Is “The Great Resignation” a Step Towards Wellness?

Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, recently tweeted that employees don't need to be any more loyal to their employers than the employers are to them. “If they're willing to fire you without cause,” Grant wrote, “you have every right to leave without guilt. If they're not willing to invest in your well-being and success, you have no obligation to invest in theirs.”

It appears as though 47 million people in 2021 agreed with Grant as they quit their jobs, the highest number of resignations ever recorded in a year, and sparked a heated debate about the causes behind what’s being called “The Great Resignation.” To many, it was a sign that the COVID-19 pandemic changed people’s attitudes about the workplace, while others saw it as a signal that the economy was improving, offering people better opportunities, or as a sign that employees were not sufficiently valued or compensated.

The pandemic is a crucial factor in this trend. Mental health and wellness have taken on more significance due to this collective trauma . We have not experienced this level of loss in our society in generations, and that grief is causing people to reevaluate their priorities. I know people working in the banking industry who decided during the pandemic that it wasn’t how they wanted to spend the next 20 years of their lives. They saw an opportunity to step out and investigate other options.

But the real story behind the Great Resignation is more complicated. There is a great deal of economic disruption taking place, particularly in lower-paid service jobs. In addition, a sizable portion of those leaving the workforce in the Great Resignation are women, driven in part by difficulty in finding reliable and affordable childcare, as well as an inevitable response to an unsustainable work/life balance which was an issue prior to the pandemic.

Americans are exhausted and burnt out from the stresses of the pandemic and are seeking better alternatives. Workers sense they have exhausted their emotional reserves and need to prioritize self-care, but how can they do that while working a full-time job and taking care of family and other responsibilities? Add in a potentially lethal virus, and it’s no wonder that people are “voting with their feet” and looking for workplaces that prioritize a balanced approach to work. People are making these wellness choices because they want to have meaningful lives.

But I also hesitate to overuse the term “burnout” to explain the Great Resignation, because that keeps the focus on the worker rather than on our society’s approach to work. And while it’s important for individuals and families to invest in their personal well-being, there are many systems and philosophies that need to evolve so that finding wellness and balance is the norm and not a revolutionary choice.

A Cautionary Tale

What is still unclear is whether we should characterize the Great Resignation as a healthy response to stress. In fact, in an Op-ed for Bloomberg, Kathryn Minshew, who runs the career site The Muse, described how their recent survey showed “three out of four people said a new role left them unpleasantly surprised.”

People should be careful of falling into the trap of thinking that a job change by itself will somehow magically transform their lives. That is a pattern we see in the behavioral health sector, where people try to change their external circumstances to manage a substance use or mental health disorder. For some, this means an occupational change, but it could easily be a change in geography or relationships.

Changing the Culture

My hope is the Great Resignation represents a broader movement, reflecting a healthier cultural shift in how we approach our careers and our work lives, though I fear the deeply seated, systemic, American ethos of arduous work being a moral imperative will take time to change.

Alexander den Heijer notes that, when a flower doesn't bloom, you fix the environment in which the flower grows, not the flower itself. We see the same issue in collaborating with people struggling with alcohol and substance use disorder. Successfully starting a recovery journey takes into consideration the individual in the context of the family systems and support structures – the people, places, and things in a person’s environment. We would all benefit by taking that wide-ranging perspective with the Great Resignation, reflecting on the environments in which issues arise and addressing the core underlying problems of a broken culture.

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