About the Great Resignation

David Ivers is from Sydney, Australia. He is a qualified Primary and Secondary School Teacher. In total, he has served on school leadership teams for 16 years in senior leadership roles.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;

it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.”

(Max Ehrmann. 1927. Desiderata)

There is little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly seen “changing fortunes of time”, as Max Ehrmann wrote in his famous work, ‘Desiderata’. Indeed, as fortunes change, Ehrmann would suggest that a person’s career, the quality of their relationships, personal and professional, even how you view the world, are things of real value and sources of strength in such uncertain times. Written almost a century ago, the words of Desiderata still have power and meaning in the pandemic era of the 21st Century.

As the Delta variant of the COVID-19 burns through nations around the world, employers are starting to notice a disturbing trend in the workforce. In recent months, the US. Bureau of Labor Statistics has released data that is alarming. In July the ‘not seasonally adjusted’ ‘Quit Rate’ was 3.1% rising to 3.6% in August. This effectively means that close to 5 million people quit their jobs in July rising to close to 6 million people in August alone. To put those figures into some context, the Australian Government’s Labor Market Information Portal reports that the seasonally adjusted size of the Australian Workforce is 13,013,700 people. So, the ‘Quit Rate’ in the USA in July and August is akin to almost the entire workforce of Australia handing in their resignations. The question must be why? The increasing trend is being dubbed as ‘The Great Resignation’, though some writers are calling it ‘The Great Realignment’.

On the surface, the ‘why’ question may have some obvious answers. After all, it is perfectly normal for people to move on for career advancement and indeed, just as normal for people to decide that it is time to retire. According to the report by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Quits include employees who left voluntarily with the exception of retirements or transfers to other locations.” Importantly it does not include ‘Layoffs and Discharges’ which means the figure would be higher if these were included. We can deduce that the bulk of ‘Quits’ are people who have basically had enough. What is scary is the largest group of employees resigning may not be who you think. According to Ian Cook writing in the Harvard Business Review (15 September 2021), the research suggests this phenomenon is more likely amongst the group that typically occupy middle leader roles.

“Employees between 30 and 45 years old have had the greatest increase in resignation rates, with an average increase of more than 20% between 2020 and 2021. While turnover is typically highest among younger employees, our study found that over the last year, resignations actually decreased for workers in the 20 to 25 age range (likely due to a combination of their greater financial uncertainty and reduced demand for entry-level workers). Interestingly, resignation rates also fell for those in the 60 to 70 age group, while employees in the 25 to 30 and 45+ age groups experienced slightly higher resignation rates than in 2020 (but not as significant an increase as that of the 30-45 group).”

(Ian Cook. (2021). Who Is Driving the Great Resignation? in Harvard Business Review (15 September 2021).

What is of concern from this research is the group that is leading the charge around ‘The Great Resignation’. Typically, the employees that are in the 30-45 age group, are in junior or middle leader positions and often the consumer of an array of professional development provided by the organization. That this group represents the largest group resigning, represents to those organizations from which they are resigning, a draining of the talent pool. Of course, in such an exodus, the talented and experienced staff are likely to find leaving for another position, relatively easy. The more likely reasons for resigning are: Better Pay, Better Conditions, Promotion, Career Change, A Toxic Culture, Disengagement. It would be unwise to discount the significance of the last two items.

In a recent McKinsey report the following was noted.

“Among the employees in our survey, 36 percent who had quit in the past six months did so without having a new job in hand. This is yet another way the Great Attrition differs fundamentally from previous downturn-and-recovery cycles—and another sign that employers may be out of touch with just how hard the past 18 months have been for their workers.” In addition, the McKinsey study of 5 countries (Australia, Canada, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States), found that of “employees who are at least ‘somewhat likely’ to quit in the next 3-6 months: 64% would leave without a job in hand.”

Aaron De Smet, Bonnie Dowling, Marino Mugayar-Baldocchi, and Bill Schaninger (2021). ‘Great Attrition’ or ‘Great Attraction’? The choice is yours (8 September 2021).

The McKinsey study across 5 countries, also revealed what is important to employers and what is important to employees. Not surprisingly it is a mismatch. The study showed that from the employer’s perspective the ‘most important’ things are: Inadequate Compensation, Looking for a Better Job, Poor Health. The last item may well relate directly to the pandemic and its ability to affect the bottom line. Recognized by employers as ‘somewhat important’ are: Development Opportunities, Being Poached by Another Company, and the Ability to Work Remotely. The problem with waiting until your staff are being poached by others, is by then the damage has been done.

In contrast, the ‘most important’ thing for the employees are: Being Valued by the Organization, A Sense of Belonging and Being Valued by their Manager. The things that were ‘somewhat important’ are: Potential for Advancement, Flexible Work Schedule, and Having Trusting and Caring Teammates. The areas where the two groups agreed were: Work-Life Balance, Care for Family, Unmanageable Workloads, Being Engaged by Work. Unfortunately, just because there is agreement does not mean that it happens regularly or universally. Correlation does not equal causation!

See: Aaron De Smet, Bonnie Dowling, Marino Mugayar-Baldocchi, and Bill Schaninger (2021). ‘Great Attrition’ or ‘Great Attraction’? The choice is yours (8 September 2021).

What the McKinsey research really points to is that relational leadership is where things are coming adrift. When you look at the areas of ‘most importance’ for employees, feeling valued and having a sense of belonging is key. The Anthropology around this is very basic. Humans are social beings and need the support and interaction of others. By not valuing the contribution of others or engaging with others, particularly from a leader, harms this process and as a result, people will look elsewhere. This is evident in the large percentage (64%) willing to quit even though they had nothing to go to, highlights that people would prefer to sit at home and do nothing, then come to work and not feel valued or worse, to feel devalued.

Drawing on Anthropology, there are a few ways in which the ‘Great Resignation’ can be explained. Symbolic Interactionism basically says that every interaction, verbal and non-verbal, has some meaning and potentially influences future interactions. So the way an employer speaks to or acts towards employees dictates the extent to which employees feel that they belong or feel that they should look elsewhere. Another way of looking at the ‘Great Resignation’ is Robert Merton’s Strain Theory.

According to Merton’s Strain / Adaptation Theory (Models of Deviance), there are “five logically possible, alternative modes of adjustment or adaptation by individuals within the culture-bearing society or group” (Robert K. Merton (1938). Social Structure and Anomie.  Source: American Sociological Review, Vol. 3, No. 5 (Oct. 1938), pp. 672-682 Published by: American Sociological Association See p. 676).  These are: Conformity, Innovation, Ritualism, Retreatism, and Rebellion. Where employees are required to work at ‘arms-length’ from their workplace, there is a real possibility of them disconnecting from the team or group, as ways in which belonging are normally achieved, become weakened. Left to themselves, new, potentially less social behavior is learned, potentially impacting conformity or innovation and certainly weakening any rituals in the physical space, that creates a sense of belonging. Rituals in the physical workspace might include stopping and sharing a morning coffee with the team or the Friday afternoon ‘wrap-up’. As these fade, the employee working by themselves from home might retreat more and more from the organization, ultimately leading to rebellion, via resigning with a view to doing their own thing or looking for a career change. The rebellion comes from disengagement and disenchantment. As an Anthropologist, I would be inclined to refer to the ‘Great Resignation’, if the trend continues, as the ‘Employee Revolution of Expressive Disengagement and Disenchantment’. Think about it, resignation is as highly disengaged and disenchanted that an employee can get. When it happens on a large scale, the employer has a massive problem within the culture of the organization. As good people leave, others see the possibilities beyond the front door of the organization and give consideration to doing the same. This becomes a spiral of attrition and like a cancer, eats at the organization’s health. Over the long term, it can spell the death knell for the organization involved. Leaders must turn attrition into retention and disengagement into meaningful engagement and involvement.

The first place for leaders to start on the pathway to the retention of employees, especially the good ones, is to be less stoic and more human.


Extreme Employee Engagement (EEE OR E3) is something that Tom Peters has written extensively about. In his excellent book, ‘Excellence Now: Extreme Humanism’, he lists the benefits of Extreme Employee Engagement. Amongst the numerous benefits are these three.

  • EEE reduces turnover and stabilizes the work force.
  • EEE makes it possible to recruit top talent.
  • EEE means top employees are far more likely to stay with the organization.

(Tom Peters. (2021). Excellence Now: Extreme Humanism (eBook). Chicago, Illinois. | Networking Publishing. p149).

The first place for leaders to start on the pathway to the retention of employees, especially the good ones, is to be less stoic and more human. If the ‘Great Resignation’ is in fact the ‘Employee Revolution of Expressive Disengagement and Disenchantment’, then one way, though not an easy way, to turn the disenchantment around is to extend what Steven M. R, Covey calls the ‘leap of trust’.

“In teams and organizations, giving trust manifests in greater employee engagement and retention, increased customer loyalty and referrals, and other economic benefits. The Paul Zak study we referenced in chapter three showed that sending intentional signals of trust created reciprocity that resulted in a nearly threefold increase in economic returns. Leaders who deliberately extend trust typically find the people in their organizations far more willing to place trust in them and their leadership. Thus the reciprocal process becomes a virtuous upward cycle, all triggered by that first extension (sometimes leap) of trust.”

(Steven M. R. Covey, Greg Link, Rebecca R. Merrill. (2012). Smart Trust (eBook). London. | Simon & Shuster. p192).

Interestingly, in 2011, Mark Crowley in his excellent book ‘Lead From The Heart’, determined that great workplaces have five things in common.

  1. They see employees as the heart of the company and place great focus on worker satisfaction and retention.
  2. They’re committed to deep and ongoing development and mentoring.
  3. Successes and people are routinely celebrated.
  4. The firms reinforce the benefits of collaboration and team success.
  5. They communicate effectively and frequently about individual and team achievements and how those impact their company

(Mark Crowley. (2011). Lead From The Heart (eBook). Bloomington, Indiana. | Balboa Press. p40).

The time has come, indeed it is already here, for leaders who throughout the pandemic have held on to an old, outdated view of what leadership should look like, to realize that a new way must be embraced, one that embraces ‘psychological safety’. Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson in her groundbreaking book ‘The Fearless Organization’, highlights why this is important for employee retention.

“Experts’ concerns about staff turnover have thus given rise to interest in improving the healthcare work environment as a strategy for employee retention. In one recent study, a survey of clinical staff at a large metropolitan hospital found that psychological safety was related to commitment to the organization and to patient safety.”

Amy C. Edmondson. (2018). The Fearless Organization (eBook). Hoboken, New Jersey. | John Wiley & Sons. p53.

Of course, this requires open communication, transparency, and a valuing of what people can contribute, with a vision as to what they could be in the future. If leadership is about influence, it is very hard to lead if people are leaving in large numbers. As the spiral takes hold, the employees that are leaving are in fact exerting an influence (and Ipso Facto leadership) on those that remain, even if briefly. Astute leaders should be asking: ‘why would our employees stay?’ They should also ask: ‘would we want someone from our family working for our organization, particularly in a junior role?’ If the answer is no, then the leadership group has a moral imperative to do something about it. This is the acid test of an organization’s health.

Organizational structures have always had the capacity to be fluid. It is more often than not, our perception of what should be, that limits what could be. Use rituals to congratulate achievements, whether it’s someone celebrating their one-year anniversary with the organization, someone who has met targets for the month, a successful project coming to fruition or even the person that is retiring. Keep in mind that the rebels alluded to in Merton’s Strain / Adaptation Theory (Models of Deviance), may just be ‘prophets’ within the organization, people who can discern the pattern of future events, that should at the very least be listened to. To build trust, open communication (verbal and non-verbal) is essential.

As a start, the sage-like advice of Max Ehrmann may prove to be priceless.

“Go placidly amid the noise and the haste and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.”

Max Ehrmann. 1927. Desiderata.

David Ivers is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute (Great Britain and Ireland)

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