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The Big Quit: How Burnout During a Pandemic Is Reshaping the Workforce

There are a number of complex forces at play that are steering people away from the workforce, but arguably the most common and predominant, is burnout.

The Big Quit, or Great Resignation, is as surprising as it is real. You’ve probably seen it pop up on your social media feeds or in the news. Whether it’s a collection of photos of fast food restaurants with hand-written signs taped to the front doors reading, “Closed, No One Came to Work,” or one of numerous news segments covering what they’ve dubbed a “labor shortage,” it’s become clear that workers are quitting en masse. Experts have been shocked as workers across all industries have quit their jobs at historic rates, even while wages are growing quickly. 

There are a number of complex forces at play that are steering people away from the workforce, but arguably the most common and predominant, is burnout. “You can't just ignore the fact that people are burning out at insanely high rates,” said Anika Briner, Director of Human Capital at Enspira HR, rates that, in the long run, are not sustainable.

Burnout Isn’t Just About Being Tired

Feeling burned out is akin to a state of exhaustion that’s exacerbated by the pandemic and the modern work environment. A modern focus on hyper-efficiency, paired with the pandemic’s work-from-home intensity, is the perfect recipe for turning hard workers into zombies. “I think what happened was this,” Briner says, “during the pandemic, you literally couldn’t go anywhere. Employers knew this, and they knew you were constantly near your computer while literally stuck inside your home. The lines of when work started or stopped began to blur.”

Working norms began to shift. The attitude quickly became, “well, you’re constantly in your home, near your workspace, saving time typically lost during commutes, why can’t you do this right here and now, regardless of when ‘now’ is.”

The pandemic also stressed businesses — and that stress has rolled downstream to employees. “Businesses were fighting to survive, and therefore everything started to feel overly urgent,” Briner said. Looming deadlines blended into more looming deadlines. “Communication” turned into wall-to-wall Zoom meetings. The water cooler and shared empathy over the daily grind of work no longer existed. And the modern employee is often tasked with juggling more concurrent projects than ever before.

Still, says Craig Ishii, Enspira’s Director of Marketing, those exhausting work conditions are only about half of the recipe for the type of burnout that has hundreds of thousands of employees quitting in droves. “I believe the other 50% of the problem has to do with lacking purpose,” Ishii says.

A Question of Purpose

Before coming to Enspira, Ishii worked at a non-profit for twelve years. “I was working seven days a week, and I was always very, very busy,” he says. So were his coworkers. But even after working twelve-hour days with kids at home, “I saw people feeling energized,” he says. “There’s a strong passion and purpose. You’re working directly with a target population, and it feels good to change lives."

In workplaces without this culture of passion and purpose — “where people don’t even know why they should care about what they’re doing” — the modern worker is much more vulnerable to burnout caused by short deadlines and constant pressure. “You don't have that underlying foundation, a reason why you’re working so hard. I think that’s what leads to real burnout, the kind that’s like having no more fuel in the jet so it crashes,” Ishii added. 

Tech and “Lifestyle/Wellness Solutions” Aren’t Helping

To help ease burnout, some companies have focused on innovations like ultra-HDR video conferencing, or additional employee perks such as lifestyle bonuses and wellness apps. But getting a few extra days off doesn’t fix the kind of burnout that’s fueling The Big Quit. “It’s just icing on the cake,” Ishii says. “If the cake is made with culture and mission, then those extras could help a ton. If not, then someone comes back from their vacation and they’re immediately burned out again.”

How Managers Can Help

Briner, Ishii, and others have highlighted a handful of important steps employers and managers might take to ease worker burnout. These changes can’t happen overnight, however, as they rely on real, thoughtful, and impactful solutions that workers can feel on an everyday basis. But, to retain talent and increase productivity that lasts, they’re worth the effort.

  • Prioritize culture and mission. Values and purpose go hand-in-hand with clear mission and culture. These should be things that employees understand from day one, and they must be paid more than lip service. Do you really care about your employees’ mental health? Are managers upholding the company values? Do people in general act with their own best interests in mind, or are they doing what they can to “do the right thing?” Take a hard look at how things feel within your organization, and be honest with yourself. If you can improve the employee experience from a cultural perspective, they’re more likely to align to your company’s purpose and stay motivated in their work.
  • Let employees co-own their work. People burn out fast when they don’t understand why they’re killing themselves every day. Make the end goals clear, and encourage and enable them to buy in.
  • Allow mistakes. Good management understands that giving workers more buy-in can, and likely will, result in the occasional error. It’s a teaching moment, not time to crush an already burnt out employee. Communicate openly with employees and take the time to truly listen to them — a one-way conversation is often a shortcut to burnout.
  • Address aloneness in the workplace. How has Slack, Zoom, and WFH affected your workers’ mental health? How can team members tap into a sense of connectedness and togetherness that’s lost in the virtual world? If it’s safe to gather in-person, are you planning and organizing events where your employees can meet and talk face-to-face? These are real conversations that leadership need to take seriously and issues that need to be addressed today. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, however, if you understand the cultural dynamics of your organization, it’s not as daunting as it seems.

What Should Employees Do?

Burnout isn’t a failure of employees. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s the responsibility of the employer to address these issues, and if they aren’t taking the initiative to do so, leave and search for greener pastures. Your own physical, mental, and emotional health are far more important than your employer’s profit margin.

“I think if you’re burnt out, and you realize that the burnout has to do with a misalignment between your company’s values and your own values, you need to leave,” Ishii said. “I’m not going to pretend there’s any other solution than that. It’s like in a relationship, when you try as hard as you can, but your values aren’t aligning, at a certain point you have to recognize your differences, cut your losses, and go find a workplace that works for you.”

Peter Lesser

Peter is a recent MBA graduate of Northeastern University with a vast, diverse background in brand management, innovation, design and more. Prior to graduate school, he began his career in New York City as a freelance brand consultant and multimedia producer for tech startups. Over time, he shifted into the hospitality industry, co-founding his own restaurant consultancy that worked with new and struggling enterprises. In 2017, he returned to Boston to pursue his MBA with a focus in corporate innovation. Peter is a lifelong musician and adventurer. When not working, you can find him playing music, hiking deep into the mountains, or watching his favorite TV shows with his partner in Boston, MA.

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