The Real Cause of the Great Resignation

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

You’ve probably heard of the Great Resignation, which refers to the unprecedented number of American workers who resigned from their jobs during the pandemic. Maybe your organization lost employees during this time or maybe you left yourself. If you did, you’re in good company—I did too. But what you may not know is what really caused the Great Resignation.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 4 million people resigned from their jobs in April 2021. Analysts wondered if it was an anomaly, but the next month the same thing happened. And the same thing happened in June. Between April and June 2021, 12 million workers voluntarily resigned from their jobs.

This chart shows job separations over time:

 You see the huge red spike in layoffs and discharges in early 2020 as employers reacted to the pandemic by letting employees go.

But you also see the blue bars that represent employee quits. The blue bars hit new peaks in 2021. That was the Great Resignation.

For workplaces, it's easy to blame the Great Resignation on the pandemic. But that’s not really the cause.

In their book, “The Great Resignation,” Russ Hill and Jared Jones write:

“What the lockdown in response to COVID-19 did was pour a massive amount of gasoline on an already-burning fire…the number of employees voluntarily leaving companies exploded…”

Go back to the chart and notice the blue bars:

 Ever since 2011, which was almost ten years before the pandemic, voluntary employee quits had already been steadily increasing. The pandemic didn’t cause this growing trend of employee quits; it simply revealed and accelerated what had already been happening for years – employees were already leaving their work in record numbers.

But why?

Here’s a quote from Gallup:

“People are calling it the ‘Great Resignation,’ and as the Gallup data show, it's not an industry, role or pay issue. It's a workplace issue -- because the highest quit rate is among not engaged and actively disengaged workers.”


Further, according to their research, Gallup says that:

  • Disengaged workers are twice as likely to be looking for another job as engaged workers
  • Only 34% of American workers are engaged
  • Only 21% of global workers are engaged

So, the pandemic was not the cause of the Great Resignation, the real cause was employee disengagement. What the pandemic did was provide a tipping point for disengaged employees to finally act on what they were already feeling.

Engaged employees are committed, dedicated, and emotionally connected to their work and workplace and are willing to give their best, discretionary effort.

On the other hand, disengaged employees may be physically present but are only doing the minimum required or even worse, they’re spreading their misery to others.

Here’s the rub: Engagement data has been available for years and the steady increase of employee departures has been happening for years. But what have workplaces actually been doing about it?

We must stop blaming the pandemic for employee departures and start implementing employee engagement strategies. Starting anywhere is starting somewhere.

Here are 10 ways to engage your employees:

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