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I’m Surprised that We’re Surprised!

Why the “Great Resignation” was a Long Time Coming  (and What You Can Do About It)


What is the Great Resignation?

7.5 million missing in action. Help wanted across industries, occupations, and professions. 

A record number of employees walked away from their jobs in July, shattering all previous records. That same record was broken again in August and then again in September. This trend that Adam Klotz of Texas A&M coined “the great resignation” has puzzled many. I’m surprised that we are surprised.

We are seeing 45% of the workforce leaving the building (or their virtual workplace). Even more are considering leaving in the next 12 months, especially those with bad or burned-out managers. 

You might think this is just the boomers finally retiring. It is not. You might think that this is the typical churn with the younger generation of notoriously nimble workers. It is not.

The highest number of those throwing in the towel are mid-career, those aged 30 to 45, typically the most stable and the most tethered to their employers. 

You might think this is a tourism, restaurant, and hospitality industry issue. It is not.

All industries have felt their share of the pain, but the most churn is happening in tech and health care.

You might think this is about concern about physical health and exposure to COVID. It is not.

79% of those surveyed feel safe returning to work.

We Should NOT be Surprised

I truly am surprised that we are surprised. The forces that are propelling this have been in motion for decades. We’ve known and seen these red flags. And then blithely ignored them, hoping they were not that big of a deal. We’ve treated people as liabilities on the balance sheet rather than assets, which are the most critical elements of most organizations. Believing that people needed their jobs and rationalizing that even a “bad job” was better than “no job.” 

There are myriad forces that have been building that have led us to this place. Add them together, add an accelerant (the pandemic), and it makes perfect sense why employees vote with their feet. Here are a few of the leading ones:

  • Decades in the Making: A relentless pursuit of short-term profits at the expense of people with continual layoffs and reorganizations resulting in chronic job insecurity
    • Pandemic accelerant: A true global business and health crisis with no end in sight, leaving companies scrambling to react to quickly changing dynamics
  • Decades in the Making:  Parents deal with a patchwork system of support that is too often inaccessible, unaffordable, and low quality. In fact, most parents are paying more for childcare than the average cost of in-state tuition at a four-year university. 
    • Pandemic accelerant:  Many parents working from home are also tending and teaching children of all ages, with schools and child care centers either closed or on erratic or unpredictable schedules.
  • Decades in the Making: Increasing demands for productivity falling on the backs of workers, with many working 50 or 60-hour workweeks. Think that is a lot? Many employees report working up to 72 hours as the new norm. Smartphones and the web have added to the stress, with many employees being asked to be available 24/7 and on vacations and holidays. 
    • Pandemic accelerant: Working from home has caused boundaries between work and personal lives to blur beyond recognition. 
  • Decades in the Making:  New generations of workers who have the audacity to ask for meaningful work, respect, and freedom to have a “life” outside of work. Millennials who select employment based on who will invest in developing their skills and abilities rather than who pays the most.
    • Pandemic accelerant: Hordes of workers tasting a tiny bit of freedom from daily commutes, office politics, and mandatory office time. Add to that a personal reckoning on what really matters as we faced a “near-death” experience as a culture, and we see people making different life choices.
  • Decades in the Making:  Many leaders are ill-equipped to make the shift from “factory/production” environments to “entrepreneurial/creative” environments. People typically don’t leave an organization; they flee a bad boss. The skills needed in today’s organizations are different, and we’ve failed to help leaders make the shift.
    • Pandemic accelerant: Leading virtual employees and teams takes these skills to an even more challenging place, with many leaders struggling to create connection, inspire commitment to a higher purpose, and manage outcomes and performance, rather than the amount of effort and time in seat.
  • Decades in the Making: There is more tech / less touch in all jobs even when we, as humans, need social connection and purpose. 
    • Pandemic accelerant: Even more isolation and reliance on technology as a connection point. We’ve experienced Zoom fatigue and know it is real.
  • Decades in the Making:  Front line workers bearing the brunt of disgruntled customers as a result of poor service, over which they have no control. Instead, customer service has been outsourced, off-shored, automated, and generally stripped of any element of service, help, or humanity. 
    • Pandemic accelerant: Even fewer staff combined with customers who were stressed themselves and looking for someone to take out their fears and anxieties. 

Again I ask this question: Why in the world are we surprised?

Here are a few quotes from various articles (all from reputable sources):

“Most of the departing workers I heard from had also asked themselves that question, but they had decided that they could more easily give up their paychecks than their well-being.”

“By eliminating the office as a physical presence in many (but not all!) families’ lives, the pandemic may have downgraded work as the centerpiece of their identity (Atlantic).”

So What?

With 73% of companies currently hiring and mass dissatisfaction in the workplace, organizations and leaders are at a fork in the road. They can either double down on their old tactics (demanding more of employees, spreading an already heavy workload even more) or radically rethink their approach to the human beings that make their business work. 

As noted, it is a conflagration of factors that got us to this place. Nonetheless, the question is: what can we do? Our highest goals should be to create a place where we can reinvent and redesign our workplaces with:

  • A recognition that people are the secret sauce to productivity, profitability, and competitive advantage and choosing to make work culture a strategic priority.
  • Tapping into employees’ higher nature (shared purpose and mission, creativity, caring about the customer) – and not leaning into the lower nature of fear for their jobs.
  • Equipping leaders with the skills to lead in the 21st century that are different from the “command and control” style of the industrial era.  Remember – the most significant factor to employees leaving is working for a bad boss.
  • Investing in rapid skill acquisition– helping employees acquire and master the skills needed in today’s workplace (and recognizing that with the pace of technological and global change, this is an ongoing need).
  • Reasonable work hours and demands, including a coherent and humane practice around connectivity during off-hours and weekends. 
  • Providing adequate support for families.

These are all BIG things that take time, resources, and focus. With all big things, I encourage you to find the places that are of the highest priority and address those areas first. Ask yourself:

  • Where are you experiencing the highest level of turnover?
  • What types of employees are most at risk for leaving? 
  • How can you listen (and listen deeply) to your employees and enlist their help in making your culture and work better for all?

Because these issues are multi-faceted, we can’t help you with everything. But we can help you in these ways:

  • Need to help your leaders learn how to lead with 21st-century skills? That is our sweet spot!
  • Have employees who are feeling burnt-out and wanting to learn some techniques to better handle stress: Try our Reset Retreat.
  • Want to connect your teams to your higher shared purpose? Our Higher Purpose Retreat is a great way to do that.
  • Moving into a hybrid work environment for the long-term? Our Excelling in a Virtual Workplace Series is a great way to learn the skills you’ll need.
  • Need to foster positive connection? An Evergreen Leadership Retreat is a great way to do that.

Let’s talk! Send me an email at and we’ll find a time.


My sources for this blog were many and varied (and not hard to find). They include:

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