The Great Resignation: Sorry, I quit!

The Great Employee Exodus has become a reality in a post-Covid world where professionals are putting the value of a work-life balance over paychecks and promotions

By Lekha Menon

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Published: Sat 18 Dec 2021, 8:34 PM

Last updated: Fri 10 Feb 2023, 11:30 AM

Until recently, Krithika Sahni (name changed on request) held a top position in a media house, a role she had worked hard to get into. It was stressful and strenuous but Krithika gave it her all, believing she was truly in love with her job.

One day she realised she wasn’t.

“The lack of a dignified work atmosphere, childish politics, zero appreciation and no clarity on the scope of the role” — Krithika is matter-of-fact while listing the reasons for quitting within six months of joining the organisation.

Stepping into the freelance zone, Krithika now has more clarity of what she wants: flexibility, a hybrid-friendly work atmosphere, strong learning opportunities, an environment that encourages peer growth and clearly defines responsibilities. “Most importantly, it has to be a milieu where personal wellbeing is not considered a burden but a priority that heightens performance,” she adds.

Krithika’s views aptly sum up the mindset of an entire post-pandemic generation of professionals who are re-writing the rules of workplace engagement. As the world slowly hobbles towards recovery, people — across age-groups, sectors, hierarchy and countries —are quitting by the dozen, with a ‘thanks, but no thanks’ note to their bosses. And their motivations to do so sound eerily similar: disenchantment with the current working parameters and a desire to chart a path that does not make them slaves to their companies.

‘The Great Resignation’ — or ‘The Big Quit’ as the phenomenon is being called — has joined the list of Covid-19-induced glossary such as ‘Work from Home’ and ‘New Normal’. Coined by Anthony Klotz, a professor of management in Texas who predicted the trend early in 2021, mass resignations have caused a seismic shift in corporate foundations, forcing a huge rethink of career goals, growth and priorities.

In an interview to, Klotz said, “Right now, people are searching for meaning and purpose. In some cases, people have the answers, but in others they don’t… Over the last 18 months, a lot of organisations have been firefighting — rightfully so — but they’ve gotten away from reminding employees of how their jobs create meaning and purpose in other people’s lives and their own lives — the pro-social piece. I tell leaders, it’s time to take purpose-driven leadership seriously, because you can help employees make sense of ‘What am I doing for eight hours a day?’”

This is also the time to talk about inclusivity, he argued in the same interview. “Employees want to bring their whole selves to work. A lot of the reason we don’t want to go back into the office is because we have to hide part of ourselves there; we have to fake who we are. It’s draining to engage in these antics, where we’re pretending we’re someone we’re not…”

Numbers Tell The Story

So, what happened to predictions that the massive layoffs, huge pay cuts and redundancies — buzzwords that defined the 2020 job narrative — would lead to increased need for security and high anxiety? As it turns out, people (primarily millennials and Gen Zers), prefer saying ‘I quit’, rather than staying in unfulfilling jobs. Take a look at some numbers that shook the world:

* In the US, a whopping 4.3 million quit the workforce in August 2021.

* A Microsoft survey found 41 per cent of its employees wanted to leave their jobs.

* In Germany, 1/3rd companies are short of skilled workers.

* Data collected by OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) show that 20 million workers have not returned to work in 38 member countries since the world opened up.

* In India, the attrition rate in the tech sector is up by 23 per cent while in the Caribbean, one in six workers aged 18-29 has left the workforce.

*A similar phenomenon is occurring in China since April 2021, referred to as Tang Ping.

While data for the UAE is not available, recruiters say this part of the world has not been left untouched either. “We are absolutely seeing a shift in mindset and values among employees,” says Mimi Nicklin, founder and CEO of Freedm, a global creative agency. “The trend is more complex here due to visa requirements, but as the UAE embraces more fluid freelance and business setup visas, people are looking at options that offer them the lifestyle and balance they need. I am meeting more people than ever who are willing to resign from jobs despite not having another role lined up.”

Arguably, a lot of this attitudinal shift can be attributed to companies’ behaviour over the last 20 months, be it with respect to treatment of staff, drastic pay cuts, erasure of benefits or sudden retrenchments. Nicki Wilson, owner of Genie Recruitment, a consumer dedicated recruitment agency, blames it on leadership. “Not many leaders lead their companies with the employee in mind. They took kneejerk reactions without necessarily thinking about the consequence and the ripple effect it may have for the future. Now that the dust has settled and opportunities are coming again, employees are moving,” she analyses.

Priya S, a journalist with a leading newspaper in India, decided to put in her papers when the insecurity about her job became too much to bear. The stress of working from home, constantly changing terms and conditions laid down by her company and salary reductions that set her back financially, collectively took their toll. “In the last one year, the only journey I made was from the bed to my sofa. It affected my physical and mental health. Quitting was not an option I could afford but I knew that if I didn’t do it now, I’d never be able to snap out of the cycle,” says Priya.

Like Priya, millions of people are giving themselves a breather from the uncertainty surrounding modern-day corporate culture, sometimes even without a proper Plan B. Meanwhile, for those with an adventurous spirit, the willingness to look beyond the typical confines of a 9-6 job has opened up new avenues. As Ananda Shakespeare, founder-CEO, Shakespeare Communications notes, a lot of people who couldn’t find work in the UAE during the pandemic, relocated to their home base and set up on their own. Some professions like that of graphic designers or personal trainers offered high freelance wages and easier setups in countries like the UK and Canada. “If you are hard-working and entrepreneurial yet don’t feel valued at work or you’ve taken a pay cut, why wouldn’t you go out on your own?” asks Ananda.

Pandemic: A Wakeup Call

Needless to say, the pandemic has played a huge part in the churn we are currently witnessing. In the US, where the trend has been most pronounced, the mass exodus was put down to unemployment benefits provided by the government, inadequate pay by organisations and fear of the virus. But the real elephant in the room was (the lack of) work-life balance.

For many people, the unimaginable stress and burnout of 2020, coupled with the realisation of the fragility of life caused by the virus, has led to a renewed interest in mental health conversations that were otherwise just restricted to HR manuals. Mental health expert Nancy Zabaneh, founder of Darshan Collective, says, “The Great Resignation has unmasked major deficiencies in employee wellness systems. In essence, the pandemic led the way for an awakening to the pent-up disillusionment with our conventional model of work, the structures of which are now crumbling.”

Simply put, the pandemic epiphany has led people to have new-found respect for their lives — one that didn’t require them to wait till retirement to live the way they wanted. The consequence: more freelancers becoming a part of the gig economy, some deciding to upskill to pivot their careers while others taking the startup route.

Mimi believes that with the upheaval of the last two years reminding people that they are only pawns in the bigger picture, a lot of them are “now voting with their feet in order to meet the emotional and lifestyle values they wanted to fulfill”.

She herself is a lived example of this thought process. An advertising leader, author and empathy advocate, 2020-2021 was the year Mimi decided to resign from a corporate role to reinvent her career and make an impactful, sustainable change in her industry. “The reality of my resignation was that there was no way I could afford to live the life I had in Dubai,” she says. “It meant a relocation to Sri Lanka and spend my time between Dubai and Colombo. But I couldn’t have asked for more. I have the best of both worlds; a culturally-driven, nature-fused and affordable lifestyle in Sri Lanka and access to all the opportunities of Dubai!”

Of course, not everyone has found his or her true path like Mimi. For several others, the decision to quit has been a tough one, especially in a volatile economy.

Krithika admits she had plenty of doubts especially since it was not easy to walk away from a brand that was built from scratch. “You constantly question if you could have done things differently,” she admits. “Did you give too much time to the job? How will you explain this decision to future employers? Also, as a young employee suited for mid-senior roles, would prospective employers give you the position you are professionally adept for, or look at your age?”

But over time, realisation sank in that it’s not just the brand you are working on, it’s also your personal wellbeing. The quest for peace finally triumphed over nagging doubts about staying on in a stressful job.

Then there are others like Taanya Iyer who didn’t mind letting go of a satisfying job for something that guaranteed a better lifestyle. A senior content creator with an India-based MNC, Taanya quit her media job after 10 years in the field when she got an offer that brought her more money, position and brand. “In my previous job, I learnt a lot but never got monetary satisfaction. It wasn’t easy to change industries but I decided to take the leap of faith. The last few months have made me realise that it’s okay to have expectations, some will be fulfilled while others will take time. Sometimes, it’s fine to be selfish and put your needs ahead.”

Currently, Taanya just wants to go with the flow and see where life takes her. “I just got my second dose of vaccine and am saving up for travel in the future,” she says when asked about her plans.

Living in the Moment

Such a ‘live in the moment’ approach is finding a lot of takers, turning the meaning of success and career growth on its head. While earlier, a job that offered a fat paycheck, an upwardly mobile lifestyle and regular promotions were the main motivators, the focus now has shifted to company culture. Nicki observes that smaller companies are attracting top talent. “We are seeing many top-tier candidates taking a flat move or even a drop in salary in their quest to find the environment that will make them happy. From chasing the next fancy job title/ multinational business, they feel the key to success is being happy in what you do,” she says.

Nancy concurs: “People are redefining life and success. A higher premium is being placed on physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. A big remuneration and fancy benefits are no substitutes for meaningful connections.”

Perhaps these ideas were always there at the back of every stressed out employee’s mind but the disruption caused by the pandemic ironically also offered some solutions to their dilemmas — primarily thanks to WFH. For Aasiya Jagadeesh, a creative photographer, it was the experience of working from home in 2020 that gave her the courage to leave her job after work started from office in 2021. “When we returned to office, I missed the flexibility of being a working mother yet getting time to spend with my child. I felt I could lead a more meaningful, well-balanced life as a freelancer. All these years, the security of a monthly salary kept me from taking the step but last year was an eye-opener, and I finally decided to take the plunge. If not now, then when?”

It remains to be seen how long this trend will continue before the demand-supply ratio of jobs goes back to pre-pay cut days but as of now, the future of work appears to have changed inexorably. Nicki believes, “We will see companies known to have good working environments retain their talent for years or even decades. There will be a rise of smaller companies who have been able to keep a ‘family feel’ and there will be many success stories of leaders who really led with empathy.”

As for employees, a healthy salary alone won’t be enough to tempt them back to office. Companies will have to do a lot more. Krithika lays down the rules. “Respect your employees. Diversity and inclusion are not just fancy words for the website. Those are strong aspects for employee well-being. Your employee is not your property. Pay heed to their needs, wants and viewpoints,” she says.

Perhaps the ‘Great Resignation’ might just lay the path for a ‘Great Revaluation’ or ‘Reformation’ on the work front.

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