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How employers can win workers back (and keep them) after the 'Great Resignation'

A Now Hiring sign hangs near the entrance to a Winn-Dixie Supermarket in Hallandale, Florida.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
A Now Hiring sign hangs near the entrance to a Winn-Dixie Supermarket in Hallandale, Florida.

In the wee hours of a Saturday morning this past June, Mary Waters pulled into a grocery store parking lot in St. Louis. It was where she had been working for more than a year, stocking the freezer section.

"I sat in the parking lot, and I tried to will myself to go in, and it wasn't happening. So I just drove away," Waters said.

And she never looked back.

Waters is one of a growing number of Americans who have walked away from their jobs in 2021 — a record-setting year for job quits in the United States.

"I couldn't walk into such a dehumanizing, toxic place where we're all sort of just expected to smile, and do small talk with each other, and pretend like everything is going fine when nothing had been fine the entire time I was there," Waters said.

"And nothing looked like it was going to get better anytime soon."

Waters started the job just before the coronavirus pandemic, in February 2020. She said at first she too bought into the "front-line workers are heroes" narrative that was so prevalent in that phase of the pandemic.

"I felt that I was doing something good," she said.

But as the months wore on and the risk remained the same, Waters said she was able to take a step back and evaluate her situation more clearly. She said she thought: "Wait a minute. I'm being exploited. I'm not being respected. This isn't OK."

Waters was especially frustrated with the fact that it took her a year of working at her job to qualify for health insurance, even during a pandemic.

All of those concerns, along with feeling mistreated by colleagues and customers, ultimately led Waters to leave the job without a Plan B. She secured a manufacturing job for a while, but she is currently unemployed.

The pandemic sped up the process of quitting

Anthony Klotz, the Texas A&M University organizational psychologist who coined the term "Great Resignation," said this feeling that Waters describes of being pushed to the edge is widespread at the moment.

"Burnout is a predictor of turnover because one of the only cures for it is getting away from that," he said.

Unsurprisingly, health care workers are among those who have the highest reported cases of burnout.

Tamara Mahmood was one such longtime health care worker who reached her limit in August, along with 4.3 million other Americans who quit that same month.

For months, she had been considering leaving the job she had held for 12 years as a physician assistant and said the pandemic sped up that process.

Tamara Mahmood now has a job with greater flexibility and more time at home.
/ Hassan Mahmood
Hassan Mahmood
Tamara Mahmood now has a job with greater flexibility and more time at home.

Back in March 2020, when Mahmood was working long hours, she began experiencing symptoms including burning chest pain and difficulty breathing. She still does not know if she had the coronavirus because she was unable to access a test at the time.

Mahmood did recover, but she worried about putting her three children at risk of illness. And the long hours meant she got to spend less time with them than she would have liked.

On top of the working conditions, Mahmood felt the weight of being a woman in a workforce that she said was predominantly led by men. She recalled walking into work and noticing life-size cutouts of women breastfeeding, but said that ironically, she couldn't get breaks long enough to pump breast milk after having her children.

She asked herself: "Do I want to continue to work? For less pay, less recognition, less opportunities for advancement, versus the well-being and safety of my family. Because as a mother, that was definitely something that was in the back of my mind."

Klotz said many Americans have had similar epiphanies during the pandemic.

"Because there was a lot of death and illness and lockdowns, we really had the time and the motivation to sit back and say, 'Do I like the trajectory of my life? Am I pursuing a life that brings me well-being?' "

For Mahmood, resolving to finally leave a stable, meaningful job was difficult, but she was relieved she ultimately made that decision. She is now a health care consultant working remotely with some travel. And that flexibility allows for more time with her family.

Klotz said other workers too were likely holding out on quitting until things stabilized during the pandemic.

"There's a backlog of resignations. So because of the uncertainty during the pandemic, people who otherwise would have quit their jobs did not," he said.

Women are leaving the workforce at higher rates than men

Mahmood looks back on her career in health care and says if you want to keep women within the system, you have to meet their needs.

Her experience represents a larger phenomenon that is unique to this moment: American women are leaving the workforce at record numbers.

William Spriggs, an economics professor at Howard University, points out that women are both leaving the workforce and switching industries in large numbers when compared with men. He said industries that traditionally relied on more women than men for work weren't facing a labor shortage — they were facing a labor shrinkage.

Women have dropped out of the workforce at twice the rate of men since the beginning of the pandemic. And last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that men gained all of the 194,000 positions added to the economy in September, while 300,000 women left the workforce.

Spriggs said attracting and retaining women was essential to a growing economy. Part of the reason so many women have left jobs during the pandemic was they may not have had the supports necessary to balance family life alongside a job.

"In order to get women's labor force participation up, you have to do all the other things that other advanced economies do: better pre-K opportunities, they have paid leave, they have greater support for elder care," Spriggs said.

He believes the U.S. government should rethink such provisions as essential parts of its labor infrastructure if it wants a full economic recovery following this recession.

So what do employers need to change?

With such large swaths of the American labor force leaving their jobs, the scales of power are tipping in the direction of workers. This means employers need to rethink not only the benefits they are offering workers, but the way in which they treat their workers too.

Laszlo Bock said the most important consideration for employers is simple: "Make humans actually feel like human beings."

Bock, who was a human resources executive at Google, has since co-founded his own HR consulting firm, Humu. His firm consults with organizations and uses artificial intelligence and data-driven research to identify behavioral changes that can make workers feel more satisfied.

"In the pandemic, people have talked a lot about essential workers, but we actually treat them as essential jobs. We treat the workers as quite replaceable," he said.

A 'Help Wanted' sign is posted beside Coronavirus safety guidelines in front of a restaurant in Los Angeles, California on May 28, 2021.
Frederic J. Brown / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
A "Help Wanted" sign is posted beside coronavirus safety guidelines in front of a restaurant in Los Angeles on May 28.

First, he said, because the cost of switching jobs is much lower for hourly workers, while the day-to-day tends to be worse [than for white-collar workers], health benefits and a living wage "on Day 1" are essential.

Beyond that, there are logistical considerations that can make the lives of workers easier, like inquiring about the kind of commute employees have to make to get to work. The longer and more involved the commute, the higher the attrition rate for workers. Another example Bock cites is changing conventions, like scheduling hourly workers for both closing and opening shifts, back to back.

"That's exhausting. That's a lot of extra work at the end of the day, and then you have to come in early to open. A simple thing is to not schedule those back-to-back hourly workers," he said.

For office workers, Bock said his firm has done extensive research on the optimal balance between remote work and office work to find that three days at home and about 1.5 to two days in the office makes for the ideal equilibrium for both productivity and the employee's own happiness.

"It gives you heads-down time from home to focus: get work done, attend to personal things, time-shift," he said.

"But it also gives you that one and a half to two days a week to connect with people in the office and retain that social connection."

Bock's advice to managers across the board is to prioritize the emotional support that a leader can provide rather than the bureaucratic elements of management. What's most important, he said, is providing an environment that is meaningful and empowering, where people feel trusted and included.

This kind of treatment doesn't just lead to happier employees, Bock said — it makes business sense too.

"Because the managers who are doing that are far better at retaining their teams," he said.

"So I think there's a real opportunity."

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Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.