Toward the end of last year, Anthony Klotz, a professor of business administration at Texas A&M University who studies workplace resignations, realized that a lot of people were about to quit their jobs.
A record 42.1 million Americans quit a job in 2019, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, but that rate dropped off during the pandemic-addled year of 2020. As 2021 approached, bringing with it the promise of effective vaccines and a return to semi-normal life, Klotz guessed that two things would happen. First, many of the people who wanted to quit in 2020 but held off due to fear or uncertainty would finally feel secure enough to do so. And second, pandemic-era epiphanies, exhaustion and burnout would drive a whole new cohort of people to quit their jobs. In a moment of inspiration, Klotz predicted that a “Great Resignation” was coming.
It’s safe to say it’s here. Every month from April to August 2021, at least 2.5% of the American workforce quit their jobs. In August alone, more than 4.2 million people handed in their two weeks’ notice, according to federal statistics. So far, 2021 quit levels are about 10% to 15% higher than they were in record-setting 2019, by Klotz’s calculations.
Companies are clearly taking notice, particularly given the staffing shortages that are hamstringing many customer-facing industries and slowing the supply chain. “Just keeping people from quitting is not necessarily a good business strategy,” Klotz says. Increasingly, businesses are trying something more ambitious: actually making their workers happy.
For many, that means targeting burnout, a cocktail of work-related stress, exhaustion, cynicism and negativity that is surging during the pandemic. Forty-two percent of U.S. women and 35% of U.S. men said they feel burned out often or almost always in 2021, according to a recent McKinsey & Co. report.
For a long time, burnout was seen as the worker’s problem—something they needed to fix with self-care and yoga and sleep if they were going to make it in the rat race of life. There are dozens of studies and even more articles focused on curing burnout from the employee perspective. Mindfulness and meditation can help. Finding social support can help. Tailoring your job to align with your interests and values can help. But according to Christina Maslach, a social psychologist who is the U.S.’ preeminent burnout expert and co-creator of the most commonly used tool for assessing worker burnout, none of these strategies will ever be successful if they place all the onus on the worker. “Nobody is really pointing to the problem, which is that chronic job stresses have not been well managed” by employers, she says.
Now, with so many people turning in resignation letters, businesses are starting to get with the program. “There’s mass attrition and it’s very expensive for employers to keep up with the amount of people who are leaving,” says workplace well-being expert Jennifer Moss, author of the recent book The Burnout Epidemic. “Because it’s now a bottom-line issue, more organizations are jumping on board.”
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