Employee Motivation

Why is everyone resigning? Addressing 5 causes behind the Great Resignation

If you manage people, you’ve probably heard the term “the Great Resignation.” There’s a chance you’re even living it, as waves of employees burn out and leave their jobs during this pandemic. 

But it’s important to recognize that the coronavirus alone isn’t responsible for the Great Resignation of 2021. This wave of employee turnover and burnout didn’t happen overnight (or over the past year and a half). It’s been a long time coming.

The question People leaders need to ask is: Why is the Great Resignation actually happening? What brought us to this point? In this post, we explore this question and share employee retention strategies and tips to help you evaluate your organizational culture and address employee turnover.

But first, how pervasive is the Great Resignation?

Well, let’s look at the numbers: 

The Great Resignation of 2021 by the numbers.
The Great Resignation by the numbers.

This movement is no joke. But—while the stats may be alarming—the Great Resignation presents an urgent opportunity for People leaders and C-suite executives to prioritize employee retention by reflecting on what’s not working, and commit to building workplaces employees flock to, rather than run from.

As Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Strategist and Consultant Lily Zheng wrote on LinkedIn:

“I've spoken to too many leaders who are reacting to the #GreatResignation as if it's a natural disaster, striking without warning. They're flipping through the crisis response playbook for any idea they can use to convince their fleeing employees to stay. I offer one piece of advice to these folks: Do some reflection and remember what you've put your workers through.”

Five reasons for employee turnover—and strategies you can use to stop it. 

Remember: the catalyst isn’t the cause. So if it’s not the pandemic alone, what’s actually behind the Great Resignation fo 2021? Let’s take a look at five reasons for these historically high employee turnover rates and how you can address them in your organization.

1. Employee burnout rates are through the roof.

Employee burnout is a long-term reaction to stress that usually comes with mental, emotional, and physical side effects. While 42% of employees were already experiencing burnout before the pandemic, that number skyrocketed to 72% a few months into lockdown—largely due to increased anxiety, heavier workloads, and people taking less time off. 

But many employers still aren't addressing employee burnout in their retention strategies. One in five workers believes their employer doesn’t care about their work-life balance. And they've had enough. They’re quitting in droves, looking for companies that care about their wellbeing. Others are staying put—but at a cost to organizations. The lost productivity of an actively disengaged employee is equal to 18% of their annual salary. This means a company of 10,000 employees with an average salary of $50,000 each will lose $60.3 million a year due to employee burnout.

If you're worried that burnout might be an issue at your company, here's what you can do:

Check in with your people and get to the root cause. 

In response to the high rates of burnout, many employers are introducing more mental health days and comprehensive benefits. While these are great initiatives, they’re often temporary fixes to a deeper problem. If you’re concerned about employee burnout, it’s time to re-examine your existing culture, strategies, and expectations. 

Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Are we checking in with employees (via survey, structured one-on-ones, recurring reviews, etc.) consistently to understand how they’re feeling at work?
  • Are we giving our employees the flexibility to create the best work environment for themselves? 
  • As an organization, have we adjusted our expectations to align with the current reality? Can we continue to be flexible?
  • Do we have programs in place to ensure our employees—especially our top performers—are being appreciated for their hard work during these stressful times? 
  • Have we created a culture where people can raise their hands to let us know when they’re overworked?
  • Does leadership model healthy work-life balance behaviors?

If you answered ‘no’ or ‘I’m not sure’ to any of these questions, you likely need to dive deeper into that specific grey area and reevaluate your employee retention strategies.

Want more inspiration? Learn how Immunogen supports the wellbeing of its employees while everyone's remote.

2. Companies aren’t providing the flexibility employees need.

When COVID-19 sent so many people home, employees realized how powerful (and possible) it is to be able to decide where, how, and when they work. Which is why nine in ten employees continue to demand flexibility from their jobs.

Too many organizations have dismissed this shift, and expect people to quietly return to the office. But this will likely result in significant turnover, as 54% of employees are considering leaving their job in this new normal if they’re not afforded some form of flexibility in where and when they work. 

It’s important to note that this lack of flexibility is impacting some people more than others. It’s actively keeping women out of the workforce, who have been quitting in huge numbers during the pandemic due to the pressures of caregiving. Companies that don’t offer flexible working options are likely to suffer more turnover among women and struggle to attract them.

Thinking flexibility is an issue at your company? Here's what you can do:

Give employees a choice, where possible.

We recognize that not every company can allow every employee to go fully remote, or sustain a hybrid setup. But you can introduce flexibility into other aspects of your company culture as an employee retention strategy. For example, you can: 

  • Allow flexible working hours or working days.
  • Let employees work from their location of choice once a week or upon request.
  • Provide working parents with additional child care benefits to compensate for the lack of flexibility.

If leadership buy-in is a blocker, it might be helpful to start a conversation around how to nurture a healthy, productive workforce (hint: surveillance and control aren’t it).

Want more inspiration and employee retention strategies? Learn how Medidata identified flexibility as the #1 need of their workforce—and what they did next.

3. Manager training continues to fall short. 

Managers have the most influence on an employee’s job satisfaction, wellbeing, and likelihood to stay at a company. In fact, 57% of employees have left at least one company because of their boss. But being a manager isn’t intuitive. It requires an entirely different set of skills than being an individual contributor, which is why training programs are essential.

In these uncertain times, managers are playing an especially critical role in supporting their employees. Or, at least, they should be. But due to a lack of effective training, many managers aren’t giving employees what they need, causing them to burn out and look for new jobs. 

Managers themselves are frustrated by the lack of support from their employers. They’ve been asked to take on significantly more responsibility without being given additional tools, resources, or guidance. The employee retention numbers reflect the frustration: as of December 2020, the resignation rate for managers was nearly 12% higher than the previous year.

So what can you do to up-level your employee retention strategies, manager training, and development programs?

Offer a personalized learning experience for managers.

Managers require different skill sets depending on their level, direct reports, and previous experience. An ideal training program is personalized to a manager’s specific needs, rather than one-size-fits-all. And it should cover different topics that managers can choose from, such as: 

  • How to give more candid, caring feedback and performance reviews
  • How and when to appropriately recognize and celebrate your team
  • How to align coaching styles to employee preferences
  • How to create an employee experience that retains workers
  • How to have tough conversations that foster personal growth and change 

Looking for more manager training inspiration? Check out these resources:

Stop employee turnover in its tracks: retain people with recognition.

Explore our platformGet the roadmap.

4. Employees are feeling underappreciated.

Recognition—from a simple ‘thank you’ to an experiential reward—is a powerful way to show your people that they’re seen, heard, and valued. There’s a reason why 69% of employees say they’d be more likely to stay at a company if they received more recognition. This is especially true now when people feel isolated and disconnected from their teammates. 

Unfortunately, many companies have let recognition fall by the wayside during the pandemic. As a result, employees feel burnt out and unappreciated despite all the extra effort they’ve put in during this absurdly stressful time. And they’re looking for companies that will recognize their contributions. In fact, a survey of over 1,000 U.S. employees found that a third of workers who feel unappreciated are looking for employment elsewhere. 

But before you rush to launch a recognition program, it’s important to think carefully about your objectives. If your goal is employee retention and positive sentiment, you should recognize people in ways that matter to them.

Focus on meaning > money.

When you invest time and money into recognizing your people as a retention strategy, you want it to be impactful, to result in higher employee engagement, motivation, and delight. While it may be tempting to throw a cash bonus at your top performers, this won’t have the lasting impact that you hope it will. Instead, consider these tips: 

  • Choose experiences. Research has found that cash rewards trigger a process of mental accounting: the recipient blends the cash reward with their salary and uses it for a utilitarian purpose like paying the bills. Not very memorable or meaningful...But if you give an employee the chance to experience something new, or do something they love, you’ll help them create a memory. Curious about what experiential rewards look like? You can tour a sample of our experiential rewards menu here.  
  • Give your employees a choice. As we mentioned before, your workers crave choice and flexibility more than ever. The best recognition programs are personalized and allow employees to choose a reward that aligns with their interests, personalities, and lifestyles. Maybe that’s a cooking class with the whole family, or a skydiving adventure with their partner, or just a midweek massage to take the edge off—the point is, recognize employees on their terms.
  • Let your managers drive recognition. Employees perceive favorable treatment from a manager as synonymous with support from the organization. Empower your managers to give recognition consistently, from saying ‘thank you,’ to giving public shout-outs, to distributing rewards, and you’ll see employees’ motivation levels and job performance increase accordingly.

Learn more about the link between recognition and retention in our eBook: "Retaining your top talent is your #1 priority".

5. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are missing the mark. 

Over the past two years, conversations around race and social justice have become more and more mainstream. Companies and workers alike have begun to seriously reflect on the impact of systemic injustice—and their responsibility to address it. 

People who have been historically marginalized, on the other hand, are being vocal about how much safer they feel working from home, where they can escape (to some extent) the stress and burnout of constant microaggressions and the sense of not belonging.

All of this has resulted in people demanding more from companies when it comes to DEI efforts. While many employers responded with a flurry of social media posts, initiatives, and programs to support their workforce, it's become clear that these actions are missing the mark, and aren’t a meaningful or authentic employee retention strategy.

But for many people, this is a non-negotiable. They’re leaving in search of companies that offer flexibility, a sense of safety and belonging, and a genuine commitment to social justice. 

Our recommendation? Get really real as you assess your company’s efforts around DEI.

Examine your motivations.

Startup Advisor and Diversity and Inclusion Strategist, Jennifer Kim, put it best when she said: 

“Before launching a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative, stop and ask yourself: Why are we doing this? Too often, it’s about wanting to feel better, rather than to actually solve problems. This kind of motivation leads to performative DEI, which can do more harm.”

So the first step is to figure out what, exactly, you’re trying to achieve. Talk to employees, talk to leaders, talk to folks outside of your company. Once you have your objectives figured out, you may want to bring in a DEI-focused expert or consultancy to help you build your program with thoughtfulness and care. If you’re not sure where to start, below are a few companies that can help you get the ball rolling: 

Addressing the Great Resignation of 2021 at your organization

The Great Resignation. It’s a movement in response to long-standing organizational issues, shifting societal priorities, and a global pandemic. And it presents a unique opportunity for all of us—executives and People leaders—to create better workplaces for our employees moving forward. Take action now to make sure you can prevent employee turnover and burnout, and attract the next generation of workers.

Here are the key resources we mentioned in this post if you want to bookmark them for future reading:


Thought leaders

DEI consultancies

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