Behind ‘The Great Resignation’ of Americans Quitting Their Jobs in Record Numbers

American workers are quitting their jobs in record numbers. In September, 4.4 million people left their jobs, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It’s part of what has been dubbed: “The Great Resignation.” Some say workers have spent the pandemic reevaluating their priorities and values, leading them to leave their places of work or demand more from their employers.

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Video editor Fady Haddad is among those who quit their jobs in September. He left his corporate job to do freelance video editing. Rather than “The Great Resignation,” Haddad says he calls it “The Great Frustration” or “The Great Burnout.”

“Even though I was doing work that I loved, it was the corporate environment that made it — like I use the word leeches or soul-sucking — they would just try to get as much out of you as possible,” Haddad said. “I don’t think this is unique to me. I think this is across the board, a lot of people just look for worker bees.”

Haddad is not alone. Social scientist Mishal Khan says burnout is among the reasons many are leaving the workforce.

“During the pandemic, a lot of people went above and beyond with not only their mental health but also their physical health and they didn’t get a whole lot in return. So I think there is a real existential crisis going on in terms of what people want to be doing during their days,” said Khan, who completed her doctoral work at the University of Chicago and recently published an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune about the “Great Resignation”

Another driver for employees leaving their jobs are their values, said Hilary Phillips Mehta, vice president of employee experience at the global communications firm Edelman.

“Seventy-six percent [of workers] now have higher expectations than they did a year ago, and what is motivating them to join and stay has shifted dramatically. They’re turning inward and reflecting very deeply on what they want to prioritize in their lives and their work,” Phillips Mehta said, citing a recent report by Edelman.

Six in 10 are choosing jobs based on their values and beliefs. Compensation and benefits are no longer enough to keep workers, she said. One in five workers say they have left or are planning to leave their jobs within the next six months for a company that meets their expectations, she said.

“They’re choosing based on flexibility, social responsibility leadership and the company’s stance on controversial issues over the company’s success in the marketplace,” Phillips Mehta said.

Ashley South left her job at a bank in the spring because she felt the company’s values didn’t alight with her own. One moment she realized this was during an employee appreciation meeting and a top executive.

“[He was] telling this group of people who kept the lights on during the pandemic that he was impacted by not being able to go to the alps for his annual vacation… and he didn’t ask any questions, he just talked about how he was impacted,” South said. “I felt like as an executive they could do better. I thought to myself, ‘You know what, I would do something better.’”

She started a magazine in Naperville, called Main & Luxe.

Others told WTTW News they left because of family responsibilities, or because they worked in an industry, like live events, hard hit by the pandemic. And some, like Christopher Bogue, said it allowed them to not only start their own business, but gave them time to better themselves in other ways.

Khan said the pandemic was a “watershed” moment for everyone, and that the “Great Resignation” provides a “golden opportunity.” However, she is weary about workers leaving the traditional workplace for the gig economy, which can be more precarious.

“We’ve seen this with the gig economy,” Khan said “It was very alluring at first, people thought they no longer had to sell their souls for someone else, but could work for themselves, be entrepreneurs. But over time their wages have been diminished because of the fact that they have been pushed into more and more precarious kinds of work and some of them are not able to make ends meet even though they are working for more than ever.”

Khan hopes “The Great Resignation” will help people begin to rethink the role work plays in their lives.

“As a historical sociologist I think about the long term, where it comes from, why do we value work so much? Why are we so addicted to this being the primary way we think of ourselves as human beings or deserving of freedom in any kind of way, and how can we break free of this,” Khan said.

Some may be working around the clock for the business they started, or spending most of their time caring for loved ones.

“How do we cut down on how much we are giving of ourselves in the name of productivity,” Khan said.

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