Long into this pandemic, you’re probably more than familiar with the record-breaking statistics. In August 2021 alone, 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs. “The Great Resignation” is a phenomenon we’ve all been hearing about for most of the year. And while many leaders are seeking answers and spending all their energy trying to retain talent, fewer are looking at the underlying reasons for this mass exodus.
But contrary to popular belief, there’s more than a fight about remote work at play here. “Workers are burned out,” Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, tells TIME. “They’re fed up. They’re fried. In the wake of so much hardship, and illness and death during the past year, they’re not going to take it anymore.”
From this statement, it’s not surprising to see why so many workers are jumping ship. The savviest leaders do not get frustrated or try to control their workers from leaving; instead, they see the opportunity as a challenge. For example, focusing on a return to normalcy isn’t the answer. As contributor Ian Cook writes for Harvard Business Review: “Addressing the root causes of these staggering statistics starts with better understanding them.”
We’re all being called to not only retain our teams, but to create environments where employees feel psychologically safe, valued, and empowered.
Smart leaders know that people have deeper concerns than simply whether they have to come into the office or not. As Jessica Stillman explains in her story for Inc, “Workers aren’t just looking for higher pay, more time off, or more days at home (though those things would surely help in the short-term),” she writes. “They’re actually questioning the whole meaning of the daily grind.”
Leaders will benefit if we see this time as a new beginning. A period where we aren’t primarily concerned with the logistics of work, but as a deeper look at the kind of culture we want to foster, in-house. Here are three ways you can identify areas of change in your workplace.
Assess risk factors for burnout
One of the biggest mistakes I see entrepreneurs make is placing the blame of burnout on the individual, when the fault actually lies in the culture. “For a long time, burnout was seen as the worker’s problem—something they needed to fix with self-care and yoga and sleep if they were going to make it in the rat race of life,” Jamie Ducharme writes for TIME, as well.
In the past 15 years of running my business, I’ve learned that exhaustion and disengagement are the clear signs of stagnated management.
Likewise, as social psychologist Christina Maslach explains for TIME, “Nobody is really pointing to the problem, which is that chronic job stresses have not been well managed.” Therefore, it’s imperative for us as leaders to assess the risk factors for burnout among our organization. But the only way to do that is by directly seeking feedback from employees. At my company, we give regular surveys to gain feedback on how people feel about their workloads and our culture’s work/life balance. Are we being flexible where it matters? Are we giving employees autonomy over their jobs—and acknowledging good work? These are questions that will help you determine what’s causing the most stress for your team and take steps to ward off burnout before it takes root.
Be a more thoughtful communicator
A lot has been written about how communicating effectively ensures management and teams are on the same page. All of this is well and good, but being a thoughtful communicator means taking it one step even further.
“Holding on to employees [is not] just about scheduling,” says Stillman. “It’s about showing them their work has meaning and that the company actually cares about them as human beings.” All to say, communicating thoughtfully involves trust-building and active listening. More importantly, it’s an intentional move from leaders.
The main way to be more thoughtful is to practice empathic leadership, or where you as the leader are actively try to understand peoples’ thoughts and feelings.
Fast Company contributors Penny Pritzker and Alexa Von Tobel advise the following: “Make it a practice to start your meetings by taking a moment to ask ‘How are you doing?’ These simple yet genuine check-ins give your team space to share what’s on their mind, and they give you an opportunity to listen and learn.”
Remember to be human
It’s fair to say that the events of the past year and a half have upended our sense of normalcy.
Employees have dealt with tremendous hardship and are still struggling to regain their footing. Our job then, as leaders, is to create an atmosphere that offers some levity.
As Stillman smartly writes, “If you want your people to stick around you’re going to have to convince them that what they’re getting from signing in each day outweighs the stress, lost time, and forgone opportunities it costs them,” Resignation for your employees is less about remote versus in-person work, she explains, and more about reflecting on what is “the role of work” in their lives.
So, how can you go about fostering a more humane environment? According to psychotherapist Esther Perel, it’s as simple as leaders cutting their meetings short and leaving time for play. “Inserting games into the work agenda,” Perel tells Quartz “allows interpersonal relationships among colleagues to flourish, which may ultimately lead to a happier and more fulfilled workforce.”
As workers continue to search for what works best for them, leaders should continue to be understanding and embrace the opportunity to create a fresh start.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of Jotform, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, Jotform allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.