9 June 2022

The Great Resignation – Why it’s happening and how to avoid it

The great resignation, someone packing up

“We need to talk”. When you hear these four words in any relationship, it could be a signal that something is not quite right, that one of the parties in the relationship are not completely happy and the phrase can often be the beginning of the end of a relationship.

During the global pandemic the relationship between employer and employee has certainly been tested, at times strained and, in many cases, ended. Economists have dubbed the phenomenon “The Great Resignation” where in early 2021 employees voluntarily resigned from their jobs in great numbers never previously seen before in history.

Sometimes the break up is not given the courtesy of the “we need to talk” conversation but just a short sharp email that is often received as a complete shock by the unsuspecting employer. A Microsoft survey of more than 30,000 global employees showed that 41% were considering leaving their jobs or changing professions.

The impact on businesses when key employees leave is massive, the disruption caused by an unexpected resignation can cost the company in terms of lost productivity, increased workload and pressure on other colleagues who are forced to take on extra work while a replacement is found. Ultimately resignations of key employees can have a detrimental impact on the business’s bottom line revenue. The process of trying to recruit the right candidate for a role can be challenging and even when businesses find the right person, it can take up to six to nine months to onboard and train someone to be fully effective.

So why is the great resignation happening?

The pandemic

The pandemic was a catalyst for a lot of societal upheaval, unrest and changes in perspectives and behaviours around the world. The existential crises posed by the pandemic spurred many people to reassess their priorities and take stock of what is truly important to them. When people were faced with their own health and/or the health of their loved ones being threatened and, in many cases, actually compromised, the never ending things to do list at work for many lost its importance and meaning.

The pandemic was a make-or-break moment for the employer/employee relationship, it was an opportunity for managers and leaders to demonstrate their empathy, understanding and solidarity with their staff, an opportunity to build trust and loyalty. Sadly, many employees experienced the opposite.

Treatment of employees

Treatment by the employer can consist of many things like wages, employee benefits, job security, flexible working opportunities, opportunity for career progression, safety and how a manager interacts with their employee. At times of crises, uncertainty, and high levels of anxiety, how you treat people will be remembered. If you offer understanding and assistance it will do wonders for building your relationship with the person who is facing challenging times, if however, you were unempathetic, cold and unhelpful that too will be remembered and negatively impact the way that person views you and your relationship.

If you were faced with anxiety about your health or had a loved one who was impacted by the pandemic, you were trying to manage your workload and at the same time home school your kids while worrying about their mental wellbeing, you were also worried about your financial security and how you were going to cover your bills then understandably all of this might impact your performance at work. Human beings are not machines and employees were looking to their employers for empathy, at the very least an acknowledgement of their challenging situation which unfortunately was not forthcoming in many cases.

Employer inflexibility

One thing that the pandemic proved was that in many cases we can work successfully from home. Many employees found that they were more productive, they saved on commuting and other associated costs as well as found more time for their family and a better work life balance. For example, many working parents discovered that they could pick up the kids from school (if it was open), have dinner ready, spend quality time to help them with their homework as well as successfully complete everything they needed to do at work for the day, the magic ingredient was the freedom to work flexibly and manage their own time.

As lockdown restrictions eased and the pandemic seemed to slow down, many employers forced their employees to get back to the office. Many people were not completely at ease about their safety with so many mixed messages around masks and social distancing, it seemed in the end it was up to individual choice.  Some people returned to the office reluctantly, apprehensively facing a large workload and lots of stress resulting in burn out.  Having experienced a different model of working life and the benefits of working flexibly from home, many employees jumped ship from rigid employers to those who offered more flexible terms of employment.

Toxic work culture

Businesses that had a toxic work culture before the pandemic tended to get worse during the pandemic and simply pushed employees over the edge to hand in their resignation. Countless research studies have proven that employees are not always motivated by the highest salary, how they feel at work and whether the culture of the business aligns with their own values plays a major role in determining their length of service within a particular business.

Culture is shaped for good or ill by leaders and those that were insensitive to the mental and physical wellbeing needs of their employees certainly contributed to employee’s decision to leave their company.  For employees that felt unheard, unappreciated, uncared for and under-valued, the pandemic was the spur that encouraged them to pursue the job or career that aligned with their personal values and offered a culture in which they felt psychological safety.

What can employers do to try to avoid people resigning?

Invest in your employees’ long-term development

Offer your employees training and development opportunities. This could be done by investing in formal training courses with professional qualifications or it could be through training that places an emphasis on wellbeing, soft skills and personal development. When you invest in the professional and personal growth of your employees, it not only benefits your business by having greater skilled staff, it also sends a powerful message that you care about their long-term career development within your business. Investing in training really can be a win/win for both employer and employee.

You can also offer your employees more challenging work, work that forces them to develop new skill sets and pushes them outside of their comfort zone. If done correctly it can be a great way of engaging employees’ commitment to your business. People don’t want to be bored at work, doing the same thing for an extended period of time, so offering opportunities to try new things and develop in new ways is vital.

Stay in touch with your employees

As a leader, it is essential that you have a finger on the pulse of how your employees feel about their work. Employee engagement surveys and other tools can be a great way of gathering and analysing data across an organisation but these should be combined with regular 1 to 1s and informal catch ups with your key employees. The goal at these meetings is to ask quality questions and then actively listen. When you approach your role as a leader with the mindset of a coach then you really want to know, how your employees feel and whether they are happy or not. Your employees may not tell you everything but when you develop good coaching skills and work on asking quality questions more often than not you will get a sense of where your people are at.

Be flexible and practice empathy

There were many lessons to be learnt from the pandemic and I think more than anything it showed us that we are all vulnerable, it very much revealed to us the human side of our working lives. Behind our fancy job titles, we are people with lives outside of work. Authenticity and vulnerability are valued and people are looking to their leaders to demonstrate these qualities. As a leader if you can be flexible and understanding about your employees commitments outside of work that will go a long way to fostering employee engagement. Remember that many people resigned from their work not because another job offered a higher salary but because it offered more flexible working terms.

Practice appreciation and create psychological safety

People want to work for organisations and leaders where they feel they are valued and appreciated. Practice appreciation as a leader through the words you use, praise, acknowledge regularly. Practice appreciation by offering employee benefits, perks and gifts for great work or certain milestones reached. Celebrate team achievements and importantly also show appreciate through a fair system of bonuses and financial incentives where you can. You can create an environment of psychological safety by allowing people to express themselves, be who they are and to take risks, fundamentally leaders create psychological safety by accepting people for who they are and appreciating individual differences.

Focus on culture and fostering a supportive tribe

Culture has become a key differentiator in an employee’s decision to stay with a company or leave, it’s importance cannot be underestimated. Leaders are largely responsible for shaping the culture of their organisations and teams. As a leader you have to walk your talk and build trust by upholding high standards of personal integrity and supporting your team through times of uncertainty or challenge. Foster a supportive tribe with a great culture by remembering to have fun at work, organise charity or sporting activities, teambuilding events and socials regularly. The more people get to know each other outside of work can help to create stronger bonds between team members and lead to a more supportive work environment.

You operate in a VUCA environment so be prepared!

Lastly, it is important to remember that as an employer, you could do everything right and your most talented employees may still leave you. VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity which really are the conditions in which every business operates these days. The key skill set of operating successfully in such a VUCA environment is to think strategically, anticipate what could go wrong and put robust systems and processes in place. Expect change and expect the unexpected! Your star A player may leave but that shouldn’t put you out of the game for too long. Do your best to listen to your employees, offer flexible working, develop them and create a great culture but at the same time be prepared that they may choose to resign and it may have nothing to do with you or your business culture, it is just a competitive marketplace and people have choices. As a leader you should be prepared for all eventualities so that a break up is not too much of a shock to you.

Hiten Bhatt

Hiten Bhatt

Hiten Bhatt is a guest writer for MHR, a Coach, and an Author on the subjects of Wellbeing, Leadership, and Personal Development.

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