The Deep Burnout Problem Behind 'The Great Resignation' Predates the Pandemic

The Deep Burnout Problem Behind 'The Great Resignation' Predates the Pandemic

The first time I knew I wanted to quit my job as a television news producer was in 2015. I returned to work from my twelve week maternity leave and didn’t want to be there. During my leave I bonded with my baby and finished my first novel. My spirit was vehement against my return, but what could I do? I had no plan. I continued working, writing, and raising my son. In 2017, months before my debut novel came out my contract was up for renewal. I didn’t want to renew, but still I was not ready to leave the security of my job—my career—to just …write?

God himself said, “Two more years.” I heard it loud and clear. I felt it was the right decision and begrudgingly I signed on to work for two more years while also putting a plan in place to leave television news once and for all.

My last day of traditional, nine to five work, was August 2, 2019. The day before my thirty-third birthday. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was one of the 42.1 million people who quit their job in 2019. A series high at the time as recorded by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. A high that may be shattered by the Great Resignation of 2021.

Texas A&M University Mays Business School Professor Anthony Klotz coined the term. He was unavailable to interview for this story due to end of term grading. However, in an interview with the Washington Post he identified the four trends he noticed in the economy he said led to him coining the term “Great Resignation.” They are:

  1. A backlog of resignations due to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020
  2. Heightened levels of burnout
  3. “Pandemic Epiphanies”
  4. Employees who’d rather quit than return to the office

In 2019, I definitely felt heightened levels of burnout, I’d had my own epiphany about what was most important in my life, and I was over working in the office when my home office was where I really and truly wanted to be. I ached with guilt every time I dropped my son off at daycare knowing I wouldn’t see him again until the next morning for drop off because of my work schedule. At my farewell party I remarked to one of my coworkers, “I’m not leaving because I can’t do the job. I’m good at my job, but I don’t love it, and I can do something else. I love something else. I’m better at something else.”

My story is not uncommon. A coworker of mine at that same television station recently made a big leap of her own from full time anchor and reporter to career coach. She spent eleven years in the business only to leave it in the name of something else.

“I was a classic, classic case of burnout,” said Letisha Bereola, certified life coach and host of the podcast Audacity: Unlocking the Secrets of the Bold.

Bereola said she began to experience burnout in year eight or nine of her eleven year television career. An experience she couldn’t initially name.

“I did not realize that what I was experiencing and how I was feeling and behaving, were all symptoms of burnout until really the last part of my career when I started getting my training as a coach.”

Bereola’s training as a life coach was part of her revised exit strategy after her initial plan was upended by the pandemic. Had the COVID-19 pandemic not shuttered the fellowship program she had applied for, Bereola would’ve have quit her job in 2020. She is one of the backlogged quits caused by the pandemic who made a career transition in 2021 due to burnout.

Burnout has officially been defined by the World Health Organization—the same body that declared COVID-19 a global pandemic—as an occupational phenomenon. They define burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” This chronic stress manifests itself in three ways:

  1. Exhaustion
  2. Cynicism
  3. Professional Inefficacy

The WHO offered this definition in May of 2019 explicitly citing that while burnout is not a medical condition it is part of the International Classification of Diseases. As a result of their definition the WHO noted that it was “about to embark on the development of evidence-based guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace.” While those updated guidelines have not yet been released, employees across the country and around the globe are already advocating for themselves whether they become among the Great Resignees or choose to stay at their place of employment and stand on the front lines for change.

Workforce Analytics company Visier conducted an in-depth analysis to find who and what were driving the Great Resignation. The report found that those leaving the workforce were mostly women, mid-career employees (ages 30-45), and those who worked in the tech and healthcare sectors.

The report notes that many of the women who resigned dropped out of the workforce completely due to childcare demands. They suggest that employers should prioritize programs that reverse this trend writing plainly, “Gender equity is not only good for society, but for business performance too.”

Addressing gender equity in the workplace also helps employees, women especially, address work life balance. It is the compounded stress of work and home responsibilities that lead to feelings of burnout. While women may not be able to quit on their responsibilities at home, we most certainly can quit a job that does not bring us joy.

In her research, Bereola found burnout referred to as an erosion of the soul. She said, “It’s really sad, and it’s unfair, and I think that it robs people of like their essence, their vibrancy. And that’s serious enough for you to go to work the next day and address it, don’t sit there in silence and just deal with it and think this is just how things have to be.”

However, as much as employees have the leverage to address workplace culture and advocate for change, Bereola emphasized that employers need to recognize that burnout is a “them” problem.

“It’s really sad, and it’s unfair, and I think that it robs people of like their essence, their vibrancy. And that’s serious enough for you to go to work the next day and address it, don’t sit there in silence and just deal with it and think this is just how things have to be.”

“[Employers] need to first understand that the problem is within the system, either they created or that was in place before they got there,” Bereola said. “In my experience, there’s a formula that’s worked for businesses for decades and the pandemic has just broken up that formula. [Now], they have to go back to the drawing board, and now figure out what works and they have to factor in the well being of their employees.”

Factoring in the well-being of employees is important and should be beyond the minimum PTO days companies offer (if any are offered at all) or triggering FMLA—which is unpaid—to deal with one’s mental health. Everyone can’t be an entrepreneur, creative, or influencer. A fact Bereola learned quickly in her coaching practice.

She said, “I’m still getting used getting used to the freedom of it all. Being able to put an idea out and work on an idea daily has been a dream. On the flip side of that I think the only thing that has been really hard is entrepreneurship is lonely.”

No matter how sexy or enticing the Great Resignation sounds, our economy still requires employees in traditional roles to make the world work. That our world is being remade by the unending COVID-19 pandemic offers employers and employees an opportunity to work together to come up with a solution that yields productivity without the burnout and leaves time for family, friends, and loved ones as well.

“I want people to know that—a third of your life—the most time you spend, which is working should actually be fulfilling and you should feel happy,” Bereola said.

Whether people at the end of this transformative shift in our workplace culture feel joy, happy, and fulfilled is still to be determined. What is more concrete is that when people aren’t experiencing those feelings and are bogged down by burnout they’re more liable to chuck the deuces and say, “I quit.”

Before you go, check out our favorite mental health apps for giving your brain some extra TLC: 

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