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‘The Great Resignation’ is looming: Why people are quitting their jobs post-pandemic

An illustration of men and women working in a call center.
An illustration of men and women working in a call center.SHUTTERSTOCK

Recent national surveys show that workers are leaving their jobs — or thinking about leaving — at record rates. As businesses and offices start to reopen more fully, employees are considering all their options.

Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of management at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School, thinks the country is on the cusp of what he calls “The Great Resignation,” a wave of workers across many industries quitting their jobs.

The Globe spoke with Klotz to understand why that is, and whether there is anything employers can do to mitigate it.

Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

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When did you realize there was likely to be an uptick in resignations?

In January and early February, there were some different trends I was noticing as I was thinking about resignations, doing research on remote workers, and talking with employees, business leaders, and my social group.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the number of voluntary quits every month, and I noticed in 2020 it was way down from 2019. My hypothesis was that during the uncertainty of the pandemic, people stayed put. If the vaccinations do what they are supposed to do and the economy comes back, there are a bunch of people who are going to enact their resignation plans. At the same time, I was talking to frontline workers and reading articles about how burned out people were. Burnout is one of the key predictors of turnover.

During the pandemic, lots of people experienced mild or major forms of trauma, and lots of uncertainty about their life. Lots of people were having revelations about how they wanted to spend their time moving forward.

You coined the phrase, ‘The Great Resignation.’ Why do you think it caught on so quickly?

I think people were feeling this way but didn’t have a name to put to it. Talking about resigning is a somewhat personal and taboo topic; it is like talking about pay. I think the term resonated because it is fairly simple, but it surfaced a conversation that lots of people wanted to have.

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What effect does a company’s back-to-work plan have on retention?

I don’t envy HR managers or organizational leaders. It is really hard to know whether it is hybrid, all remote, or all in-person, which is going to lead to the most resignations. People have adjusted to pandemic work-life. Now we are being asked to change, and that is going to be difficult no matter what.

Even the people who really want to go back to normal, and go back to their office, are thinking, ‘Will my office be the same? Will my coworkers be there? Will there be masks or social distancing?’ I think employers are going to need to do some trial and error, run some experiments on different setups. Organizations should approach this like a scientist.

Can employers do anything to ward off resignations, or is it too late?

For each resignation reason, I think there is a different level of control that organizations have. There is a backlog of people who would have quit last year and are now enacting their plans to leave. Those people, you probably can’t retain. They have already made up their mind.

Contrast that with people who are burned out right now. We know they need a break to restore their resources and they need organizational support. If you have employees who are burned out, and maybe thinking of leaving because of that, you can absolutely retain them.

When it comes to these epiphanies people have had, that can be tough. But one of the fundamental things we look for in life is a sense of purpose. I do think there are things leaders can do to give employees a sense of meaning again.

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Is there a domino effect at play here?

There is such a thing as turnover contagion, where it is like, ‘I wasn’t thinking about quitting, but now that you did, maybe I should.’ What may be unique here is that there is probably a high percentage of employees that are looking forward to seeing their coworkers again, getting off of Zoom, having lunches together. For these employees who are craving to get back to the office, hearing that a close coworker is leaving could be particularly impactful.

‘The Great Resignation’ sounds ominous. But could any positives come out of it?

Whenever there are lots of job openings and resignations happening, employees gain power. As soon as you decide to quit, the power sort of shifts in your favor. In a lot of cases, I think employees will use it to ask for work arrangements that they really want. You can imagine employees requesting more balance between their family and their work, better boundaries, sabbaticals. I think we are going to have increases in pay, more creative benefits, more work flexibility.


Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8.