The Great Resignation
The modern workplace is on the precipice of an earthshaking revolution. Like a ripple in an otherwise calm pond, or an inky shadow just beyond the water’s edge, we’re at the brink of a paradigm shift in the way we think about, approach and conduct work…
…and nobody is prepared for the impending fallout.
It’s called The Great Resignation. You’ve probably heard of it: a mass migration by young and early middle-aged workers looking for better prospects in other places. Some of us have chosen to get a leg up by taking a higher paying position at a competitive firm in the same industry. Others are leaving our chosen fields to go back to school and pursue entirely new vocations. And still others are finding alternatives to the 9-to-5 lifestyle by creating our own careers, making ends meet by becoming entrepreneurs or freelance workers.
These trends aren’t exaggerations. A quick snapshot of who’s-quit-statistics will tell you everything you need to know about the mass-hemorrhaging employers are currently experiencing:
- 47 million people quit their jobs in 2021.
- 94% of American retailers are experiencing issues managing job vacancies.
- More than half of workers are planning on looking for new jobs.
- 41% of the global workforce is considering quitting their jobs.
Whatever we’re doing, it seems to be having a singular effect: employers are absolutely terrified of us. In fact, they may be just as scared of this sea change in the working world as we are elated by it.
Coincidentally, I happen to be a Great Resigner myself — one of the untold millions of employees who, tired and upset with a workplace that doesn’t work anymore, has quit their job in search of greener pastures. What started as a disillusionment with my agency job quickly turned into an outright battle between my profession and my values. In the end, my employer didn’t budge, and I took my business elsewhere, working part-time gigs for companies like DoorDash and Uber until I made my dream job as a freelance copywriter viable.
While my story might be interesting to some, it’s certainly not unique. As a 26-year-old man born at the tail-end of the millennial cutoff and the very beginning of the Gen Z takeover, I fall uncomfortably between one generation that inherited the greatest financial breakdown since the Great Depression, and another that’s never known a world without the internet. Taken together, we’re a powerful cohort: with less capital than our parents but greater access to information than any generation to ever live, we’ve got the makings of a vocational revolution on our hands.
And we’re ready to pull the trigger.
Not sure we’ve got what it takes to make a workplace revolt happen? You might not know us as well as you think. Contrary to popular belief, millennials and Gen Z-ers aren’t what the media have so kindly described as a generation of do-nothings who enjoy “spending most of their time sitting in bed watching Netflix or videos on YouTube.” In fact, we’ve got an entirely different set of beliefs — and none of them involve forgetting about workplace inequality while whiling away the hours on TikTok.
How did we get here? What’s contributing to our discontent? Is the modern workplace a house worth saving? Or will we, after decades of toiling under a system that no longer serves us, burn the house down from the inside out?
Welcome to Generation Revolution.
The Rumblings Of A Retention Revolution
Before we set fire to our cubicles, scream “f--- you!” at our bosses and walk out of the workforce forever to start a compound somewhere in British Columbia with its own hydroelectric power, subsistence farm and water filtration system, we’ve got to address the central question at hand: how did we let things get so bad that more than half of all workers are ready to quit their jobs?
While it’s hard to pinpoint the birth of the death of the modern workforce, it’s easy to point to factors that have contributed to it. In some ways, the Great Resignation starts with a failure on the part of employers to update modern workplace standards. Recruitment and retention strategies that were birthed in the 70s, 80s and 90s — which now creak under the weight of modern social norms and values — are still being used, and nobody seems to be too concerned about updating them.
I remember my mom once told me about one of her most shocking interview experiences. This was during the 1980s, when discrimination and exclusionism were the status quo, instead of the exception to the rule. In her words, she recalled an employer who refused to hire her because, despite her many qualifications, her soon-to-be boss thought she was “so pretty [she’d] distract all the male workers in the office from getting anything done.”
Needless to say, she didn’t even want the job after that.
While inequality, sexism and other malignant factors might not swim at the surface of workplace politics anymore, institutional problems that reinforce them still abound. Take, for instance, the fact that:
- Only 15% of women have the role of Director in their workplace, and:
- 15% of job candidates have turned down job offers because they believe the company has a negative work culture.
What’s more, employees have less faith in their leaders than ever before. Take a look at the belief in leadership across millennials and Gen Z-ers in the modern workplace and see for yourself:
- 79% of all employees would consider quitting their jobs if they didn’t receive recognition or appreciation from their leader.
- 69% of millennials believe there’s a distinct lack of leadership in today’s working environment.
- 92% of employees are at a higher risk of burnout due to poor leadership, and of those who do experience leadership-related burnout, 63% are more likely to take sick days in order to avoid their manager.
Between the lack of belief in leaders and the persistence of out-of-date workplace systems that prioritize the status quo — that is, conditions that favor the same kinds of homogenous, white leadership boards that have persisted despite numerous attempts to dismantle them — it’s clear that recruitment and retention statistics are tanking for a reason.
What’s more, it doesn’t seem like employers are too keen on cleaning up the cobwebs regarding their recruitment tactics. Even though strong, fair leadership seems to be at the heart of what makes workers want to stick around, very few workplaces are making a concerted effort to champion the kinds of leaders who could bring their organization forward.
The numbers back this theory up: 83% of companies believe that strong leadership skills should be taught not only to CEOs and executives, but also middle-level management and low-level team leaders. Despite this, only 5% of organizations have leadership development programs integrated throughout their corporation.
That’s bad news for employers looking to bolster their retention statistics…
…and unfortunately, the news gets worse — because leadership skills aren’t the only factor sending millennials and Gen Z-ers running for the hills.
Strap in, because there’s a whole other component to The Great Resignation that we haven’t even touched yet:
Mental Health In The Workplace?
Along with poor recruitment and retention statistics, there’s been a staggering uptick in mental illness among adults in the modern age. Scores of talking heads and political pundits like to conflate the rise of mental illness with weakness or fragility among younger generations…
…but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Worse, getting the thinking behind mental illness wrong has serious implications: according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, suicide accounts for 24 percent of all deaths among individuals 15-24 years old, and 16 percent of deaths for those between 25-44. Without ample resources to help them understand and cope with mental illness, young professionals are feeling lost, isolated and alone — and right now, businesses aren’t doing enough to play a supporting role in their betterment.
Even for those without suicidal tendencies, the rate of those living with a mental health condition is staggering. Currently, more than 6.7 million Canadians live with a mental health condition, and nearly a third of people aged 20-29 deal with a form of mental illness in a given year. Still, these statistics are rarely reported on in newspapers in detail. If they are, they’re usually considered a component of a larger story, rather than the focus of the story itself.
Some of this can, of course, be attributed to the great, big, quarantined elephant in the room: the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of the pandemic, mental health burdens have reached record highs among young adults around the world, with anxiety, depression and stress surging to unprecedented levels due to strict stay-at-home orders and other factors. Even in the aftermath of the pandemic, the aftershocks of a mental health crisis are more visible than ever before.
Add to this the fact that workplace stress and other job-related concerns have been skyrocketing for years, and you’ve got a perfect cocktail for a mental health apocalypse on your hands. In a 2015 Deloitte survey conducted with 1,000 full-time US professionals, researchers uncovered that nearly 70 percent of employees believe their employers aren’t doing enough to prevent or alleviate burnout within their organization. Another 21 percent of respondents report their companies don’t offer any programs, initiatives or coaching help to prevent or alleviate burnout.
This burnout directly impacts retention rates. The same survey found that a record 84 percent of millennials have experienced burnout due to job concerns, and half left a job specifically because of burnout.
With numbers like these, it’s not hard to see why The Great Resignation has been a long time coming. And while in years past employee turnover was a given, it’s becoming increasingly clear that our modern global economy wasn’t meant to handle an employment migration of this magnitude.
Bleeding Profits: The Cost Of Turnover
What does it cost an employer to lose a worker? At first glance, it doesn’t seem like much. After all, a large enough corporation can always recoup the cost of a resignation or vacancy, and once the position is covered, executives can return to innovative ideas, economic breakthroughs and record-breaking profits…
Wrong. Here’s why:
- Stress-related burnout from job dissatisfaction costs employers $300 billion each year in the United States.
- For every dollar NOT spent on a wellness program, $3.3 dollars are spent on employee healthcare costs.
- Companies with poor wellness programs or no wellness program in place report a decrease of over 66% in overall productivity.
- 80% of costly workplace mistakes happen as a result of on-the-job stress.
- 91% of millennials choose to stay in a job for less than three years, leading to skyrocketing recruitment, retention and training costs among employers.
The numbers don’t lie. In fact, poor retention rates aren’t just bad for employers… they’re actively killing companies by the dozens. Industries that traditionally rely on customer service and manual labor, such as leisure and hospitality, arts and entertainment, transportation and utilities, trade, professional services and retail have been hit the hardest, with some companies experiencing bankruptcy as a result of worker flight.
If you were an executive or employer reading this article, I’d tell it to you straight: without shaping up your act, your company is just as likely to go under as any other business that thought it could weather the storm. Unless you’re big enough to handle slashing your hours of operation or turning away business due to short-staffing issues (Walmart, Apple and Walgreens say “hello!”), the only viable solution is to do something most organizations haven’t before.
You’ve got to make your business worth coming back to.
The question is: how? How do you even begin to solve the issues that Generation Revolution is experiencing? Can anyone cut all the heads off the many-headed Great Resignation hydra, or are we all doomed to the fallout of a workforce that can singlehandedly tank the global economy?
Roll up your sleeves, because it’s time to get to work.
How To Undo the Damage
Employers have long been in a position to make demands of their workers. From the mandatory forty-hour work week to meticulous job descriptions that require a master’s degree for a $30,000 salary, the odds have been tipped in the favor of executives since the dawn of the industrial age (and… well… probably since the dawn of man, but we don’t have time to report on labor inequality in the year 1954 B.C.…).
That’s all got to change. Businesses might not like it, but the scales of employment are finally tipping the other way, and the only companies poised to thrive are those that can keep up with the times. To get started, we put together a brief piece on how to retain young professional talent earlier this year, and it’s worth taking a look at.
But it’s only scratching the surface. To really understand what’s needed to turn the Great Resignation into the Era Of Gainful Employment (sounds a little propagandistic, but we’ll work with it), we’ll need to make…
A List Of Workplace Demands:
Update Your Workplace Culture
Things don’t work like they used to. Rather than shaking a stick at young folks and reminiscing about the before times, it pays to adopt new work culture standards — doing so can drastically slash resignation rates among Gen Z-ers and millennials. Here’s a few simple ways companies can keep up with modern workplace culture:
- Embrace the four-day work week (and maybe the four-hour workday): It’s not as crazy as you might think. While it might seem impossible to get anything done in just four days, as opposed to five, you might be surprised at what happens when you implement a shorter work week. That’s because we probably don’t actually need as much time on-the-clock as we pretend to. It’s true that 65 percent of employees report using the internet for non-work purposes throughout the day, and the average employee wastes about 30 percent of their work week responding to emails and low-priority work messages. It’s gotten to the point where some companies have not only implemented the four-day work week, but the four-hour workday, too. And it works. Many of those companies report higher productivity among their workers due to less burnout, greater focus and more job satisfaction. Because here’s the thing: doing less isn’t being lazy. We can get more done in less time, if we’ve got less time to do it (every CEO should know that, right?).
- Let employees work from home: This is, frankly, a no-brainer. If you’re overseeing a group of intelligence workers whose primary job functions don’t necessitate a butt-in-chair office policy, let your workers work from home. Trust me on this one: in the aftermath of the pandemic, nobody’s going to fall for the tired old axiom about how employees “get more done” in an office than in the comfort of their own living space. That doesn’t mean you need to shutter your brick and mortar doors forever — after all, it’s perfectly acceptable if you’ve got workers who want to work in the office, too — but providing Gen Z-ers and millennials with options to stay at home while working can do wonders for their mental health, productivity and job satisfaction rates.
- Bolster your HR staff: It’s not 1983 anymore. My mom might’ve been the victim of a lewd boss’ joke, but organizations in 2022 need to do better. More than a robust HR staff, companies should invest in making their HR programs work for workers… and not just to protect company higher-ups. Conducting an internal review of your HR team’s performance is a great place to start. Gather interviews from employees, members of the HR team and others to see if your agency’s human resource department is functioning as it should, and pay attention to how complaints have been handled in the past. Moreover, pay attention to what employees are saying about your workplace culture at large — ignoring their conversations with your HR staff is equivalent to sticking your head in the sand. Once you’ve got a good grasp on what parts of your team need bolstering, invest in a HR development program that nurtures your resource department and provides for your office workers.
- Let employees write their own job descriptions: Why do employers have full say in what an employee does at a company? Shouldn’t a skilled worker with knowledge of their craft have some input as well? That’s the thinking behind letting employees work together with their bosses to create a job description that works for the company and them… instead of just the business. While this might sound like a raw deal to executives who’re used to having it their way, it’s actually good for business owners, too: after all, employees who create their jobs from the ground-up are less likely to leave them.
- Have an open door policy about resignations: Got an employee who’s thinking about quitting? Encourage them! Help them send in applications, provide a letter of recommendation, and have weekly check-ins on how their job search is going. Doing so might sound crazy, but it’s actually a fantastic tactic for keeping young professional talent. It works in two ways: first, if your company really does offer a fantastic environment with great pay, ample benefits and a strong work culture, then your employees won’t be leaving for those reasons. Instead, they might have subjective concerns that they’ll bring up during their departure meeting — ones company leaders can flag and address to make sure their employees stay happy. By talking out issues candidly with workers who are on the precipice of leaving, it’s much easier to talk them down off the resignation cliff. The second reason this works is because if employees DO decide to leave — after you’ve improved your company culture, pay, benefits, values and practices — then it’s in your best interest to help them leave. After all, why would it make sense to try and hold onto a worker who simply isn’t a good fit for the company? By ushering out employees who don’t make sense for your company, you can fill your doors with a workforce that’s as passionate about what you do as you are.
Make Mental Health A Priority
On top of updating your business practices, Generation Revolution needs employers to take their mental health concerns seriously. That means providing real, true support for employees who are struggling with anxiety, depression, burnout and other mental health issues. There are several ways executives can tackle this, including:
- Offering healthcare plans that account for mental health resources: For workers living in the United States, it doesn’t pay to offer a bare-bones healthcare policy that doesn’t cover mental health resources like therapy and coaching. Instead, a great healthcare plan should be inexpensive while covering as much as possible — including therapy, coaching and other resources that we’re about to discuss. 👇
- Bolstering internal support for workers: Yes, this is, once again, a call to arm your HR staff with as many resources as possible. While HR representatives shouldn’t be the ones to shoulder the burden of acting as part-time therapist, life coach, mental health resource and more, they should be well-equipped enough to point distressed workers toward tools they can use to stymy burnout, depression, anxiety and other life issues.
- Providing external support: While it helps to have a strong HR program that can offer assistance when mental illness becomes an inhibiting factor in getting work done, it’s also important to provide outside support that’s unrelated to your company’s goals. That’s because employees need to feel like they have a safe and reliable means of voicing their concerns and issues without feeling like their boss is watching their every move. That might mean offering to help with payment toward journaling resources, therapy sessions, coaching programs or other tools Gen Z-ers and millennials can use to feel on top of their mental health… and while companies certainly don’t have to invest in every resource out there, investing in NONE is a sure-fire way to lose workers to organizations that make mental health a bigger priority.
Generation Revolution Meets The Great Resignation
Let’s be honest with ourselves. It’s no single person’s fault that The Great Resignation is happening. In fact, it might just be all of our faults. With an economy that’s in perpetual flux after a devastating financial fallout and the aftermath of an earth-shattering pandemic that turned social norms into taboos, it’s hard to put all of this on anyone…
The thing is, if we have the power to make things wrong, we can also make things right. Whether you’re a Gen Z-er looking to make things better at your corporate gig or an executive seeking to change internal practices for generations young AND old, you’ve got the tools required to be part of the change we need.
Experiencing disillusionment with your job? Make your concerns known to your boss. Feeling the fallout of workers leaving? Change your retention, recruitment and mental health practices. Make it your mission to turn The Great Resignation into The Great Engagement: with all of us actively working toward making the modern workplace a better environment, there’s a shot we’ll actually do the impossible.
We might make work work for us again.