Posted 12:34 a.m. Saturday, July 17, 2021

A record 4 million people quit their jobs in April, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Management professor shares strategies as millions of workers leave their jobs

We are at a critical juncture for the American workforce. As vaccination rates increase and many employees head back to their workplaces, some have decided on a different direction. For them, the pandemic opened a new mindset or a new dream. Others experienced a cultural breakdown at work that never improved. Many delayed searching for new jobs during the pandemic, waiting for a more stable moment to make a move. That moment appears to be now.  

What is the Great Resignation?  

A record 4 million people quit their jobs in April, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. A Microsoft survey of about 30,000 workers globally found that 41% were considering quitting or changing professions this year. This mass exodus of employees is what some economists are calling the “The Great Resignation.”  

The struggles to keep employees engaged and employed as workplaces return to some resemblance of normalcy shines a light on the importance of leadership and employee well-being, says Christa Kiersch, UWL associate professor of management. Kiersch, along with Nicole Gullekson, UWL; and Teresa Bubbers, Viterbo University; conducted a “Leadership Amid Covid” survey of three Seven Rivers Region businesses and two school districts, finding employee well-being to be an important concern across sectors.  

Survey responses indicate that during COVID workers had much less personal/social time, and about the same amount of work time. Those who were caregivers were also likely to be spending more time caregiving for dependents than prior to the pandemic. Employees had just as much work to do (if not more), but often were forced to shift how that work got done. These situations can lead to higher stress, and some organizations reported nearly half of employees feeling ‘some’ or ‘a great deal’ of stress. 

The UWL and Viterbo University survey data align with the broader research highlighting increased employee experiences of stress and burnout, while also supporting the role of effective leadership in employee well-being and engagement. Many studies link leadership to employee well-being such as this meta-analysis on “Leadership, followers’ mental health and job performance in organizations” in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.  

The key to keeping employees engaged, says Kiersch, is focusing on leadership strategies that enhance employee well-being. Many studies have shown that workers who are happy and well are more engaged and productive.*  To help them be well, leaders can support a balance between demands and resources in the workplace. If the scale tips to heavily toward demands such as workload, work-life conflict, a negative work culture or lack of equipment to complete work, then employees feel stress and become ‘burnt out’. Harmful and excess demands (e.g., negative work culture) should be eliminated and any necessary demands (e.g., workload and responsibility) should be balanced with resources and support from the employer. The tactics or “resources” below have helped successful companies weather the COVID-19 storm and can also serve to retain employees amid the current wave of unprecedented turnover.   

How to avoid the Great Resignation at your company:  

  • Lead with emotional intelligence. Leaders need to have empathy and the ability to listen effectively so that employees know they are supported at work. Good questions to ask are, “What can we do to support you? What do you need to be engaged in your work? How can I support your well-being?” 
  • Apply fair decision-making processes. Decision making should be transparent and employees should play an active role in the process,  at the very least having a way of voicing their thoughts and concerns about decisions. 
  • Engage in open and honest communication. Leaders at all levels should be communicating what they know about workplace changes, policies and other issues that could affect employees. Even if they didn’t create the changes, they can play an active role in sharing what they’ve learned about them from others. 
  • Give employees autonomy. This means trusting employees with freedom to accomplish the goals of their work and providing support as they need it. Allowing employees flexible work locations to the extent possible is an example of providing more autonomy. Leaders create a foundation for autonomy among employees by creating a team-level direction, mission and objectives. Leaders can build trust by giving employees progressively larger and more important tasks.   
  • Be flexible with working hours. A common misconception about employee productivity is: the more hours of work someone completes, the more productive they are. This idea is antiquated and doesn’t take into consideration the knowledge workforce that is reliant on human beings and their mental state. Well-being is part of the productivity equation. A study in Iceland found that employees who worked fewer hours — 35 or 36 per week — had better well-being and were just as productive. Business leaders in the U.S. have begun to ask if the five-day workweek is dead.
  • Compensate fairly. Compensation is an important piece of the equation to recruit and retain talent. And it is likely less expensive to compensate fairly and retain employees than to lower wages and pay for the turnover. Turnover cost estimates vary considerably, but they often fall between 50% and 200% of employee annual salary, explains Kiersch.   

*Wright, T. A., & Cropanzano, R. (2000). Psychological well-being and job satisfaction as predictors of job performance. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 5, 84–94. doi: 10.1037/1076-8998.5.1.84) 

*Many continue to reference the estimated ‘true correlation’ of job satisfaction and job performance as r = .30 (from Judge et al., 2001

*2017 white paper on employee well-being from The Society for Human Resource Management & Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology  

*The anti-thesis of well-being/engagement is burnout. German IO Psychologist Sabine Sonnentag has been researching burnout and the importance of ‘recovery time’ (I.e., working less) to reduce burnout and improve performance. This study shows that when employees are burnt out, customer service suffers.