The Great Resignation & re-imagining the work environment

2021 saw the beginning of the “Great Resignation” – a global shift in the labour force where workers have quit their jobs at historic rates. The reasons for this trend are varied, ranging from pandemic burnout to a psychological frameshift of gaining fulfilment from work. Considering this labour market will most likely continue in 2022, we can question why some industries are more affected by mass exodus whereas others have maintained their employee relationship and fostered a positive work environment.

What sectors are seeing a wave of quitting?

The average quit rate in the US in November sits at 3%, according to the Bureau of Labour and statistics. While November 2021 marked the start of the Great Resignation, only certain industries saw a quit rate greater than this average. These industries included Leisure and Hospitality (6.4% quit rate), Professional and Business Services (3.7% quit rate), and Trade, Transportation, and Utilities (3.6% quit rate).

Despite hospitality and retail trade traditionally having a high turnover rate, it is still notably higher than previous years. While these industries were heavily impacted by the disruption of the pandemic, the pandemic also exposed how these trades failed to support their workers effectively. These two industries are low-wage and notorious in their maltreatment of employees, both within the management team and externally from patrons. The pandemic saw added pressure on this already challenging industry, where workers were accosted for enforcing COVID protocol and put on the frontline, jeopardising their health. Consequently, many workers may have simply seen little motivation to return to these jobs where they were overworked and underpaid.

The high quit rate from professional and business services also raises questions as to the nature of the corporate profession and why people are no longer feeling fulfilled in this sector. While these careers offer more stability than the hospitality and retail trade, they are not without faults. During the pandemic, business services saw extended hours, inflexibility in child-care despite school closures, and a high stress environment without social entertainment to counteract work life. This resulted in workers re-evaluating their priorities in day-to-day life, with the consensus being a desire to dedicate more time to life outside of work.

How to create a supportive work environment for employees

The mass exodus is sending a signal to employers. Certain work standards that have been previously established are now exposed as outdated and inflexible in the current labour climate. As a result, there is an imperative for work settings to acknowledge this shift in worker values and adapt their work life accordingly. While this includes systemic changes, such as flexibility to work remotely and extended time for leave, it also includes creating a genuine work environment that is committed to supporting their employees.

A supportive work environment can be fostered through developing a larger sense of belonging in the work community. The emphasis on creating a workforce with diversity, equity, and inclusion lends itself to the larger ethos of welcoming every employee as who they are. This removes the need for workers to intentionally hide aspects of themselves if they feel the need to fit in and downplay a stigmatised identity to belong. Creating an environment where all people feel they belong not only removes the added labour of trying to hide certain aspects of themselves, but also allows workers to contribute at their highest level by developing an affinity to the organisation.

Work environments should also pivot away from the mantra of “business as usual”, as the reality is this is very much not business as usual. People are struggling, facing issues that range from illnesses and quarantines to financial instability and school closures. It is important to recognise that previous business targets may no longer be reasonable in our current climate due to the added stress of their employees. Businesses must make time for their employees and consider what additional support structures they can implement to help and encourage their team. This could include accommodating flexible hours, working from home, redistributing resources, or providing extended leave where possible. The bottom line is for businesses to not drive out workers who are already stressed due to extraordinary circumstances and instead serve as a point of stability by accommodating their concerns.

Finally, it is important for businesses to create a culture of caring, focusing on the needs and wellbeing of their workers. People want to feel safe in their work environment and should be able to bring forward their concerns and strengths knowing that it will be heard by their leader. Knowing that a leader cares and has their back will make an environment that people want to be associated with. Research has also shown that caring about workers improves employee engagement, resulting in higher motivation, better performance, and greater likelihood to go above and beyond what is required of them.

Work norms in a post-COVID world

What is significant about the Great Resignation is not the fact that people are looking for new work, but the reasons for which they are leaving their previous work. These reasons are different to typical reasons of the past, where people are after more flexibility in working remotely, the ability to move from a 5 day working week to a 4 day week, extended time for taking off, or wanting greater benefits and compensation packages. There’s a desire to establish a better work-life balance and have a work environment which is supportive in facilitating this. These are extraordinary times, but perhaps a positive to come out of COVID-19 is the re-imagining of work standards which bring to the forefront the values of their workers.