Let’s be honest. We have all fantasized about quitting our jobs and embarking on an alternative career path in a parallel universe. Perhaps you are burned out from your current job, struggling to navigate work-life balance, or realizing from social media the limitless potential in starting your own entrepreneurial ventures. Faced with a shift of normality as we step out of the COVID-19 crisis and overwhelmed by the unsettling waves of geopolitical uncertainty, many people began to ponder the quandary of choice and meaning of life. The existential anxiety we have worked relentlessly to keep at bay has again crept into our consciousness. The “Great Resignation,” or the “Great Rethink,” is a dam breached by the clashing force of societal chaos and a search for opportunities and growth.
The Great Resignation and job burnout
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021), the number of resignations reached an all-time high in 2021 since 2001, with almost 47 million people leaving their jobs voluntarily in 2021. It is likely COVID-19 provided a unique window and space for many to re-evaluate their personal priorities and career options, empowering individuals to voice their challenges and frustrations at work instead of accepting the status quo. The mandatory order to work from home (WFH) became the catalyst to a workplace revolution; while some people have experienced the positive impact of WFH, with increased autonomy and self-leadership correlated to favorable WFH outcomes (Galanti et al., 2021), others felt overwhelmed by a lack of access to a private workspace as they juggled with family obligations work demands.
Whereas work burnout (Freudenberger, 1974) alludes to feelings of exhaustion and depletion that can lead to increased anxiety and depression (Hakanen & Schaufeli, 2012), work engagement (Kahn, 1990) is the antidote, defined by an energizing sense of vigor and dedication to one’s job. In a meta-analysis aggregating research results on job burnout, Lee & Ashforth (1996) found that job demands (ie, aspects of the job that require physical, emotional, or cognitive effort) were a better predictor of burnout than job resources (ie , organizational support, physical and emotional resources that help facilitate work goals and personal/professional growth). It is not surprising that during the pandemic, work demands remained constant if not increased for many workers while work resources remained on a similar level. An imbalance between work demands and resources is likely leaving many feeling unfulfilled and overwhelmed, personally and professionally, as we navigate one after another social crisis. To buffer the negative impact of work demand, consider increasing the level of autonomy at work to help alleviate workload and seek out supervisors or colleagues for emotional and professional support (Xanthopoulou et al., 2007).
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Work culture attitude shift from Gen Y to Gen Z
Another strong undercurrent relevant to the Great Resignation is perhaps the attitude shift towards work from Gen Y to Gen Z. The Y generation, also known as Millennials, includes those born between 1980 and 1996. Research suggests that Millennials tend to change jobs more frequently than previous generations (Gibson, Greenwood, Murphy, 2009), perhaps due to entrepreneurial attitudes driven by the desire for autonomy and agency.
Setting themselves apart from the previous generations, individuals from Gen Z (ie, those born between 1997 and the early 2010s) are less motivated by job security or compensation but rather job satisfaction (Kuzior, Kettler, & Rab, 2022). In a survey study examining employees’ reasons for a job change, the top reasons are related to a lack of belonging at the workplace and not feeling valued by the organization or management (De Smet, Dowling, Mugayar-Baldocchi, & Schaninger, 2021) . It appears that compensation and job security are becoming less relevant factors compared to relational factors at work, as there is an attitude shift towards work as a source of meaning and connection rather than a mere means to an end.
In a Harvard Business Review article, experts proposed that what we see as the Great Resignation is likely triggered by five Rs, including retirement, relocation, reconsideration, reshuffling, and reluctance, with each factor associated with a cascade of outcomes responsible for the current labor market trend: Older workers are retiring at a higher rate, WFH has afforded skilled workers the opportunity to relocate, more people have begun to re-contemplate their professional identity, negotiation power has increased as workers switch jobs within the sector instead of leaving the labor market altogether, as well as hesitation of returning to in-person work.
With continued domestic and international crises and limited social engagements and distractions, we search for a sense of fulfillment in our professional identity and question whether we are “working to live or living to work.” A mentor of mine once said, “Mental health is about having choices.” The free will to choose defines our humanity; to be able to choose means to dream for a better future.
The Great Resignation, or rather the Great Rethink, is an unprecedented movement that marks our collective search for meaning and autonomy. During COVID-19, we broke through the entrapment of social isolation by connecting virtually and engaging with our creativity. And now, we challenge the meaning of work and are reshaping work culture with a changing attitude.