remotely or lost our jobs, we were forced to connect with ourselves in a way we never have before. We spent so much time with our own thoughts and self-reflected like never before. What so many found was how much they were seeking reward and validation in their work. But, the self-discovery they found during the shut-down taught them that work wasn’t the only outlet in which they could find reward and purpose. Seeking more flexible employment opportunities is also fueling the Great Resignation. People want to work less and live more.
The Effect on Purpose
The titles we carry are worn like badges of honor. I wrote about this here. Being able to say “I am a (fill in blank) gives us that shot of dopamine we crave. Our occupations are often a symbol of status, intelligence, diligence, and worth. Our careers gave us a sense of purpose in this world. It’s not only who we are but how we spend 8 (or more) hours of our day doing. But when that was stripped away from us, we were forced to question our purpose and who we are to the core.
Being forcibly removed from our titles was an opportunity to redefine our purpose and personhood. It begged the question, “Who am I if I can’t be a (insert occupation/title here)?” I’ve met too many self-loathing professionals whose only modifier as a decent human being was what they did for work.
I challenge you to ask yourself what kind of person you are, as you are, in this very moment in time. I also challenge you to describe yourself without your job title. Who are you, what do you stand for, and do you accept yourself?
Raise your hand if you’ve had a bad job before! Our bosses and co-workers can really make or break a job. Toxic work environments either be the cause of or exacerbate work-place burn out. Spending 8 hours a day with people you don’t like can make people hate their jobs. The Great Resignation is normalizing people leaving these toxic jobs to pursue healthier work environments or to start working for themselves.
What many people don’t know but therapists do is that we tend to project our personal lives at work. For example, people who struggled with their relationships with their parents may struggle with authority figures and thus not get along well with their boss. Issues in a marriage? Those co-workers may struggle with their ability to communicate effectively with their teams.
People are less willing to put up with these poor work boundaries…and I love it! It shouldn’t be overly difficult to make a living. The former mentality was that life is structured like a pyramid and your employer was always above you. Any amount of suffering while under the thumb of those who rule above you was not only normal but supposedly meant to inspire you to pull yourself up by the bootstraps to work harder. Yeah…no. The Great Resignation reflects our change in mentality and willingness to set and maintain healthy workplace boundaries.
Our current climate is normalizing greater equality in the workplace between employees and employers. It’s a symbiotic relationship, not a hierarchy.
As far as the job market goes, I’m no economist but I think more people will become self-employed. For the first time in forever people are seeing their worth in their respective fields of work. When expectations can’t be met but the bar is on the floor, people finally get the courage to leave, just like a bad relationship. Hopefully, corporations can treat their staff better and pay them well. But the damage of the pandemic has already been done and still ongoing in many cases.
No matter what you believe about this pandemic, we’ve suffered a trauma. If you believe a new and deadly virus has infiltrated our world, the trauma is the fear of the unknown and the fear of getting sick. If you believe there is no virus or it’s not as bad as the media makes it out to be, the trauma is that the world is losing it’s mind and citizens are being brainwashed. Regardless, none of us are escaping without a few psychological bumps and bruises.
As a therapist, the positive outcome of this pandemic is that more people are placing value on their mental health. I hear more people taking about going to therapy, I see therapists on TikTok with viral videos sharing their takes on coping skills and attachment injuries, I’ve even seen how creative people became during the shut down to stay in touch with those they loved without actually seeing them in person. One thing about collective trauma is that it has the power to connect us together as well as spark some creativity in how to survive.
I think that the mix between traumatic work environments and the pandemic has created this Great Resignation. My humble take on it is that we lean into it and allow a thriving mental health be the beacon for change we all seek.
The pandemic and Great Resignation have had quite the impact on mental health. While both have been challenging in many ways there is opportunity for good…a lot of opportunity. More and more people are demanding healthier work environments and fighting to change the status quo. Being faced with such uncertainty for almost two years has people wanting to thoroughly enjoy their lives.
I encourage you to ask yourself if you are enjoying your human experience. If not, will changing your work environment and relationship to your titles help relieve any of the suffering? If yes, the Great Resignation may be your opportunity to improve on your mental health and well-being.
Kornfield, Meryl, and Andrew Van Dam. “How to Quit? Here’s What Experts Say People Should Know during the Great Resignation.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 17 Nov. 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/11/17/how-to-quit-job/.