Box of packed up office supplies on a desk.

Navigating the Great Resignation

There’s something about life-changing events that might make you want to change your job too.

In April, a record-breaking 4 million workers quit their jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A May Prudential survey found that a quarter of workers planned to look for a job once the pandemic is over, half of respondents said that they had more control over their career thanks to the pandemic, and 48 percent are reconsidering the type of job they want. 

Marjukka Ollilainen, a WSU professor of sociology who studies workplaces in particular, said that the pandemic may have encouraged a mass reflection, one in which U.S. workers have reevaluated the role that work plays in their life and the percentage of their life that work encompasses. 

“Maybe the pandemic sort of stopped us and caused us to reevaluate our work life or our work/life,” she said. “How do we have a healthier work life?” 

It’s a sentiment shared by Jennifer Anderson, chair for WSU’s Department of Business Administration & Marketing in WSU’s John B. Goddard School of Business & Economics. For a long time, work took precedence in people’s minds, she said. As a result, the notion of work/life balance was perhaps a fanciful one. 

“In a way, I think we were living in a bit of a myth for a while,” she said. 

If that myth is crumbling, employers would do well to take heed, Anderson said. At least some of the labor shortage can be attributed to people wanting more out of life, with work perhaps falling a peg or two on the priority scale. 

Ollilainen said the American worker could end up looking more like ones in Europe, where she is originally from. There, time, not money, is the desired commodity. 

Another thing that could drive quitting en masse? During many months at home, with reduced options for a night out on the town, people quit buying as much. With fewer credit card bills to pay, the need to work off that debt could have waned, Ollilainen said.  

“People are actually saving,” she said. “Maybe that has something to do with it.”

Whatever the reason for the exodus, Anderson said, labor shortages transfer power to non-managerial employees. They have options, and more options translate to more power in their hands. It’s an important time for reflection, she said.

“Organizations need to stop thinking about people as resources, and start thinking about people as people,” she said. “That shift needs to happen in order to engage people.” 

Treating people as people could require some imagination, because what works for one person may not work for another. Some employees may have seen the benefits of working from home, whereas others may have had additional challenges arise during the pandemic. That is especially true for women, both Anderson and Ollilainen said. As children were no longer able to go to daycare or school, many women found themselves juggling those duties with their professional lives.

All of this is against a backdrop of a longstanding lack of workplace policies that support combining work and family obligations, Ollilainen said. 

“We have had a horrible, horrible situation with any kind of combination of work and family,” she said.

In addition, fully remote work does have its demonstrated drawbacks. The richness of human interaction is reduced via computer screen, and conflict is more easily resolved in person, Anderson said. 

“We are social creatures, and we are only successful because we are social,” she said. 

So, is it time to head back to the office for good? Not necessarily. Anderson recommended that managers call their teams in only when it counts, providing rich interpersonal experiences when warranted. Otherwise, employees can work from home. 

Further, employers need to make sure that, regardless of employees’ roles, they feel welcome and a part of the same team. One thing’s for sure, she said. The only way through is forward. 

“There is no going back from this,” she said.  “It’s a matter of how constructive we can be in that path forward as a working society.”