Dubbed “The Great Resignation,” workplaces are seeing a trend in employees quitting their jobs. A record four million workers called it quits in April alone, according to the Labor Department. Pandemic burnout, a collective reassessment about priorities and what matters most, a labor shortage and more companies calling workers back into the office may be some of the reasons behind this trend.
Many Wall Street banks are telling employees they want them back in the office by Labor Day, and tech companies such as Apple are asking employees to come back at least three days a week starting in September. Yet as many as one in three employees are saying they’ll quit if they can no longer work from home, according to one survey.
Why don’t people want to go back to work? “Quitting is about an employment boundary and a personal decision to prioritize self,” says Dr. LaNail R. Plummer, CEO of Onyx Therapy Group. “People feel like they need to instill a boundary around themselves when they quit so they can focus on their needs and desires—including their physical and mental health. Our society puts so much emphasis on being in an actual work building so that people can be monitored, but this can also lead to micromanagement. There’s so much emphasis on being in a physical building for productivity; however, during this pandemic, we realized that many people can be extremely productive outside of an office building and be more happy, too. Forcing people to go back to the office communicates to employees that their company doesn’t value what the best work environment may be for the individual worker as well as for the clients.”
While some people welcome going back to an office environment, the reasons for those who dread it are varied and personal. “Some are experiencing sadness about missing out on dinner with their families or the freedom to take a walk in the middle of the day,” says Dr. Plummer. “Women and marginalized people may fear experiencing more microaggressions in the office setting. There may be frustration about having to be in the same space with colleagues who don’t value them, or having to return to commutes that are mentally and physically taxing.”
There’s also no denying the increased polarization of political and social views amplified during the pandemic could contribute to anxiety when it comes to being face-to-face again with co-workers. “Our recent data shows 79% of people find it stressful to bring up current news topics for fear of starting an argument with family, friends or coworkers,” said Tim Huelskamp, CEO and co-founder of 1440, a fact-based email newsletter. “As employees return to the office, we anticipate the polarization behind personal beliefs of Americans will create tension among colleagues who haven’t been in the same space for many of the year’s most newsworthy events. Everything from elections, to social advocacy to even vaccine status will be suddenly up for discussion. It shines a light on the way the incredibly polarized environment we live in can drive us apart and prevent an open and honest dialogue with our peers.”
Regardless of whether workers are in the office or working remotely, companies who are able to shift their culture to give employees permission to be fully themselves and have a life outside of work will be the ones best able to retain their talent. Here are a few ideas on how to do that:
Create explicit work-life boundaries. Since the pandemic, research shows that people are logging an average of two more hours of work per day. Though getting Slack messages at 10pm or emails on the weekend may be accepted as a way of life, it’s not okay. If employees can log on at any time and managers can blast out messages, most of us either feel like we have to respond or feel stressed knowing these messages are hitting our inbox outside of traditional working hours.
With no rules in place around expectations for responding, this can make burnout a given. Companies need explicit boundaries with policies in place that prevent emails or messages after a specific time at night or on the weekends. Without this, it’s a free-for-all, leaving employees having to shoulder the mental load of sorting through the nuances and uncertainty of when to respond.
Mandate time off. You can’t just offer employees mental health apps and think that will solve burnout. Why not just give them the day off? Or better yet, follow in the footsteps of some major corporations who are instituting company-wide shutdowns for a week to allow employees to rest and recover during the pandemic. Why is America one of the only developed countries with no mandated paid vacation policy?
Taking time off is good for the bottom line, as research shows it increases productivity and creativity, and even decreases the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Normalize and celebrate having a life outside of work. A survey by the Finery report found that 83% of millennials find that working overtime is the norm, and that nearly 70% confess to regularly working on weekends. While being explicit about boundaries and offering time off is a nice start, it won’t change the fundamental issue that has gotten us here in the first place. Our very economy was built on consumption and the Puritan work ethic that ties our value to what we produce. In the current corporate and startup environment, we’re literally consuming work.
The “Great Resignation” is evidence that employees may be shifting from a “live to work” to “work to live” mindset. It’s not easy to declare that your priorities are taking care of your mental health or spending more time with your family when we live in a capitalist system that values work above all else. With more companies calling employees back to the office, putting boundaries and the right policies in place is key. After all, the success of companies lies in the engagement, productivity and happiness of the people who work there.