What Most Leaders Misunderstand About ‘the Great Resignation’

If you’re an employer (or even just if you’ve just occasionally left the house lately), you probably don’t need statistics to convince you that America is in the midst of ‘the Great Resignation,’ but if you want official confirmation, it exists. As my Inc.com colleague Phillip Kane recently reported, 11.5 million workers quit their jobs in April, May and June of this year, and depending on which survey you look at something like half of employed people are actively job hunting. 

Bosses are obviously anxious to hold on to their people. Many who were previously reluctant to grant their teams more flexibility to work when and where they want are caving to employee pressure and loosening rules about when workers must be in the office.

That’s probably an essential first step to holding on to your best talent, but a handful of experts insist it’s not nearly enough. Many managers think beating the Great Resignation is all about work from home rules, what many misunderstand is that many employees have deeper concerns than just when they have to come into the office. 

This isn’t just a fight about remote work. 

On the MIT Sloan Management Review Liz Fosslien, head of content at Humu, a company that uses data to help make employees happier in their jobs, dug into what the numbers say about the root causes of so many workers’ sudden desire to quit. First, Fosslien confirms what your experience has probably already told you — burnout is rising and is likely to spike even higher. And yes, it is one big reason why employees are handing in their notice. 

But they’re far from the only reason. 

“Work overload is only one cause of burnout. Too often, organizations fail to acknowledge — let alone address — other dimensions,” she writes. “Our research at Humu shows that lacking a sense of meaning and not receiving the emotional support you need to thrive are also strongly related to feeling stretched too thin.”

Workers aren’t just looking for higher pay, more time off, or more days at home (though those things would surely help in the short term). They’re actually questioning the whole meaning of the daily grind. Why do we put so much of ourselves into our careers? And are we getting a fair deal from our employers in return for all this stress and heartache? 

Holding on to employees then isn’t just about scheduling. It’s about showing them their work has meaning and that the company actually cares about them as human beings. And it’s not just one company’s data that’s suggesting this. Celebrity therapist and host of the How’s Work? podcast, Esther Perel, recently made a similar observation about what bosses need to do right now to keep their employees around and happy. 

“Attrition, at this particular moment, is really the consequence of the fact that we are living through a global crisis,” Quartz quotes Perel as saying. “The period of prolonged uncertainty of a year and a half is going to make people consider their priorities on many, many levels, including the work they do.” (The rapidly escalating climate crisis is definitely causing many to reassess their priorities too.) 

In other words, the Great Resignation isn’t primarily about the logistics of work. It’s about its meaning.  

How to get your employees to stick around

So what should managers do to hold on to their people then? Digging deeper into people’s motivations for quitting could be depressing for leaders — after all, what can you immediately do about the fact that it sometimes feels like half the world is on fire and the other half is under water? — but Perel offers helpfully short and practical advice: “Cut your meetings short and leave time for play.”

What’s play got to do with meaning? Perel explains that play helps colleagues get to know each other as full, three-dimensional people, and that seeing our work in the context of what we do for and with other humans helps us find meaning in our day to day. (Also, everyone agrees meetings are torture.) The Quartz article offers a detailed explanation of the sort of games and activities that can help make for a more playful and humane atmosphere at work. 

Humu’s Fosslien has a longer list of suggestions too, from acknowledging employees’ struggles and being more thoughtful with your communication (she agrees with me that the quality of your writing matters a lot more when you’re working remotely) to creating clear goals and increasing opportunities for learning. 

Which of these adjustments might help your particular business hang on to more staff is a question only individual bosses can answer, but just about any leader will do better at stanching the bleeding from their companies if they see the Great Resignation as less about remote vs. in-person work and more about a general questioning of the role work plays in people’s lives. 

If you want your people to stick around you’re going to have to convince them that what they’re getting from signing in each day outweighs the stress, lost time, and forgone opportunities it costs them. That’s always the case to some extent, but after a year of looking mortality in the face, your employees are probably considering that bargain a lot more closely than ever before. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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