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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

What the Great Resignation Tells Us About Our Flawed Work Culture

sticky note with "I quit!" on a computer keyboard
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In the middle of the pandemic, Kiera Virgo, 30, was working 40 to 65 hours a week in the corporate project management role she’d been at for six years, while also taking care of her infant. Virgo had joined the company fresh out of college, and was the first person of color and first woman to be hired into a “boy’s club,” she says. Over time, and as other employees left, the job expectations for those who stayed became increasingly unreasonable—she felt pressure to excel every quarter and respond to every email within 24 hours.

“I didn’t like who I’d become,” Virgo says. The strain and stress of work was leaking into her personal life, and even during off hours she was fixated on responding to emails and couldn’t enjoy time with her family. She began having panic attacks, because even when she worked weekends or poured in additional hours, she could never get ahead of the workload. Then, one day, following a performance review in which a supervisor said Virgo was making the company look bad by sending emails at 10 or 11 PM—and suggested she was fudging her work hours—Virgo quit.

Virgo was one of nearly four million workers who resigned in April 2021, which saw the highest quit rates in at least two decades—that is, until August 2021 surpassed it. Headlines proclaiming the Great Resignation is upon us have offered up a swarm of examples of employee burnout, toxic work environments, and the instability of working life—during the pandemic, but before it, too. The widespread coverage has included stories about workers with the resources to do so opting to quit without a new job lined up; workers who have continued to work while considering new jobs, industries, or careers; workers who have had to transition out of their jobs due to potential COVID exposure making their workplace unsafe or because of childcare and caregiving needs; and workers who’ve decided to move into freelance gigs and work for themselves to have more autonomy.

Reporting from Vice detailed how hospitality, fast food, and retail workers were quitting in droves in spring and summer 2021, citing historians who say this is one of the only moments in the history of the U.S. when workers in low-wage jobs have had leverage as “essential workers.” Almost 7% of employees in accommodations and food services quit their jobs in August, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (for context, that’s more than twice the record-high 2.9% quit rate across all occupations). Over half a million workers in the healthcare sector are estimated to have left their jobs the same month. One report showed that employee resignations in healthcare and tech, especially, were trending upward.

But the number of employees actually quitting is only a drop in the bucket compared to those who want to quit. According to a widely-cited report from Microsoft, about 41% of the global workforce was considering leaving their jobs in 2021. Another report from Gallup said 48% of America’s working population is actively job searching or watching for new opportunities. Both suggest the Great Resignation is bigger than those who’ve already quit. Workers—whether they’re staying or leaving—want more flexibility and improved conditions.

The phenomenon is an indictment of a work culture that isn’t just tough, it’s unsustainable. And it’s not the kind of exhaustion, overwork, disillusionment, or change in priorities that can be cured with a couple days off and an out-of-office message. While for some, quitting comes with relief and the promise of reinventing life in conditions that aren’t so beholden to work, for others, the decision to quit or not is a reminder of how tethered work is to life—to healthcare, to living conditions, to any idea of security. The flood of personal decisions to leave jobs is a symptom of systemic problems with work’s hold on people’s lives. And it’s a sign that the way we work needs to be dramatically reimagined.

A Turning Point

When Kelly, 27, moved in with her partner and friends during the pandemic, she began seeing how radically different their working lives were. “I felt like I was the person who was working the most, and the most drained by work, and also making the least money,” says Kelly, who had a job in college admissions at the time (and, like some of the other employees we spoke with, prefers to use her first name only to protect her privacy).

She started thinking about how she’d seen other people make career shifts over the course of the six years she’d been in the same job and how those changes seemed to contribute to their ability to earn more, find better work-life balance, and have more autonomy in their work. Being exposed to how other people work and having frank conversations with friends about what they earn, what their benefits are, and how their bosses treat them was the turning point that pushed Kelly to seek out a new job.

She began her search and ultimately decided to switch fields. Sales appealed to her because of the idea of earning commissions, having more flexibility in her schedule, and being “able to just control my own success in a more direct way,” she says. “I knew that I wanted whatever I was doing to be something where I was more independent.”

But she didn’t feel she could quit right away. “I don’t have savings,” she says. “I don’t have a soft spot to land if I don’t have another job. I have student loans and rent to pay.” Kelly kept her job as she applied for roles in different industries and finally found one that fit her needs: a sales job in construction, where she is excited to learn new things and enjoys being part of the team.

Anthony, 37, had been keeping an eye on other opportunities even before the pandemic. He’d worked at a mid-size nonprofit for nearly a decade, and while he liked his job and those he worked with, he described personnel problems among leadership that contributed to a toxic culture, including inconsistent accountability and scapegoating. In late 2019, an old friend from graduate school messaged him about a start-up she was involved in. Anthony started working with his friend in addition to his day job in April 2020, using hours he’d once spent commuting to feel things out. He ended up loving the challenge and put more and more time into the startup.

In the months after the pandemic hit, as he worked two jobs at once, he remembers thinking “nothing was certain for anybody. Suddenly the prospect of falling flat didn’t seem as daunting as it would in a normal environment because tons of people were in this period of adjustment.” In August 2020, even before the wave of resignation headlines, Anthony finally left his long-time nonprofit role to focus on his new startup path. “Employers can no longer take for granted a pliable or obedient workforce and really need to start appealing to people’s sense of purpose, both personal and professional,” he says. “And that needs to go beyond just lip service.”

A Precarious Position

Many of the circumstances that rendered work untenable in the past—low wages, toxic work environments, lack of affordable childcare—were exacerbated by the pandemic. And COVID undoubtedly triggered what some experts call “turnover shock,” a life event that prompts reflection on job satisfaction, bringing feelings that work wasn’t fulfilling, stable, or safe to a head. A study from Kaiser Family Foundation found that one in 10 women reported quitting a job due to a pandemic-related reason, including feeling unsafe in their workplace.

But systemic inequities impact who can quit. Being unable to afford to miss a paycheck between jobs and having no social safety net, makes quitting feel impossible, even if you have radically reconsidered your work-life balance or work in a toxic environment.

Most working class people, particularly women of color in America, don’t have the option to leave a toxic or all-consuming job, says Jhumpa Bhattacharya, Vice President of Programs and Strategy at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. Bhattacharya oversees Insight CCED’s portfolio on racial and economic equity, including leading work identifying policy and narrative solutions to racial wealth inequities. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous women, for example, were more likely to be on the frontlines as essential workers and to have to solve childcare challenges on their own.

“People should have the option to leave a bad job,” Bhattacharya says. But realistically, many don’t. “To say to a woman, ‘OK, well if you don’t like this job, quit and go somewhere else,’ it’s simply not that easy for us.”

Employees are left to rely on the kindness of bosses and colleagues to understand and work around caregiving responsibilities, health needs, or the simple and overlooked fact that people have lives outside work at all. And workplaces have been able to get away with paying low wages and demanding too much of employees to the point that work has become a necessarily all-consuming facet of life.

“We’ve tied everything to work,” Bhattacharya says. “We’ve tied health insurance to work. We’ve tied benefits to work.” It makes quitting precarious—and staying in a job that no longer fits feels precarious, too.

A Cautionary Tale

A 48-year-old in the greater Chicago area working in a manager-level job (who asked to remain anonymous since she’s currently job hunting) has quit once during the pandemic and is preparing to quit again. But for her, the hold-up is healthcare, as it is for so many others—a 2021 survey from Policygenius found that a third of workers who currently have health insurance would likely leave their jobs if health insurance weren’t a factor.

Toward the end of 2020, she lost several family members and her best friend in the span of four weeks. She was working full-time, attempting to manage grief, and, at one point, dealing with the hospitalization of a child. “I worked for an organization that seemed very caring,” she explains. But when she needed support, she didn’t get it. “My boss just did not understand—like no, please don’t text me while I’m at the emergency room.”

She had a pressing urge to escape from grief: A new job, she thought, would help her have a new start. Her biggest concern was finding a position that offered continuity for health insurance, as one of her children is medically fragile. She found a new job in February 2021—but it wasn’t long before she realized the company culture she’d been presented with during interviews was not at all how the organization functioned. It wasn’t a fit for her—and it didn’t erase her grief.

“I learned a really harsh lesson by thinking that getting a new job was going to change how I was feeling,” she says. “I think there’s a cautionary tale to be had in the Great Resignation and this big wave. You can get a new job, but is that really the solution that you’re looking for, and what happens if you make the move and it is not what you thought it was going to be and it doesn’t solve your problems?”

A facet of that cautionary tale is one that runs through the discourse on the Great Resignation: Because work is tied to so much—health insurance, housing, income, identity—changing a job is often seen as the solution to other problems, including personal and structural ones. But because so many of the issues with work are structural, quitting or taking a new job doesn’t guarantee you’ll find the relief or newfound freedom you were looking for. If we had Medicare for All, the Chicago manager says, people wouldn’t be terrified of having to have a job or feel compelled to stay in a job they hate.

A Great Reckoning

For some, a delay in leaving a job—or finding a next one—ties into the fact that the opportunities available seem just as fundamentally flawed as the jobs they’re trying to leave. Courtney, a 29-year-old who worked in education, decided to quit during the summer of 2021 while she was still job hunting. The way her school was planning to operate for the next academic year didn’t feel safe; her job was part-time and not financially stable enough to warrant the risk; and Courtney wanted to get out of education and direct service work.

“Since quitting, and even before, I have been on the hunt for a job that [fulfills] my needs, to no avail,” she says. Companies demand so much for even entry-level positions and don’t even give applicants a yes or no in response, she explains. At the end of the day, “Jobs need to treat people better and pay them more,” she says.

People want liveable wages and work conditions, Courtney says. And they “don’t want to adapt every point of their life around a job.” That’s the missing piece of the Great Resignation that echoes what people who are leaving their jobs and people who can’t find the jobs they want are saying. America’s system of hiring, ingrained work practices, and current job market mean that headlines about a Great Resignation and a worker shortage coexist—one expert even refers to the situation as the “great mismatch.”

The pandemic has prompted a reckoning with how we work and the so-called “Great Resignation” has opened the floodgates to larger questions about work that have long been accumulating: Is work supposed to be all there is? Is this what work has to be? Is work-life balance actually possible? Can employers offer workers the kind of flexibility they’re looking for?

“Companies aren’t focusing enough on how life has changed in the last year,” Virgo says. She thinks the fact that there’s been a priority shift is key: that work isn’t as all-important as it used to be. “I don’t think the jobs have kind of caught on to that mentality spreading.”

At a time when so much attention is being paid to quitting, we should also be thinking about what would allow workers to make healthy decisions, find good work conditions, and thrive in their careers without sacrificing everything else in their lives—in other words, it’s an opportunity to imagine a world in which life doesn’t revolve around work. While some calls to action include employers establishing a more responsive, sustainable culture of work, the more robust solution includes advocating for the necessary infrastructure—childcare, living wages, paid leave, and more—that is critical to the well-being of workers, giving them the agency to resign, or not.

Ultimately, there is no return to “normal”—or to the idea that work can and should be everything. The reasons for leaving a job during the Great Resignation might vary, but what remains is the idea that our relationship to work is changing—and work needs to change with ​​it.