While it’s widely accepted that COVID spurred the Great Resignation, health has been largely eclipsed by alternate explanations for this exodus. Some think it’s a confluence of economic and labor market forces. Some claim the pandemic’s deadly stakes drove Americans to seek more meaningful careers. Others call it an expression of grief in response to the loss of life and normality the pandemic wrought. These explanations miss the lens that unifies these narratives and that is HEALTH.
When COVID hit, the world got smaller. A commute to the office became a stroll from bed to couch. Gym memberships were canceled. Newly cultivated hobbies – from baking to painting to candlestick-making – were abandoned as quickly as they’d been taken up. The number of people most of us had in-person interactions with shrunk to a handful. Days were dominated by doom-scrolling and work.
Amid pandemic isolation, work consumed a greater share of our daily existence. And Americans recognized that their work life was not a pleasant one. So, they began to quit. A record number left their jobs in 2021, and the wave shows no sign of leveling.
How can we explain a workplace exodus that has swept across age groups, races, income brackets, and industries? The answer is health. The Great Resignation is a pro-health revolution, and until employers make their employees’ social, physical, and mental health a top priority, they will continue to see losses.
MONEY MAKES THE HEALTH GO ‘ROUND
Wealth and health outcomes are inextricably linked. The CDC ranks economic stability as a core determinant of health, and for good reason – hunger, thirst, and exposure to the elements cannot be contained without cash, and people without food, water, and shelter aren’t likely to remain healthy for long.
Many “Great Resigners” left for better pay and advancement – the top driving factors, according to a survey by The Conference Board. Across the country, thousands upon thousands of families and individuals struggled to put food on the table long before the pandemic, and COVID widened health and economic disparities that have plagued workers for decades. The result? Those who’d suffered longest under these disparities cut their ties with exploitative employers.
HEALTHY PEOPLE STAYIN’ ALIVE
For low-income and health care workers who left jobs during the Great Resignation, the decision may have hinged on fear of contracting COVID. Low-wage workers – from line cooks to warehouse workers – died of COVID at a disproportionately higher rate during the pandemic. And the WHO estimates that more than 100,000 health and care workers died from COVID before May 2021.
It’s part of why hospitality, food, and retail have seen such high turnover and health care labor shortages are on the rise. With their physical health on the line, it’s easy to understand why workers in these industries would want to pursue a safer, healthier work environment.
BURNT OUT ON BURNING OUT
The theory that the Great Resignation was spurred by a desire for fulfillment is both true and misleading. An analysis of 1.4 million Glassdoor reviews across 38 industries found a toxic company culture – abusive leadership, cutthroat environment, harassment – is 12.4 times more likely than compensation to predict whether an employee leaves.
For workers privileged to be unconcerned about their economic stability or risk of contracting COVID on the job, the Great Resignation was a quest for mental health and quality of life gains. This meant a less toxic workplace for some. For others, remote flexibility was key. Being stranded in the living room with a boss perched on one’s lap drove many to seek less emotionally-taxing employment – a mental health-driven crusade that isn’t slowing down.
A PARTING GLASS
Bad jobs are not new. Burnout and toxic managers have always existed, and U.S. workers have grappled with wage stagnation for decades. The components of a bad job didn’t change during COVID, but perceptions of work life did, and that shift looks permanent.
For better – not worse – the social contract between employees and employers has changed. The workplace experience my employer offers – unlimited PTO, clear pathways for advancement, no-strings remote flexibility, and kind coworkers – remains unattainable for most Americans. That’s a serious problem. A pleasant work life should not be an anomaly.
Those who believe early bonuses and flexible working arrangements alone will produce loyalty are missing the point. The Great Resignation persists because too many employers fail to understand what constitutes a healthy workplace and a healthy employee. It is the employer who prioritizes the physical, mental, and social health of its employees who wins. Instead of lamenting the labor shortage, make the work climate a healthier one.