The so-called "great resignation" has been one of the defining trends in the labor market during the second half of the Covid pandemic.
Official data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that 4.4 million people left their jobs in September 2021. While many thought that was the peak of the wave, January's figures topped it, with 4.5 million people leaving their jobs.
The reasons for this trend are many and varied, from the buffer provided by the cash payments given to people by the government to the renewed focus on purpose and meaning that the pandemic has invoked within people.
Burnout has also loomed large, with OC Tanner's Global Culture Report revealing that burnout levels have risen by 15% as a result of the pandemic.
Indeed, the survey of 40,000 employees from around the world revealed that in the most toxic cultures, burnout is as high as 81%. The severity of burnout was underlined in 2019 after it was classified as an occupational disease by the World Health Organization, and the implications of it for employers are considerable.
As research from the University of Turku in Finland demonstrates, the pandemic, and especially the wholesale migration towards remote working, has resulted in an unprecedented blurring of the boundaries between our personal and professional lives.
This has been especially challenging for women, with various studies illustrating that women continue to bear the bulk of the domestic duties, especially with the addition of home schooling.
Couple this with often inadequate home working environments and the stress and uncertainty caused by the changes required in both what we do and how we do it during the early months of the pandemic, and it is perhaps not surprising that stress levels have risen.
Indeed, even having the passion and purpose that so many are craving can exacerbate the problem, as research from University College Dublin illustrates. The researchers reveal that when our passion is "obsessive", our work can end up controlling our lives, and real problems emerge in terms of disconnecting.
Nonetheless, job embeddedness remains central to efforts to tackle the flow of people leaving our organisations today.
The concept, first proposed in a paper by Terry Mitchell and Brooks Holtom in 2001, describes six factors that can determine whether a person is embedded in their job, and therefore likely to stay or leave it: links, fit, and sacrifices considered on and off the job.
Subsequent research suggests that when an employee is deeply embedded, they are more likely to stay even if they experience unpleasant work conditions or the kind of stresses that would otherwise cause them to quit.
Of course, as the pandemic has laid bare, the off-the-job element of embeddedness is just as important as an on-the-job element. While we may be fond of our colleagues, passionate about our work, and supportive of the mission of our employer, we are also likely to have attachments outside of work, such as to our family.
After surveying several hundred working mothers, we found that when there is a significant conflict between our work and personal lives, we tend to focus our time and energy on the area in which we are highly embedded.
This is because embeddedness plays a crucial role in the conservation of resources, which when we experience challenging circumstances are usually stretched. Indeed, conflicts are often about resource management, so any activities that expand our resources in one domain can help in another.
This was reflected in research from the University of Bath, which found that having supportive colleagues and a positive work environment was conducive to transferring that positivity into our home environment. Similarly, a loving relationship at home was found to translate into greater creativity and dedication at work.
A complex relationship
This finding is especially important given the blurred boundaries that the pandemic has introduced between our personal and professional lives. Our research, which was conducted before the pandemic, shows that off-the-job embeddedness can make someone experiencing work-life conflict more likely to leave, and this is surely only likely to be exacerbated by a pandemic in which work-life conflicts have become ever more pronounced.
As a result, if managers want to stave off the "great resignation" and encourage valuable employees to stay, it's vital that they consider not just on-the-job embeddedness but also off-the-job embeddedness.
While taking an active interest in the personal lives of employees may instinctively feel like managerial over-reach, there are various approaches managers can take that can improve both on- and off-the-job embeddedness.
For instance, as research from the University of Konstanz reveals, allowing employees to volunteer in their local community can provide valuable skills while also allowing employees to contribute to their local community.
Similarly, autonomy is something that is widely cited as a key work benefit and this could be extended to how, when, and where people work to provide benefits to one’s work-life balance.
Some employers offer support for employees when they wish to buy their first home, while others offer ample leave for things such as maternity and bereavement.
As research from Rotman School of Management illustrates, when we have a better work-life balance, we’re typically more productive than when the two are in conflict.
This enhanced productivity then translated into enhancements in career development, job mobility, and promotions. If we want to retain the talent we have, it’s vital that we’re able to ensure that the personal and professional lives of our workforce are aligned and inter-role conflict is reduced.
David Allen is Professor of Human Resource Management and Employment Relations at Warwick Business School.
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