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The Great Resignation — It Just Won’t Quit

Five Faculty Experts Add Insight to the Ongoing Trend

A person types on a laptop, sitting next to a briefcase

The unprecedented exodus from the workforce known as the Great Resignation is not over.

The share of workers planning to leave their jobs remains unchanged from 2021, at 40 percent, according to industry reports.

To understand this ongoing global trend and its ramifications, five of our scholars examine it through their areas of expertise and the context of human thought and action.

Our faculty offer insights on the trend’s impact on workforce issues, the American labor market compared to Japan’s, upcoming elections, social work providers, and employer and employee communications.

Their contributions illustrate how our college plays an increasingly important role in shaping critical conversations at the heart of today’s most complex and pressing societal issues.

Jump to Question:

The American flag flies next to the NC State Belltower

How will the Great Resignation impact elections?

Andrew Taylor
Professor of Political Science

It’s not clear to me that the “Great Resignation” is particularly important, at least not in political terms.  

For the most part, the roughly 40 million people who left their jobs last year did so because they either retired – COVID undoubtedly convinced many of these people there was more to life than work  – or took on a new job.  The number of working-age people who simply quit and decided not to look for a different position was much less than initially thought.  

Still, the development has had an effect on employment and wages and contributed greatly to the highest levels of inflation the country has experienced in 40 years.  

In this way, it will have an indirect effect on this fall’s midterms. Inflation is of great concern to Americans and is mentioned by roughly one-in-four as the most important issue facing the country today.  

As such, it is hurting the Democrats because they occupy the White House.  Republicans understand this and are campaigning on the economy while their opponents try to shift the debate to non-economic issues like abortion, guns, and Trump’s influence over the GOP.  

At the same time, many companies are using their resources to thwart these efforts, and they often succeed in slowing progress toward change. The tide seems to be turning, however, as public support for unions is the highest it has been in many decades. 

Downtown Raleigh skyline

What is the impact on corporate social responsibility programs?

Martha Crowley
Professor of Sociology

Reports suggest resignations have been especially prevalent in retail and food service. These are sectors where workers have struggled for years with low wages, unpredictable schedules, split shifts and on-call shifts, all of which save employers on labor costs at the expense of employees’ financial well-being and quality of life.

What is more, employers’ reliance on part-time workers (which allows firms to avoid paying benefits associated with full-time work) forces many workers to juggle multiple part-time jobs (without benefits) to make ends meet. 

Beyond wages and scheduling, low status and lack of autonomy in these sectors contribute to a high risk of abuse, especially from customers – a tendency that increased during the pandemic.

The pandemic changed the terrain of the labor market, and many workers with other options have taken advantage of opportunities to move into different kinds of work. Some employers are now offering higher wages in an attempt to attract employees, although changes in pay do not address issues with scheduling, autonomy, or customer abuse.

Addressing those issues would require more significant changes – ones that could pay off quite well in the longer term but are rarely pursued due to pressure to keep costs low for the sake of short-term profits. 

Workers staying in these jobs are increasingly seizing this opportunity to demand improvements, not only in terms of wages but also scheduling, breaks and other issues. Interest in unions is rapidly growing, especially among younger workers, and some workers have successfully established unions.  

A shadow appears on a path of bricks

Why are social workers leaving and how are employers retaining them?

Sarah Ascienzo
Assistant Professor of Social Work

Burnout and secondary traumatic stress (STS) are major contributors to attrition among social workers and those in related roles, including medical providers and behavioral health therapists.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, social workers were at risk for burnout and STS, given high levels of unmet client needs, indirect trauma exposure, substantial provider shortages, and under-resourced and overburdened care systems.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has exacerbated these existing challenges. And recent studies reveal concerning rates of burnout and STS among social workers. 

Another contributor to worker attrition is shared trauma, which results from dual exposure to a traumatic context (i.e., COVID-19) in one’s professional and personal life.

Moral distress has also intensified among social workers during COVID-19 because many workers needed to provide care in the context of limited or insufficient resources or conditions and because many placed their families at risk by virtue of their professional duties.

In an effort to improve retention, there has been an increased focus on provider well-being. Agency leaders recognize that they have an ethical responsibility to support the well-being of their workers, particularly given the occupational hazards inherent to the work. 

Some agencies have developed chief wellness officer positions. Others have begun providing well-being programs, which include referral pathways to connect workers to needed services. 

To address organizational stressors, agencies have increased worker flexibility, adjusted caseloads, improved supervision and peer support networks, and streamlined paperwork demands and processes. 

Organizations also recognize the need to develop a sense of psychological safety and belonging among those in the organizations. Many have adopted trauma-informed care and social justice frameworks to guide the development of more inclusive and equitable practices and policies. 

Relatedly, there has also been a focus on workforce development to address provider shortages and an emphasis on increasing compensation and benefits.

People talk during a meeting

How are employers and employees communicating

Jessica Jameson
Professor of Communication and Department Head

One reason workers are voluntarily leaving their jobs is that they don’t feel valued, stressing the need for employers to be open in their communications with employees. Doing so could help mitigate staff turnover and provide greater employee engagement.

Methods to ensure workers feel informed and connected include:

  • Communicating strategically and regularly through emails or newsletters, for instance, to share news and events and to celebrate employees’ accomplishments.
  • Meeting in person with each employee to discuss concerns and ways to tackle challenges and improve the work environment.  
  • Scheduling recurring department meetings to keep employees informed of changes and updates and bolster community.

It is also essential to monitor what’s driving resignations. One way is using exit interviews to collect information to improve the employee experience. Then, communicate to existing employees why colleagues left and plans for improvements.

Additionally, employees should, whenever possible, communicate their intent to resign early and in person. They should also provide honest feedback, if requested and depending on the situation, about their reasons for leaving. 

That, in turn, allows employers to provide counter offers or suggest possible solutions to encourage employees to stay. The goal is to show you value what is best for them.

A city street in Japan

How does the Great Resignation in America compare to Japan?

Amanda Kennell
Assistant Teaching Professor of International Studies

Comparing the Great Resignation in Japan and America reveals as much about the two employment landscapes before COVID-19 as it tells us today. 

The pandemic awoke many Americans to a high degree of insecurity in their lives, and they responded by looking for better jobs as America’s economy recovered surprisingly quickly. 

In Japan, the pandemic exacerbated a decades-long recession marked by a divided employment system. On one side are full-time workers with job security and pensions and freeters or people who need full-time employment but have to settle for part-time positions on the other. 

This bifurcated system is supported by Japan’s wonderful national health insurance system. Further, medical masks were a common sight in Japan pre-COVID, so employees had little cause to fear the tantrums that terrified many American workers. 

Thus, the pandemic did not substantially affect anyone’s employment plans: full-timers are loathe to abandon the safety of their current positions, while the already under-employed freeters were relatively protected from both the illness and the public. 

Like Americans, Japanese workers would love to work remotely, but that pales in comparison to basic economic factors like a future pension or the danger of a massive hospital bill.