When Anthony Klotz, professor of business administration and resignation researcher at Texas A&M University, told a Bloomberg reporter we were in for a "Great Resignation" this past spring, he didn't realize the extent to which the media and business world would run with the concept. Since he inadvertently coined the term, it has shown up in The Atlantic, BBC News, The New York Times, NPR and more, and it has exploded in Google search popularity.
HR Dive spoke with Klotz about how his prediction held up, business flexibility as an approach to the movement, when things will slow down and more.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
HR DIVE: How did you predict the Great Resignation?
ANTHONY KLOTZ: Essentially, about a year ago at this time, I started observing four different trends.
Because I study resignations, I follow the Bureau of Labor Statistics' numbers on quit rates just to see how frequent they occur over time. I figured that in 2020, very few people would quit their jobs because of the uncertainty of the pandemic. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has tracked quit rates for 20 years, and they've just slowly been creeping up over these two decades, consistently but not that quickly. People are churning through jobs more. So I looked and of course, there was this big dip in 2020. My first thought was: there is a backlog in resignations. So that was the first trend.
And then there was a lot of discussion last year at this time about the vaccines and there was a lot of hope that once the vaccines were widely available, the U.S. economy would quickly exit the pandemic-induced recession and get back to 2019 growth. But I was observing something just a little bit counterintuitive. Not only was there a backlog of resignations, but I was observing and reading about widespread signs of burnout in workers – in my MBA students, my colleagues, front-line workers, moms who were staying at home with kids, managers who were leading during the pandemic – it was everywhere. I thought, "When has there ever been this much burnout? If the economy comes back, people need a break. They're just fried." Burnout is a predictor of turnover, so that became the second trend.
Third, something unique about the pandemic is because of all the death, illness and general scariness of it, the theories in our field would suggest that when people come into close contact with death, they tend to reflect on their lives. As Americans, when we reflect on our life, we often think about whether our job is giving us a sense of fulfillment and happiness. I just thought that as a result of this reflection, many individuals would plan life pivots, a number of which would involve career changes.
And then the fourth trend was working from home, or working remotely. It was evident that a lot of people enjoy the autonomy of working from home, even though it has some problems; when people get a call back to the office, a certain number of people aren't going to go.
How does what you've seen play out compare to what you were expecting? What have been some surprises that have come out of it?
When the article [in which I predicted the Great Resignation] came out in May, we had just received March's quit rates and they were still low. And so it caused a lot of conversation. One person wrote an article saying the Great Resignation is the great exaggeration. And so for that first month, I thought, "There will be an elevated rate." But even when I called it the Great Resignation, I certainly did not foresee that this would become a whole workforce conversation around work, the pandemic and the future of work.
June 9, about a month after the article was published, was when April's numbers were released. That was big — bigger than we'd ever seen before, a record number. So that's kind of when everything changed.
After that spike in April, May and June were still records for those months, but they dipped down a bit. That April spike was sort of what I was anticipating. What's been surprising is these last three months for which we have data: July, August, and September. [Quit rates are] hitting these really high records that maybe were higher than I would have anticipated if you would have pressed me for a number back then.
The other thing is, because the conversation started in May, there were organizational leaders that took this seriously right away. I've heard from many HR professionals who said things like, "Yes, I see this. We need to make adjustments right away." And so I think the number is lower than maybe would have just emerged more organically with nobody saying a great resignation is coming. A lot of HR professionals recognized that, "Yes, these problems are somewhat unique to the pandemic. But this is an opportunity to fix problems with work that we knew existed before the pandemic."
So it's not just a story about worker empowerment. I think it's also a story about organizational leaders and HR professionals quickly recognizing [the problem] and adjusting.
There's so much that's been covered in the last couple of decades about how financially precarious people are. Financially speaking, how are people making this work? How are they making the choice to quit their job?
I think the question that you're asking is on the minds of a lot of policymakers and organizational leaders right now. How are these people quitting? And it seems like a lot of people are on the sidelines of the workforce right now and not re-entering.
I think a few things are going on. So many people simplified their lives during the pandemic. A lot of people not only saved money, but also got rid of expenses that are never coming back — subscriptions or payments or whatever it may be. You also see this movement around anti-consumerism going on right now, with Black Friday protests and such. So some people have lowered their expenses and saved some money, perhaps also through some of the stimulus checks. And when you consider the burnout from front-line workers, it may stem from individuals who worked lots of overtime, and therefore have extra savings as a result of that.
I do think many people are questioning the place of work in their lives, and are saying, "I need a break." And if you're thinking, "I just need a break and I don't have good vacation benefits and my employer is not going to give me a break," then resigning may be the option to take care of your well being. And if you're in an industry like foodservice where there are many job openings, then taking time off and re-entering the workforce later is a very viable option.
I do hear from individuals who were laid off during the pandemic who can't get back into a job in their industry. So it appears that in some industries, it's really tough and it would be very high-risk to quit your job. And I think people in those industries are thinking a little bit more before they leave. But if you're in healthcare, retail, food service and you want to stay in that sector, you know, it may be fairly low-risk.
Burnout has obviously been a huge factor in a lot of these resignations. We've seen a lot of studies point to that. What have you learned about how long it takes and what it takes to cure burnout in a person?
There's been a lot of great work in the field of organizational psychology about burnout, and one of the main cures or antidotes for burnout is psychological detachment. There is some great research that shows that if you check your work emails in the evening, you're not allowing yourself to psychologically detach from work and are therefore negating the restorative benefits of your time away from work. Portugal just passed this really interesting law where it's illegal now for your boss to email you during non-work hours.
When I'm talking to organizational leaders right now, I ask them to think about whether they are allowing their employees to psychologically detach during their breaks. That applies to breaks during the workday, during the evening after work in a traditional job, on the weekends, on vacations and it just expands out from there.
There's been a lot of talk about flexibility — almost revolutionary types of flexibility, like four-day workweeks, picking your own hours, things like that. Obviously, this tends to apply to a certain more privileged set of the workforce. But we've also seen a lot of tension rising between staff and execs because workers are demanding it more and more as they're seeing certain companies do it. Do you see us moving more in that direction?
Yes, because I think a lot of companies are experimenting with new work arrangements. So much of this discussion is around remote versus a very basic form of hybrid versus in person. And I think that's a somewhat lazy conversation, because flexibility is much broader than those three categories. And to your point, it's kind of exclusionary, because most people are still doing in-person work and they can't be remote. It's just not an option for them. So what I think a lot of organizational leaders are shifting to is more what you're talking about: flexibility.
I think company leaders are starting to take a step back and take a more holistic view of what flexibility is. You can be really creative with scheduling shift workers and thinking innovatively about making sure someone has plenty of notice if you are going to change their shift, or creating a schedule such that if someone takes two days of vacation, then they can piece together a 10-day break or something like that.
It's important right now for organizational leaders to have conversations with employees about what flexibility means to them. Even if they're bringing everybody back to the office. Maybe it's like, "I'd like to have a lunch room or have my family come and have lunch with me every once in a while," or "I'd like to be able to take off on very short notice," or "I know we only have two weeks' vacation, but I'd like to be able to borrow from next year's bank and take a month off at a time." Whatever it may be.
A survey recently found that a lot of people are still planning to quit their jobs — it hasn't really leveled off yet. When do you think this is going to slow down or level off to a more normal rate?
Probably sometime in 2022, at least in the United States. I would guess it will start to just level out a little bit. But the weird thing about turnover is that turnover begets more turnover. Turnover contagion is documented and real; I may be happy with my job, but then my friend quits and my job becomes worse because she's not here and I've had to take on more work. I think we're seeing that right now.
But I have faith in organizations in terms of the innovations that organizational leaders and HR professionals are developing to invest in workers, which will lower this resignation wave. It can keep going up at this rate, but it would be surprising to me, because I think a lot of people out there really do like their jobs and are going to stay no matter what.