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Why Did One in Four Employees Quit Their Jobs in 2021

Employees resignation in pandemic

In September 2021, 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs. This would be an unusual statistic on its own, but this figure marked the sixth month in a row of resignations that were higher than their pre-pandemic levels. Together, these consistent mass departures have been dubbed the Great Resignation. 

People are quitting their jobs at such high levels because, as data journalist Felix Richter explains, “…many workers are no longer willing to put up with the pay and/or working conditions they (perhaps grudgingly) accepted prior to the pandemic.” 

The pandemic, then, gave workers time to reflect on if their professional lives let them live their values and whether their employment contributed to a healthy work/life balance. 

Here, we’ll answer some of the most common questions about the employee resignation. 

Why are so many people resigning?

In 2021, a PwC survey found that 65 percent of people were looking for a new job in August. Actual resignations did not hit that prediction, with only one in four people resigning from their jobs in 2021. 

However, 25 percent is still a high number – beating 2019, which had an unprecedentedly-high resignation percentage at the time of 22 percent. 

Some companies still believe these high resignation numbers are simply because of temporary, pandemic-focused realities. Ian Cook, Visier’s vice president of people analytics, advises companies to recognize that this is not the case. Instead, the Great Resignation represents a shift in what employees are willing to do for their employment – and how they want to interact with peers and leadership. 

“As pandemic life recedes in the U.S., people are leaving their jobs in search of more money, more flexibility and more happiness. Many are rethinking what work means to them, how they are valued, and how they spend their time,” NPR’s Andrea Hsu added. 

What industries have been hit the hardest?

Resignations have not been consistent across industries. Instead, some fields have actually decreased in turnover, while others have seen higher departure percentages. For instance, manufacturing and finance have actually seen fewer resignations over this period. 

Alternately, fields that were hardest hit required increased workloads for employees during the pandemic, leading to burnout and dissatisfaction. Not surprisingly, then, 3.6 percent more healthcare workers quit than the year before the pandemic, while 4.5 percent of tech workers resigned over the same period. 

In September 2021, the sectors hit hardest shifted to lower-paying industries that required in-person employment, including leisure and hospitality; trade, transportation and utilities; and professional services and retail. 

Leisure and hospitality saw almost a million resignations in that month alone; most of these came from food service workers and accommodations employees. 

What types of employees are most likely to quit?

We may believe that only young people with career mobility would take the leap to quit during the pandemic. In “normal” times, workers between 20 and 25 are usually the most likely to move on from their current positions. 

But this has not been the case in The Great Resignation. The group with the highest increase in resignation levels were mid-career professionals between 30 and 45. This group saw more than a 20 percent increase in job departures between 2020 and 2021. 

Workers from 25 to 30 and 45+ also saw increases, though interestingly, resignation rates dropped for the 60 to 70 age demographic. 

Harvard Business Review identifies why mid-career professionals were most likely to resign. Ian Cook notes that companies didn’t want to hire early-career workers in the pandemic because working remotely without in-person guidance would be difficult. 

“[In turn this] would create greater demand for mid-career employees, thus giving them greater leverage in securing new positions,” he explained. 

Some mid-career employees may have long wanted to leave their positions for months and years prior to the pandemic and were only able to do it after pandemic uncertainties stabilized somewhat. Others may have reconsidered their professional goals after over a year of increased workloads, unfulfilling tasks, or other concerns. 

Learning from the Great Resignation

The Great Resignation indicates that employees are no longer satisfied with business as usual. 

If you are considering quitting your job, the first step is to decide if you can make changes in your current work situation, as well as determining if you are financially-stable enough to remain unemployed for an indefinite period. 

If you do decide to quit, proceed with caution. Even though quitting may seem commonplace, employees who have decided their current roles no longer fit their needs should write a carefully-crafted resignation letter that maintains their business relationships. 

Companies, too, need to reconsider their company culture and leadership expectations. 

Kiran Mann, a Forbes Councils member, suggests that companies need to focus on three aspects of their corporate culture if they want to prevent resignations. Employees want consistent recognition of their accomplishments, trusting relationships with their managers, and engagement with the company and their roles. 

Ultimately, the pandemic has encouraged employees and companies to re-evaluate aspects of professional life that they may never have otherwise been disrupted. But this push towards change can be productive for both employees and their organizations – if companies can make the leap. If organizations are not able to modernize their operations, they may continue to struggle to keep their workers satisfied – and employed.

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