The pandemic has put countless jobs at risk, so why is there an unexpected rise in resignations?
Few employees can deny indulging in a specific genre of daydream: the resignation fantasy. Admit it, you’ve drafted the email, you’ve practised the speech, you’ve stormed the hell out of there. The ultimate pin-up girl for the quitting fantasist? Bridget Jones, who, with triumphant relish, walks out of her publishing company to the tune of Aretha Franklin’s Respect. A glorious moment.
But. You would logically expect the pandemic, with all its job-cutting, soul-crushing prowess, to push quitting even further into the realm of romcom fantasy. In April, the government’s spending watchdog reported that around 2.2 million people could be unemployed by the end of the year in the UK. The figures are surely bleak enough to make anyone cling to employment? But lockdown and the situation-at-large has proved, for some, a catalyst for a ‘pandemic epiphany’. Yesterday, the BBC’s Newsday programme reported that some economists are predicting a wave of resignations in the developed world, with workers choosing to stay at home with family, pursue a different path, or retire altogether – early.
I imagined it would be difficult to find individuals who had voluntarily left their jobs in the last year, but the opposite was true. Dozens whose perspectives and priorities had shifted. There were friends and colleagues who had taken a punt on media freelancing, but also a 60-year-old barrister who had stepped away from a decades-long career after years of increasing frustration (she’s now retraining as a midwife). There was also a 27-year-old who had recently resigned from accountancy, after the realities of remote working heightened her dissatisfaction and diminished her sense of loyalty.
"In short, I'd hated it for a long time but the pandemic exacerbated all the bad bits – more work, fewer resources, and bad management," she says. "When you have distractions and things to spend money on, you put up with way more shit. Working from home and seeing friends and family in a work environment, made it readily apparent how unhappy I was in comparison. Where previously I felt guilty exploring other avenues, now it seemed only right."
For those able to work from home, the remote office has afforded many freedoms, but it’s also dissolved boundaries and made the comfort of clocking off a distant memory. Far from WFB (bed, of course) or taking extended lunch hours, we have become our own bosses – and we are merciless. That might sound self-righteous, especially if you compare WFH complaints to the labour of key workers, but ask anyone who’s lived in their office for the last year if they’ve experienced loneliness, stress and burnout and they’re likely to say yes. A jolly triptych, if ever there was one.
It’s little surprise, then, that unexpected numbers are seeking solace in the ultimate act of resistance: saying no. For years, quitting was a dirty word that suggested defeat, and the concept of leaving a job without another, to drive off into the sunset towards was unthinkable. Financially, it still is for most, but the millennial mindset had already started to shift pre-pandemic; a 2018 Deloitte study showed that 43% of millennials were looking to leave their jobs within two years, with 62% of them not necessarily seeking another full-time job. In the same year, I quit a job with no set plans for future full-time employment. My parents were astounded, but from the moment I resigned, my only regret was not having done it sooner.
A now-freelance travel writer and editor describes the same feeling, despite unforeseen Covid circumstances. "I always planned to work for myself, it was just a case of when," she says. "After 10 years, I felt ready to take the plunge. What I didn’t predict was the pandemic hitting two weeks after I gave in my notice. At first I was terrified and then I just decided to see how it went, and I haven’t looked back since. Now, I wouldn't consider not working for myself."
Another woman I spoke to was unable to work on a freelance basis, but resigned nonetheless after a feeling of stagnation set firmly in. "My development had plateaued and that was the worst thing for me – I could feel it in my body, I could feel it in my brain, it was unnerving," she says. "Fear is the biggest barrier to people getting where they want to and should be based on their skills, so it’s about trying to dispel fears around quitting, while bearing in mind that some financial situations will be more fragile than others."
There was no trace of regret amid the resigners I spoke to, and the overwhelming consensus was: if you're melancholy and you can quit, do quit. In June 2020, writer Ruby Tandoh extolled the virtues of "the art of quitting" in her piece for WeTransfer’s ‘Work Sucks, I Know’ series. "I advise people to quit far more enthusiastically than I ever impel them to stay. It is something like the “dump him” refrain of faceless internet friends: an easy remedy for a systemic wrong", she writes. "A machine never quits: if you can be defiant, you can feel alive." Her words seem prescient now, tapping into a fundamental reason for the unexpected rise of pandemic resignations. Stripped of many freedoms and chronically overworked, quitting feels like a way to regain control. More importantly, it feels like a chance to take a long overdue break. And breathe...