WebHeader_Grove.jpg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Make your tax-deductible year-end gift to NHPR today!

Why people have been quitting their jobs in record numbers recently

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Honestly, who among us has not thought about quitting our jobs? You know, the old joke about winning the lottery and getting to say, so long, suckers? Thing is, actually willing yourself to take the plunge - well, that's a lot harder than you think.

MARY WATERS: I didn't even tell anybody. I sat in the parking lot, and I tried to will myself to go in, and it wasn't happening.

CORNISH: All right, so imagine it's a Saturday morning this past June.

WATERS: And I was sitting in the parking lot, and I just decided, I can't walk in there; I just cannot do it.

CORNISH: Mary Waters (ph) had pulled up in front of a grocery store where she worked in St. Louis, Mo.

WATERS: I couldn't walk into such a dehumanizing, toxic place where we're all sort of just, like, walking past each other, not even saying hi. The days would blur together.

CORNISH: Waters has spent her days stocking freezers for $10.25 an hour, but she says customers and management didn't treat her like a human being. And on top of all that, she had to work a full year before qualifying for health benefits.

WATERS: That's not a great policy at any time, but especially in the middle of a public health emergency to just let your employees come in without medical care, it made me feel like an absolute tool.

CORNISH: She drove out of the parking lot, and she did not look back. And Waters isn't alone. A year and a half into the pandemic, the number of people in the U.S. quitting their jobs is still growing. And by now, you've probably heard this moment being called the great resignation. Anthony Klotz came up with it.

ANTHONY KLOTZ: The pandemic was sort of a nationwide awakening during a very stressful time.

CORNISH: He's an organizational psychologist at Texas A&M University.

KLOTZ: Most people were reflecting on their lives at the same time that work was causing them burnout, or they were really enjoying working from home. I'm going to avoid using the term perfect storm as much as I can, but it seems like nothing like this had happened before.

CORNISH: In August alone, some 4.3 million people quit. Some, like Waters, well, they don't even have a Plan B. So what's going on? Well, to start, Klotz says...

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

CORNISH: The second factor? Burnout - again, think back to Mary Waters.

WATERS: Everybody's got their heads down, trying to survive this thing.

KLOTZ: And burnout is a predictor of turnover because one of the only cures from it is getting away from that which burns you out.

CORNISH: The third factor is what some have called the pandemic epiphany. People questioned their relationship with their jobs and realized they want something different.

KLOTZ: 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?

CALLIE EBENSTEIN: The pandemic definitely led to some rethinking about priorities. You know, it makes you realize that there's more to life than work.

CORNISH: Here's Callie Ebenstein (ph). She spent seven years working her way up to the position of production manager at a brewery in Athens, Ga. She worked full time during the pandemic, and that got her thinking.

EBENSTEIN: The balance between what I was getting out of the job and what the job was taking from me tipped very solidly in the direction of leading me to leave.

CORNISH: She quit at the end of July. Now, financially, she was able to stay home, be with her wife, take care of her garden and her chickens.

EBENSTEIN: We got a half-dozen hens a month ago that we're hoping to raise for egg production.

CORNISH: Klotz, the psychologist, says the ability to work from home or the fact that employers were forced into a kind of flexibility is another reason a lot of people are quitting.

KLOTZ: So you figure millions of Americans get to work from home, and as human beings, the need for autonomy is one of our fundamental human needs, and we don't tend to give it up once we're given some personal freedom. So I figured there'd be a number of people who would quit rather than go back to the office.

CORNISH: That desire for more personal freedom is what did it for Tamara Mahmoud (ph).

TAMARA MAHMOUD: Even prior to the pandemic, I had already started considering making a change.

CORNISH: She'd been a physician's assistant for 12 years at a hospital system in Northern California.

MAHMOUD: Health care, I think, obvious to everybody, has been a system under a great deal of strain and a pretty stressful job to have. Patient loads increase almost (laughter) day by day, and our hiring capacity was never keeping up, even prior to the pandemic.

CORNISH: But then Mahmoud got sick in March of 2020 - difficulty breathing, she felt burning in her chest, and she wasn't able to access a COVID test. She recovered, but Mahmoud has three children at home, and she not only worried about putting them at risk; she didn't even get to see them very much.

MAHMOUD: It's hard to be a woman in a workforce that's predominantly led by men and be faced with a global pandemic and think, like, 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.

CORNISH: Basically, better pay or even better benefits wouldn't have been worth all that she was sacrificing. So now she has switched jobs. She's a health care consultant - remote work and a little bit of travel.

MAHMOUD: If you want to keep women within the system, we have to meet their needs.

CORNISH: Mahmoud is pointing to another issue that's unusual about this moment. Women have dropped out of the workforce at twice the rate of men since the pandemic began.

WILLIAM SPRIGGS: We have to have women's labor force participation go up so that we can continue to grow as an economy.

CORNISH: This is the voice of William Spriggs. He's an economist for the AFL-CIO and a professor at Howard University. He says the U.S. once led the world in terms of women's workforce participation. Now we're ranked sixth among the world's seven largest economies. And one reason, he says, is the U.S. hasn't made the same investments in the care economy.

SPRIGGS: We're at the moment where it should be clear to everyone that child care, that paid sick leave, that care for the elderly are necessary for us to have a full recovery. The rest of the world learned these lessons long ago - that government needs to make certain investments to get women's labor force participation up.

CORNISH: In the meantime, William Spriggs says in the industries that are struggling the most with hiring - think leisure, hospitality - that their shortage of workers isn't necessarily the problem.

SPRIGGS: A lot of the workers they used to count on aren't available. And many women have successfully switched industries. The share of women in construction has been going up, as an example. The share of women in transportation and warehousing has been going up. And these are industries that traditionally were male-dominated. So it's a combination of women switching sectors and the effect of the pandemic keeping women at home.

CORNISH: Can I jump in for a second? Can you talk a little bit more about what you've learned about how employers are thinking about that? Meaning, are they offering different kinds of benefits for working parents, for women specifically, in that position?

SPRIGGS: A lot of employers have not improved their job offers. Some employers have, but a lot have not. And a lot of firms don't have active personnel departments to really do the kind of outreach for the type and level of disruption that we've seen take place.

CORNISH: OK, you heard that word - disruption?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: The tech world knows a lot about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LASZLO BOCK: How's everyone doing?

(CROSSTALK)

CORNISH: And the rock star of tech HR is one-time Google exec Laszlo Bock.

BOCK: The single most important thing is to make humans actually feel like human beings.

CORNISH: OK, yeah, that sounds obvious. But Bock, using this ethos, now runs a company called Humu that consults with corporations big and small trying to find and keep workers. He says there's no longer a stigma to quitting and switching jobs. It's one of the many changes brought on by the pandemic.

BOCK: You know, 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. So that's the most important thing. Remember that all the people who are working for you are actually people and should be treated as such.

CORNISH: I want to talk a little bit about what people have been calling kind of public-facing service employers, whether that's grocery stores, whether that's fast food. This is the area where we're also seeing those help-wanted signs. But are there things that they can do to make things better for their workers? Or rather, are there things they are prepared to do to make things better for their workers that they haven't in the past?

BOCK: You have to be willing to actually listen to what their needs are. So, for example, hourly workers often get scheduled with a closing shift followed by an opening shift the next day. 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, often their employers have no idea whether they commute into work using just one means of transportation or more than one. If people are using more than one means of transportation, that's a signal that you need to be doing more for these folks. That's a hard commute, and they're higher attrition risk than other workers. There's obviously living wages that need to be paid for workers. But the most important underpinning fundamental thing is to just ask these folks, how are things going? What else can we do for you? And then the final thing for these workers is - so many of them have faced so much abuse from their customers - not every day, not all the time. But they need to be supported in that.

CORNISH: So is this the end of the customer's always right?

BOCK: I hope so 'cause a lot of customers are kind of crazy.

CORNISH: It just feels like you're blowing up a couple of ideas here. The customer is always right - you're saying maybe not. Lots of people could have more flexible schedules and smarter and more humane scheduling in the service sector - also could have been done. I mean, there's a lot here that has been revealed by the pandemic.

BOCK: Absolutely. And I think what's different about this moment is we have this unifying kind of pandemic experience, so everyone's going through this globally at the same time, and everyone's kind of saying, we're suffering; there's got to be a better way. And we're suffering because our jobs actually make us sick. And people have options. So my hope is that there'll be a set of companies who say, wait a minute; we can actually operate in a very different way - and not just being distributed or remote or out of the office but actually caring for our people in a different way because the business benefit is - we're going to be more profitable and keep people around longer and be able to attract better people. And the human benefit is the human beings actually are healthier, enjoy what they're doing, which then also benefits the business in the end. So I think there's a real opportunity.

CORNISH: That was Laszlo Bock. He's the co-founder and CEO of the human resources company Humu.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUTUAL BENEFIT'S "TERRAFORM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.