It’s being called “the Great Resignation” and “the Great Awakening.” The terms are being used to describe a global phenomenon in which, as we begin to emerge from the pandemic, a record number of people are quitting their jobs. In April of 2021 alone, that exodus amounted to four million U.S. workers, or 2.7 percent of the workforce, the highest rate since 2000. As a Wall Street Journal headline put it, “Forget Going Back to the Office — People Are Just Quitting Instead.” Experts are predicting another “wave of resignations”; a Microsoft survey shows a staggering 40 percent of the global workforce considering leaving their jobs this year. And, according to a Prudential survey, if given the chance to retrain, 53 percent would take a job in a new industry altogether. As Kevin Roose wrote in a New York Times article with the headline “Welcome to the YOLO Economy“: “For a growing number of people with financial cushions and in-demand skills, the dread and anxiety of the past year are giving way to a new kind of professional fearlessness.”
Clearly people are reassessing their options, and most of the stories cite burnout as one of the biggest reasons. And that’s no surprise. A study by Asana of 13,000 knowledge workers across eight countries found that 71 percent had experienced burnout in the past year. As Melissa Swift, global leader of workforce transformation at Korn Ferry, told Axios, “We basically burned out the global workforce over the past year. One of the ways people deal with burnout is switching employers.”
Burnout alone, as deep and widespread as it clearly is, doesn’t fully explain the phenomenon. After all, we were in an epidemic of burnout even before the pandemic. What the pandemic did was give us time — a lot of time — to think about what we really value, and the place of work in our lives. We’ve had time to reflect on what truly makes us thrive, and which parts of our pandemic lives we want to take with us into our post-pandemic future, and which parts we want to leave behind.
Which is to say, there’s something deeper at the heart of this great awakening: a collective redefinition of success. When so many parts of our lives were cut off from the external world — which was true whether we were fortunate enough to be able to be working at home or not — we also became less connected to the world’s definition of success. More and more people have come to see that defining ourselves by our résumés, and chasing an idea of success based solely on the metrics of money and status, isn’t sustainable. It’s like sitting on a two-legged stool — sooner or later we’re going to fall off. What we’re seeing is a shift to living lives based on a more fulfilling, intrinsic, and sustainable definition of success that adds to the first two metrics the third metric of well-being — which includes resilience, and being able to tap into our own inner peace, joy, and wonder. Coming out of this forced pause, the intangibles of life that make it worth living have become a lot more tangible. If people have connected with this third metric in the past year and a half of lockdown-inspired reflection, they’re not willing to give it up, and if their current job doesn’t allow for it, they’re willing to look for one that does.
There are of course many other reasons for the Great Resignation/ Awakening. In a piece for The Washington Post, Abha Bhattarai reported on the record number of workers quitting the retail sector — 649,000 just in April. Here’s how Aislinn Potts of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, explains her decision to leave her job at a national pet chain to focus on her writing and art: “It was a really dismal time, and it made me realize this isn’t worth it. My life isn’t worth a dead-end job.”
And there are millions who are coming out of the pandemic, as a global study in the journal Frontiers in Medicine found, more anxious and depressed than before. Indeed, CVS Health CEO Karen Lynch has warned about a continuing “post-traumatic COVID disorder.” And if you’re feeling despondent and desperate for a change in your life and are married with children, probably the least difficult thing to change is your job. The more stressed we are, the more overwhelmed we feel by what we can’t control, and as a result focus on whatever is in our power to control.
With a record 9.3 million jobs open as of July 2021, employers have no choice but to respond to the Great Resignation/Awakening. In the HR world, we’re no longer in a “why well-being” world. We’re squarely in a “how” world. And it’s clear that the “how” is not going to be about perks like Ping-Pong tables, in-house DJs, and lavish office buffets, but about introducing mental, emotional, and physical well-being policies.
Instead of chasing an antidote to burnout, we need to incorporate well-being and recharging practices into our work and our lives. Well-being weeks and mental health days, as welcome as they are, aren’t enough. We need to go beyond episodic, ad hoc well-being interventions. We need to stop thinking of recharging as a reward we get for working hard and burning out. As the science makes clear, being recharged actually allows us to show up as our best, most productive, most creative selves. It’s the foundation of any strategy for both a broader definition of success at the personal level and a sustainable definition of business success.
The next step is to embed well-being into the fabric of the daily work experience itself, with opportunities to course-correct in real time from stress and integrate chances to reset into our workflows. That’s the core of Work.com, our new partnership with Salesforce. It’s about fundamentally changing how employees are able to access well-being content, Microsteps and tools like Reset, one of the most popular features in our Thrive App, which allows us to course-correct and lower our stress in just 60 seconds. By embedding them in the daily workflow, we give people the right tools right when they need them. This allows employees to boost their daily well-being and be their most productive, highest-performing selves. On my What I’ve Learned podcast, Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff talked about why this kind of shift is so important, especially as we emerge from the pandemic and return to a way of working that looks very different from the pre-Covid model. “I had to create a whole new way to run my company,” he told me. “We have to enable new skills for our employees like mental health skills … unlock them so they can be truly productive and successful.”
Companies are increasingly acknowledging the importance of recharging. In an all-hands letter last month, Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, announced that the company would continue offering extra “reset” days “to help employees recharge.” On May 28th, Citi gave employees the opportunity to take a “Citi Reset Day.” Hootsuite announced a “Wellness Week” for employees in July, and the dating app Bumble is giving employees a paid week off to help recover from burnout.
It’s great that companies are recognizing the importance of well-being and the dangers of burnout. But the truth is, people have for years been burning out, then taking a week or two off here and there and then returning to burn out again. What’s changed is that the highs — or at least the lows — have gotten more extreme. According to a survey by the recruiting firm Robert Half, 25 percent of workers forfeited paid time off in 2020, 44 percent are more burned out than they were a year ago, and 57 percent say they need an extended “awaycation” to unplug from work completely.
We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine success, and along with it, the way we work and live. People are waking up to the value of living lives that allow them to connect with themselves and nurture their well-being and resilience. They’re waking up from the collective delusion that burnout is the price we have to pay for success. Companies that realize this will be less likely to be capsized by the great wave of resignations. Those that don’t may be in for a not-so-great awakening.