'How do you re-energise yourself after being part of the Great Resignation phenomenon?'
This question was posed online at a recent executive MBA event for women –and is one we need to answer, urgently.
A widespread problem
We have heard much about the Great Resignation over the last year, with reports of up to 40% of the global workforce contemplating a change in roles, employers or industries, according to Microsoft's research. But whether you call it the Great Resignation, the Great Reshuffle or the Great Renegotiation, what is clear is that this large turnover of staff in companies is partly fuelled by high levels of employee workplace stress.
Women are apparently particularly affected by burnout: a recent LinkedIn survey in the US revealed that 74% of women felt very or somewhat stressed by their work, with 61% of male respondents reporting those reactions. The Women In the Workplace report in 2021 noted that one out of every three women surveyed in the USA said they have either contemplated down-shifting or even leaving the workforce altogether.
The World Health Organisation defines burnout as resulting from 'chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed'. It is characterised by exhaustion, negativity and reduced professional efficacy as well as 'increased mental distance from one’s job'. We have all experienced cognitive overload from two years of pandemic uncertainty as social, community and workplace rules changed again and again, with high levels of anxiety about family, friends and livelihoods. We may have managed to preserve productivity levels during this time, being energised by the crisis and by working from home instead of commuting, but that doesn’t look sustainable.
The effects of burnout are visible in organisations of all kinds. New initiatives often don’t attract enough people willing to be involved to implement them. Collaborative workshops intended to be in-person brainstorming meetings turn into hybrid interactions, as some people sign in remotely both physically and mentally. Team meetings generate fewer sparkling ideas than they did. People are tired.
The need for recovery soon
This is a particular problem right now because although there is a window of real opportunity to rebuild a better post-pandemic working world, that window might not stay open for long. Currently, employees in many industries are able to make choices about where they work, or even when. In the middle of increased competition for talent, individuals can negotiate new working arrangements. In the UK, some employers are even starting to experiment with the idea of a shorter working week, with around 30 companies in the UK running pilot schemes according to the 4 Day Week campaign. Working lives could look very different in the years ahead.
But if we don’t address post-pandemic burnout, we may miss the chance to capitalise on this opportunity, to redesign work so that it works better for everyone.
Organisations know that employee burnout is a major problem, affecting retention, absence, productivity and even reputation. And if they don’t, all they need to do is to take a look at resources such as HR Grapevine to get a sense of the scale of the problem. Many have responded with a plethora of initiatives focused on well-being and mental health - appointing Wellness Coordinators or investing in meditation apps for staff, for example. A recent candidate for a leadership role at a London law firm even proposed to appoint a Chief Happiness Officer.[i] There is much that can be done - but some of it, we have to do ourselves.
Taking action ourselves
The question posed in the webinar makes this point: how can we re-energise ourselves?
People need rest - and that doesn’t simply mean getting more sleep. There are many different types of rest: physical, mental, sensory, creative, emotional, social and spiritual (You can read more about them on Ted’s How to be a better human series). So if you are feeling exhausted, the answer may be to devise your own rest-and-recover recipe. This is easier to say than to do, especially in anxious times. There are no quick fixes but planning even one restorative activity a day could give you an increased sense of control over your own well-being - and that in itself will help.
This is not self-indulgence, but rather a vital task on the daily to-do list, both for your own well-being and probably for your team, too. Research shows that many women in organisations are taking on more responsibility for helping team members to recover. But to support others you also need to support yourself.[ii]
In the midst of all the talk about resigning and reshuffling, we need to be able to find some rest, to recover from the pressures of the pandemic – and so that we can seize the opportunities ahead.
Kathryn Bishop teaches on the Women Transforming Leadership Programme and the Oxford Women’s Leadership Development Programme. She is also the author of Make Your Own Map: Career Success Strategy for Women