• Over 40% of the workforce is thinking about resigning this year—after rethinking their priorities during the pandemic, workers are looking for more meaning, more autonomy, and more flexibility in their jobs.
  • Today’s workers are expected to be emotionally involved in their jobs, and can feel as if they’re missing out if they’re not fulfilling their dreams at work.
  • The difference between reality and what workers desire from their jobs can cause burnout.
  • Before you resign from your job, make sure you haven’t fallen prey to workaholism, which can affect you in any position.
  • Employers can help their workers find happiness by adapting their policies to the changing workplace. For example, they can continue to offer hybrid or remote employment to workers who don’t wish to return to the office.
  • Strategies like “healing” and “professional polygamy” can empower employees to create their own “self-work romantic utopias.”
  • You can try to achieve happiness in the post-pandemic workplace through employer-based and employee-based changes.
  • The coronavirus pandemic has led to one positive: a Great Realization for workers and their bosses.

Perhaps the key statistic behind the Great Resignation of 2021 is that 20% of workers have now met their colleagues’ dogs, cats, and/or human offspring online. What does this say about the post-pandemic workplace? It says that after enduring the disruptions of Covid-19, people are more likely to feel like their real, authentic selves while on the clock. It means that modernity’s sharp delineation between home life and work life might be a thing of the past. It means that after being forced to completely reshape their work-life balance over the past 16 months, people now expect (and even demand) more meaning, more autonomy, and more flexibility in their jobs. 

And a lot of those people are quitting. They want time off to reflect on what’s really important to them, a sort of existential reckoning triggered by covid. Of course, quitting or changing jobs for the sake of self-fulfillment is a privilege still reserved mostly for well-educated, white-collar workers–with savings in the bank–who can telecommute. It’s simply not an option for low-wage workers who face more risk and financial uncertainty. 

This blog will focus on the psychological needs driving (mostly) hybrid or remote workers to resign from their current jobs post-pandemic. A later piece in this series will look at the mental health of more vulnerable people in our economy, like front-line and minority workers, who might not have the luxury of quitting. 

Pursuing Happiness between 9 and 5

You’re one of those people who has introduced your coworkers to your cat, your kid, or your bedroom decor over the past year, and you don’t want to return to an emotionally claustrophobic workplace culture now that the end of the pandemic is in sight. Do you really have to quit your job to find yourself? In many cases, the answer is no.

Turns Out, You’re Not Your Job

American culture often seems to fuse the concepts of identity and employment. “Who you are” can seem to boil down to “what you do”. In today’s enterprise environment of “self-made” Americans, people are expected to be their own brands, their own CEOs. It’s a phenomenon that Peter Fleming, in his book The Mythology of Work, calls “I, Job.”

Not only that, but popular discourse seems to suggest that your work should be your calling and your passion, with all the emotional attachment that entails. Employment might mean status and success, but even more importantly, many workers believe it should also mean self-actualization and a fulfillment of their ultimate purpose in life. The sociologist M. Pagis calls this idealistic vision the “self-work romantic utopia.” Love, happiness, and other positive emotions are all requirements in this mythological job opening. And if you’re not happy, you’re somehow to blame. 

Perhaps this additional pressure on workers is why so many people experience burnout, which the World Health Organization (WHO) calls an “occupational phenomenon”. Burnout has three hallmarks:

  1. Emotional exhaustion or energy depletion
  2. Depersonalization (or cynicism), i.e., increased mental distance from one’s job
  3. Sense of ineffectiveness or reduced efficacy

The author Jon Malesic, a prominent scholar of burnout, writes that, “Americans’ ideals for work rose not just while their working conditions eroded but because they eroded. That gap between ideal and reality is what fosters burnout.” 

And if workers aren’t necessarily burnt out, they’re definitely tired. A recent global survey by Microsoft found that:

  • 20% of workers say their company doesn’t care about work-life balance 
  • 54% of workers feel overworked
  • 39% of workers feel exhausted

Interestingly, one study found that long working hours and telepressure could contribute to burnout, but self-compassion and a better work-life balance could serve as protection. 

Is It Your Job’s Fault That You’re Miserable, or Are You a Workaholic?

Remote workplaces can be a Shangri-La for workaholics. As telecommuters or digital nomads, workaholics can be online 24/7. Their unlimited access to work means they can email through family barbecues. They can schedule virtual meetings during tropical vacations. Workaholism has been described as a syndrome, an addiction, and a pathology. A recent study defined the workaholic with the following three characteristics:

  • They feel compelled to work due to internal pressure.
  • They continually think about working even when they’re not working. 
  • They do more than what’s expected (by their boss) or what’s required by their financial needs, despite potential damage to their personal life. (Workaholism, unlike the more positive “work engagement”, is linked to negative outcomes.) 

The same study posited that workaholics have personalities shaped by the following traits:

Before you resign from your position, ask yourself if your remote, overwork environment has fueled your workaholism. Perhaps it’s the workaholism, not the job itself, that is contributing to your unhappiness. If that’s the case, you can take steps to change your lifestyle, like forcing yourself to unplug.

Maybe It’s Your Job’s Job to Change

You don’t want to leave Zoom Town and return to the office. Zoom Town has the snacks you love. Zoom Town has your own private bathroom. Zoom Town lets you organize your time in a way that’s both peculiar and productive. In fact, workers perform better and are more productive in hybrid work settings. And 53% of them want to keep working from home. 

Perhaps the burden should be on employers, not workers, to adapt to the new workplace. The researcher Brian Kropp says that employers essentially have two options: They can go back to the way things were before the pandemic, or they can change. Who do you think is going to retain more employees?

If employers want to prevent their workers from quitting en masse, they may need to revise their philosophy of work instead of enforcing rigid guidelines based on outmoded tradition. They can use this opportunity to create a new and improved model of work, one that fosters compassion, autonomy, and authenticity amongst workers. For instance, employers could offer the following for their burnt-out, technostressed, and/or emotionally exhausted employees (or for any employee!):

  1. Let people continue working from home, or try a hybrid model
  2. Offer sabbaticals 
  3. Let full-time workers go part-time 
  4. Give people compelling reasons to come into the office
  5. Provide more autonomy and flexibility
  6. Offer training opportunities for workers who want to migrate between occupations
  7. Address workers’ digital exhaustion
  8. Ask for feedback from your employees–and then listen

Some business operations like employee onboarding, critical decision-making, brainstorming, negotiations, and sensitive discussions may be more effective when conducted in-person. But the past year has shown how few drawbacks there are to living in Zoom Town, population: 1. 

Find Your Work-Life Paradise

You don’t need to give up on finding self-fulfillment and self-realization through work, though your happiness on the job shouldn’t paint the whole picture of who you are. One recent study looked at white-collar workers who sought career advice from life coaches in Israel. The study showed that the “self-work romantic utopia” doesn’t have to be a proposition that either succeeds or fails, with nothing in between. Instead, there are effective strategies that can harness the utopia myth as a useful tool for finding individuality, empowerment, and even happiness at work. For example, workers can try:

  • Starting over in a new career (which was actually the least popular strategy).
  • Healing, i.e., working on self-work relations (which was the most popular strategy). These people either restructured or changed their work activity, or modified their attitudes about their work activity.
  • Idealization, or decoupling from daily work activity. These people may do the same work they’ve always done, but they are able to romanticize their position in order to feel more fulfilled. 
  • Professional polygamy, when you have multiple jobs and can perhaps decouple your identity from the one you like the least. 
  • Vision, when you remain in your current job but envision it more as a stepping stone toward a future dream. 

Career + Cats = The Good Life?

For many people, the past year has been purely about survival. But we’ve also had a lot of time to reflect on how we want to live. What will best serve our mental health in the long-term? Perhaps the answer to 9-to-5 happiness doesn’t have to be all positive psychology, or all workplace revolution. We can change our expectations and our environments. Imagine more humanity, more flexibility, and fewer allergies to cats and kids. Perhaps the Great Resignation of 2021 can be a Great Realization instead.