Commentary: Why many workers are deciding to step off the corporate grind in 2022
Crystal Lim-Lange talks about the slow but sure wave hitting organisations – when people decide to quit and what motivates them to throw in the towel.
SINGAPORE: I can pinpoint the exact moment I decided to quit my first job and it all started with an automated prompt to change my computer password. I was at a brand name investment bank, I worked hard to get here. But that day was just another morning on the trading floor.
When I sat down at my terminal, I was already feeling that familiar dread in my stomach. I was spread thin, worn out, doing too much but achieving nothing that seemed particularly meaningful.
Just then, a window popped up on my computer, reminding me it was time to change my password. On an impulse, I typed in the secret name of a business that I had hoped to start.
It was a tiny act of rebellion, a spark that swiftly turned into a bold career move.
A CRISIS IN THE WORLD OF WORK
When I announced that I was leaving a well-paid, highly coveted investment banking job to take some time off and contemplate having children, moving countries and starting my own business, my friends and family told me that I was crazy.
It felt like I was doing the unthinkable to resign without a plan or another job in the bag.
Today, as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on in the world, I am seeing a parallel crisis in the world of work known as the Great Resignation Wave, where studies predict around half of the global workforce are actively planning to leave their jobs within the next six months.
When I combine the research on the resignation trends as well as information I get from companies in the course of my coaching and consulting work, I see three types of people who are quitting. And these are based on their primary motivations for leaving the corporate grind.
THE BURNT OUT
In my time as a banker, I knew people who were burnt out – they existed among the rank and file and even among the leadership. But somehow, we didn’t speak of this openly as we are doing right now. The sentiment is the same though - people feel as if they simply cannot go on.
Several studies suggest that one of the biggest factors behind burnout is lack of empathy from employers and lack of a supportive ecosystem.
Market research done by American firm OC Tanner found that 75 per cent of employees believe that empathy is insufficient in the workplace, and that nearly 80 per cent of employees quit from a lack of appreciation.
We see more burnt out types in professions that require high levels of empathy on the job, such as healthcare workers, teachers and middle managers having to deal with people all day and deliver difficult news.
It’s a cruel irony that their jobs require them to connect and show them human care, while they perceive their employers giving them little of that humanity in return. As many of them are people who were attracted to those roles precisely because they value empathy, the current empathy deficit from their companies can feel very bitter.
A new study of 1,000 American employees released in October this year by Ernst & Young found 49 per cent saying employers were unsympathetic to their personal lives. The conclusion: Empathetic leadership could be the secret sauce to retaining and finding employees in the face of the hiring crisis.
From my own closed-door discussions, I can see some companies are forward thinking and genuinely care about investing in their people. Yet many tell me they are just too swamped with constant restructuring, fighting fires and delivering quarterly results to think systemically about supporting their people.
I’ve been turning down consultancy jobs because I can’t help clients who tell me that they have extreme levels of turnover, burnout and low morale, but no time or budget for training, and believe the solution is a lunchtime talk to “motivate people” and show their higher-ups that they have a “wellness programme” rather than making actual change to working conditions and leadership mindsets.
These are people who had already had some desire to leave the workforce. Perhaps they were unhappy with their boss or work culture, or were already thinking about retiring and so on, but had no firm deadline for quitting.
The pandemic then acts like a catalyst as all the change and upheaval at work makes it a perfect time to quit, while the opportunity costs is low and the job market is hot.
They think - I already didn’t like my job, so why put up with all these new changes? Interestingly, many opportunists say the lack of social interactions was a key part to play.
Before the pandemic, many of them came to work every day and socialised as a tribe with others in the office also facing the same frustrations and supported each other. Humans have a phenomenal capacity to normalise pain that psychologists call “hedonic adaptation”.
However, in the pandemic, people no longer feel connected in the same way to their office mates and support systems, and that can make it easier to forge a different path or imagine that the grass may be greener elsewhere when there is no reality check from others.
Some opportunists are attracted by other exciting roles in the tight labour market, or the prospect of switching to a company that allows them to work from home for example.
Others report managing to benefit financially from the pandemic as the stock market and crypto market have had record returns from 2020 to 2021, or have been able to save money, hence they think it’s a good time to quit and look around.
The final group are the idealists. These people wonder what it means to have a good job.
Research on disasters and mass trauma events such as Hurricane Katrina show that being exposed to traumatic events has a profound impact on our appreciation of life.
Many people experience what is called “post-traumatic growth” - where a positive change is experienced due to the struggle with a major crisis. These take stock of their lives and re-evaluate their priorities and values and align themselves accordingly.
A recent youth survey by Today suggested the younger generation have shifted their ideas of success away from material values such as owning cars and homes to prioritise freedom and autonomy with 59 per cent defining career success as having enough funds to retire early, 52 per cent prioritising passive income from financial investments and 48 per cent citing the ability to travel twice or more in a year.
Gen Zs (those born after 1997) and Millennials (those born before 1997) tell me they are inspired by aspirational stories of people who have found careers that allow them a high degree of autonomy and freedom e.g. entrepreneurs, crypto traders, content creators.
These jobs now enjoy a much better social status compared to a decade ago and young people find it desirable to do something that gives them meaning and freedom instead of slogging away in banking, law or accountancy. The value of material wealth has given way to valuing freedom.
There are also older workers who fall into this category, driven by their wish to enjoy their live and live more meaningfully as they approach their retirement years.
As we move steadily into yet another uncertain year, what do all these changes mean for the future of work?
COVID-19 is a wakeup call for companies and institutions. What quitters are trying to tell us if we care to listen, is that we have to stop treating humans as robots and start designing work humanely, in a way that reflects their priorities and desires for autonomy and wellbeing.
The workforce has sent a loud and clear message that we will no longer accept being treated as widgets to be optimised, and that companies need to relook at their people as sources of potential, growth and partner with them if they want to build a sustainable future together.
Crystal Lim-Lange is the CEO of Forest Wolf, a leadership and talent consultancy, co-author of the national bestselling book Deep Human- Practical Superskills for a Future of Success, strategic advisor to Minerva University and a LinkedIn Top Voice.