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  • Writer's pictureJulie Lawson

The Underlying Cause of the Great Resignation

The “Great Resignation” has been the recent focus of HR and business leaders as they scramble to address retention. And as surveys show as many as 77% of U.S. employees are considering a new career or early retirement, employers are right to be concerned about retention strategies.

“I’m just exhausted and burned-out, but my manager said there’s not much she can do to address it,” lamented my client, Sarah. She’s not alone: burnout is the number one reason cited by employees who want to leave their companies. With workforce shortages, pandemic restrictions, and supply chain challenges, managers have their hands full. Many don’t know how to address feelings of burnout – not to mention they are often feeling it, too.

Companies who exercise flexibility with location, hours, and duties and who offer comprehensive mental health services are leading recruitment and retention efforts, in part because these strategies are antidotal to burnout. By understanding the following three concepts, you can help employees adapt more comfortably and avoid burnout:

1. Change has a significant impact.

When people are forced into change – such as the crisis-driven and immediate changes required by a pandemic – their lives and emotional wellbeing can be significantly disrupted. The pandemic did not allow employees or managers adequate time to adjust to changes, ask critical questions, or achieve a state of internal commitment to the imposed changes. Leaders must understand what it means to be robbed of this critical processing time.

For example, organizational-level changes (such as company-wide process or technology changes, location changes, or overturn in leadership) typically take 3-5 years to adapt to. Pandemic timelines critically shortchanged the acceptance and adaptation process, leaving our minds hiccupping as we raced to adjust to a new operational paradigm. This, in addition to other stressors of the pandemic, caused our minds to short-circuit the necessary adaptation time. We failed to notice the small, smoldering scars of burnout these short-circuits left behind. Over time this lack of necessary processing and adaptation leads to exhaustion, brain fog, and apathy.

2. Burnout is a symptom of trauma.

Like layers of an onion, the foundation of our emotional intelligence is built in part upon current and past experiences. As we peel them back, we discover the root story of why some of us handle challenges and opportunities differently from others. Some employees adapted well the pandemic’s impact, perhaps because they were adept at emotional regulation or because they had room in their lives for some level of disruption. Others did not adapt so easily. They may have been adding the pandemic onto a preexisting layer of trauma, challenges at home, or even onto existing mental health issues like anxiety or depression. When challenges compound this way without necessary adaptation time or support, trauma can result.

The signs of trauma include difficulty concentrating, anxiety, irritability, isolation, burnout, and procrastination. Sound familiar? That’s because most Americans have experienced some level of trauma as a result of the pandemic. And when our brains don’t have the time or convenience to process trauma properly, we often choose escape as a coping mechanism. This is where burnout begins.

When we feel traumatized – which is led by feeling powerless over a significant, negative event or circumstances - our first instinct is to gain control over what we can. We are so uncomfortable with how our life is going (the trauma) that we believe a significant life change will make us feel better. And since it’s not so easy to change our families or friends, we change how – or where – we work. Most employees (around 75%) surveyed since April 2021 have reported not being any happier or more satisfied after their employment change – proof that the move was more likely a consequence of untreated mental fatigue.

3. It’s a buyer’s market.

With more than 10 million open positions in the U.S. alone, it’s a buyer’s market for employees. This means companies must be agile and proactive in creating the best environment for employees. Look at what works, not what is conventional: most employees are seeking more flexibility, input in their roles, and permanent work-from-home options. While this is not possible for all businesses, many can adapt to these requests.

I recently asked more than 20 managers why they were going back to former practices despite proven success in work-from-home strategies. I was surprised to hear the majority say, “because I prefer it this way,” or “this is normal.” Ego-driven or comfort-zone answers won’t cut it in this resignation-focused market. It’s time to reevaluate what the workforce looks like if companies want to retain high-quality employees.

Understanding what causes burnout will help your team develop the best strategies for retention. Whether it’s implementing or promoting mental health and support services, letting employees have an active role in developing their workplace expectations for the future, or supporting peer activities (such as coaching groups), there are actions you can take to decrease workplace dissatisfaction. Listen closely when employees express their exhaustion and be honest with answers: if you can’t fix it for them right now, let them know how much you appreciate their hard work and patience. Discuss future “wins” for the employee as a reward for their dedication. Most importantly, understand that burnout is driven by mental and physical exhaustion, so the employee may need your help creating a workable support and recovery plan. The more you invest in their wellbeing, the better your chances of keeping your best talent.

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