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What can we learn from the Great Resignation?

Recent attention has been given to “The Great Resignation” and labor shortages across the country. From April to September 2021, more than 24 million American employees left their jobs, marking the highest number in the 20-year history of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ job openings and labor turnover survey. As this is a recent phenomenon, limited research has sought to identify the reasons why workers left their jobs en masse. Various explanations have been offered, such as fear of illness, burnout, toxic organizational culture, insufficient salaries or benefits and a desire for work-life balance.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the workforce has faced unprecedented challenges. However, industries have been differentially affected. Frontline healthcare workers, or workers in low-wage jobs, such as hospitality and the food service industry, have borne the brunt of the pandemic.

Healthcare is experiencing a significant labor shortage that was predicted prior to COVID-19 and exacerbated due to the pandemic. Healthcare workers cite longer hours, psychological trauma, inadequate staffing and burnout as the leading reasons for leaving their jobs during the pandemic. There are vast public health implications to healthcare worker shortages. Patients have experienced limited access and delays to necessary care. Healthcare workers who have remained on the job are experiencing record rates of depression.

Workers in hospitality and the food service industry experienced the highest quit rates. Many of these workers, upon assuming increased COVID-19 exposure risk, reassessed their priorities at work and in life. Expertly put by Ansari and Hernandez: “Pandemic labor conditions lay bare the exploitation to which [workers] are subject; paradoxically, this presents an opportunity for solidarity. It might actually bring workers closer together.”

Successful unionization campaigns at Amazon and Starbucks, among others, have brought a national spotlight to labor issues. Collective voice among
workers has called attention to pandemic-related labor concerns, as well as labor policy and systems failures. While inadequate personal protective equipment and limited social distancing on warehouse floors were acknowledged early by workers, other issues such as wages, job security, privacy and work-life balance have come to the forefront. As a response to “The Great Resignation”, consumers have altered their behavior, and in industries where workers make low- or subpar wages and have high quit rates, some employers have raised wages or provided enhanced benefits packages. Workers continue to successfully leverage their collective voice and shared power to improve conditions.

Worker health disparities remain evident across demographic and geographic divides, and historical and systemic racism has led to inequitable opportunities for healthy work. The Center for Healthy Work, a NIOSH-funded research center, aims to address these inequities by
systemically improving worker health through racial justice–centered strategic policy, systems, and environmental change initiatives to support communities in building and sustaining healthy work.

As society’s perception of and experience with labor and employment shifts, we must focus on building worker power. Increased power amongst workers and worker-centered organizations promotes collective voice and increased attention toward labor issues which promotes healthier working conditions for all.

Elizabeth Fisher is the deputy director of the UIC Center for Healthy Work.