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The Great Resignation: Why People Aren't Returning to Work

Is your job worth your time, or did the pandemic make you reconsider it?

Key points

  • The forced time-out from work during the lockdown and pandemic is making people rethink their priorities and reflect on whether to return.
  • Many frontline workers, especially medical personnel, feel traumatized, tired, and ready to quit as soon as the pandemic is really over.
  • The pandemic was a mixed blessing for mothers who always felt torn between their personal and professional obligations.
  • If your job was boring, underpaid and routinized before the pandemic, the chances of getting a better one now are excellent.

One of the significant social changes wrought by the pandemic is the shift in attitudes about work; why we do it, the conditions we do it under, the meaning and place it has in our lives and the impact it has on our families. What the media on and off line calls the Great Resignation, and the social culture that refracts and reflects it preoccupies both employers and employees at every level from the factory floor to the C Suite, as well as the investors and other stakeholders to whom they are accountable.

Although unemployment is at its lowest level in years, fewer people are entering or reentering the job market. For some of them, the pandemic and lockdowns precipitated the decision not to go back to work. Many made the shift to remote work; others found it particularly difficult, especially women, who were suddenly tasked with teaching, supervising, and managing a household while still being available and responsive to their managers or teams. Families with two remote workers found it difficult to concentrate on their jobs: “The apartment just wasn’t big enough, we had to work in shifts.”

While some people actually made money during the economic slowdown, owing to stimulus checks, PPP loans, or a dramatic uptick in online business that flourished during the lockdown, frontline workers rarely got raises or rewards. For service providers, the entire medical establishment, and blue collar workers like truckers, warehouse personnel, people staging and delivering those meals and groceries and purchases from the web, the pandemic was exhausting, stressful, dangerous to their health and well-being, and vastly undercompensated. The mental health crisis it engendered is with us still, making it harder, especially for children and teenagers, to mitigate and manage its emotional sequelae, especially anxiety, depression, and either continued isolation from our usual social surroundings or fearfulness about re-immersing ourselves in it again. Many turned to or relied on drugs to relieve their symptoms; others sought therapy, and were mostly frustrated at how hard it was and still is to access care; every therapist I know is overworked, exhausted, and seeing their own therapist or coach to learn to say “I’m sorry I can’t help you, and I don't know anyone who’s taking new patients.” But many people with jobs they described as routinized and uninteresting found pandemic conditions gave them time to reflect on how, when and if they went back to work, what the tradeoff was between expending their energy on a job with no future or using that time to take an entrepreneurial or creative leap into something less secure but more personally rewarding.

While we’re waiting for the new normal to take shape, it can be useful to rethink whether returning to work is worth more than the money. Many women found unexpected pleasure in being with their children, even on days when their patience ran thin: “For the first time since I went back to the office after maternity leave, I didn't feel guilty about leaving them,” said one. “I always felt pulled, stretched, exhausted from trying to balance my personal and professional lives. My job paid decently, but with the money we save on child care, clothes, transportation, lunches, take-out food because I was too tired to cook, etc., it nearly balances out. When her kids went back to school, she did too, hoping to improve her chances of getting a more rewarding position when she's ready to work again. Said another woman, “No 'good job today' from a manager compares with the satisfaction I get from my daughter telling me I’m the best Mommy in the world because I had the time to make her animal pancakes for breakfast or show her how to sew clothes for her doll.”

Those who are rejoining the world of paid employment are demanding better working conditions, higher pay, and more say in company policies, and many are getting it. The labor movement is stronger today than it has been in decades, enough so that even the threat of unionization or wildcat strikes is forcing businesses to listen to their demands. But the enduring lesson of the pandemic for more than a few thoughtful people has been, as one said, to realize that “I let the job define who I was for over a decade... In the last two years, I’ve learned that there’s much more to me than a cog in the machine. The friends I rarely had time for before. The hobbies and interests that were sacrificed for the job. The kids I only saw at the end of a frustrating day, when I just wanted to be left alone. The electronic tether, even when I was supposed to be off. The bike and the kayak that were gathering dust in the garage." He's certain that he can find a way to support his family "that doesn’t demand my soul and makes me smile when I walk out the door on my way to work. If there's one thing the pandemic taught me, it’s that life is unpredictable, short, and too precious to waste on work that doesn’t make me happy or the world a better place.”

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