How to Solve the “Great Resignation”

Issue 184 — November 15, 2021

The Microsoft Work Trend Index says over 40% of the global workforce is considering leaving their current employer, and 46% plan to make a significant career pivot.

This and other recent studies have pundits and business leaders wringing their hands about the difficulty of filling jobs in the wake of the pandemic’s massive economic disruption.

As we passed by our neighborhood Sur La Table with its sign out front touting on-the-spot interviews for anyone willing to consider employment, my husband who is a retired businessman expressed his utter incomprehension at how 4,000,000 Americans according to the reports have quit their jobs when over 9,000,000 positions go begging. “Why are they doing that — don’t they have to earn money to survive?” he asks.

Well, yes, but it’s not that simple. There are multiple reasons for the great rethink taking place, leading, temporarily at least, to the plethora of resignations. For some, their previous jobs have simply disappeared and they are retooling their skills to find new careers. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the pandemic’s disruption of life as we had known it served as a symbolic whack up the side of the head, causing many to reevaluate their careers, and indeed their lives.

Some express unwillingness to return to low paying, unfulfilling jobs with poor working conditions while others at the higher end of the pay spectrum have the wherewithal to take time off to rethink, retool, refresh.

Is it burnout?

Burnout is a frequently blamed cause of people bailing out of the workforce. This is especially so when analyzing why so many women who are not returning to the workplace despite opportunities dangled before them.

There is much exhaustion — goodness knows I’m feeling it too, from almost two years of isolation, loss, and uncertainty. And I’m not even having to homeschool children, as many have had to do. Plus my daily work has been largely remote since I cofounded Take The Lead eight years ago.

Yet, I learned so much this past year from listening to and helping women from our 50 Women Can Change the World programs to grapple with their disrupted careers. Supporters of Take The Lead made it possible for thousands of women to have access to information, courses, and programs that help them rethink, retool, and refresh their careers, for which we are most grateful.

The great resignation is a great invitation for systemic change

So let’s dig a little deeper. The current great rethink stemming from reported burnout might just be the great invitation for organizations as well as individuals to rethink and retool stodgy workplace processes.

Since women are most often implicated in burnout, fixing gender inequality in the workplace would address many other issues of culture. After all, we’ve been working in institutions designed by white men for men like themselves who had women and people of color taking care of home and children. Once women entered the workplace, they were expected to continue shouldering most of those domestic burdens while fitting themselves into an inflexible structure that didn’t allow for family responsibilities.

Purpose, meaning, and flexibility are the solutions

Burnout is reported by all genders, but women have been central to the narrative. I fear that will be bad for women’s advancement in the long run. I worry that the very term “burnout” will reinforce implicit biases against women, who are assumed to have less intentionality about their leadership ambitions. I suggest it’s not so much burnout about work but a rethinking about what work an individual finds purpose and meaning in.

Women have ALWAYS preferred to work where they are aligned with the purpose. The pandemic’s disruption and resulting rethink has created a critical mass of action to either find such work or create it for ourselves.

Purpose and meaning actually boost energy and joy in the work, and are major factors in satisfaction with work. They prevent burnout.

Similarly, now that we know people can work flexibly, it’s time to change systems permanently to allow for more of it.

“The economic downturn triggered by COVID-19 has been devastating for women, with caregiving demands driving millions from their jobs. Yet women were paying a price for caregiving even before the pandemic. Workplace policies have long failed to support work-life balance, the pandemic merely brought into focus the disproportionate burden women carry when it comes to caregiving and the cost to their careers… Companies that don’t prioritize flexibility, caregiving, and work-life balance in the post-COVID workplace won’t be competitive when it comes to attracting and retaining women in the future,” says diversity and inclusion expert and author of Beyond Diversity, Jennifer Brown.

When I teach leadership courses and workshops, I often ask “What would our workplace institutions look like if women had created them?” People laugh at first but it’s a serious question because the perspective you start with informs the structure. And since birthing babies and taking care of the home front is nothing new in female human experience, it’s highly likely that the workplace is going to have to evolve into what it might look like if women had designed it in the first place. That is, more flexible, human centered, purpose driven, and responsive than it is today.

In this moment of disruption, we are also experiencing a rebirth. I was so aware of this on November 5, as I sat in the full house of 20,000+ people at Madison Square Garden cheering Billy Joel‘s “The Return” concert. People were palpably delighted to be back in a more or less pre-pandemic setting, albeit with the added opening act of vaccination checks.

Still, what we once thought of as normal will never be again. It will require “Intentioning” new ways of being and working. It will require overcoming that burned out feeling by focusing on purpose and meaning in a more flexible, human-centered workplace.

GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of five books, most recently Intentioning: Sex, Power, Pandemics, and How Women Will Take The Lead for (Everyone’s) Good. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet Gloria Feldt.

Gloria Feldt is a New York Times bestselling author and co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a nonprofit women’s leadership organization.