To say my recent column on “The Great Resignation” touched a nerve is an understatement. Hundreds of online comments and dozens of emails from readers who identified with the piece related how pandemic working conditions finally drove them out of jobs they would otherwise have kept.
Some readers said they quit because of acute health concerns during the coronavirus pandemic. Others described a long-simmering but barely tolerable state of discontent in which the pandemic abruptly cranked up the heat, making the situation “jump or boil.” Some people set off on new career paths; others decided to speed up their retirement by a few months or years.
Many departing workers said their employers didn’t take the COVID-19 threat or their concerns about it seriously.
One 15-year government employee said they now plan to give notice after several colleagues who had been ordered back to the office after “doing everything right for 18 months” of remote work ended up with breakthrough cases of COVID-19.
For Katherine Vickery of Tampa, Florida, who was hospitalized in 2015 for flu-induced pneumonia, it was frightening being called back to work inside a busy campus building. “Working in an environment where vaccines and masks were not required terrified me,” she said in an email.
The university where Vickery worked called employees back to campus because “deans wanted to see bustling buildings again so students could have a ‘normal’ experience,” according to Vickery.
Employees with health concerns were required to apply under the Americans With Disabilities Act to keep working remotely. After submitting documentation from two doctors, Vickery was offered the “accommodation” of a solo office inside a busy academic building.
Despite being raised on the principle that “if you get a good job with benefits you keep it and never leave,” Vickery left for another university that lets her work fully remotely — and with better pay and benefits.
For some, the pandemic had a cascading effect on job dissatisfaction. In his 25 years working in security, John Smith had never seen operations managers work evenings or weekends. When he became an operations manager last March for a small security company in Cleveland, he was told he would work normal business hours, Monday through Friday.
But it turned out that his firm was constantly understaffed, with employees calling out at the last minute because of illness or other pandemic-related emergencies. After five weeks of working double shifts and weekends, Smith had had enough: “For the first time in my working life, I sent an email to my manager and informed her that I quit with no notice,” he said in an email.
For others, the pandemic created space and time to rethink their priorities and motives. Maria Ibgui, an international finance professional in Versailles, France, with nearly two decades’ experience, had quit her job at the end of 2019 because of burnout. Ibgui spent the pandemic looking after her mental health and family and getting in touch with her personal values, “which before were masked by self-inflicted ‘imperatives’ of our hectic lives.” With plans to start a career in a new field, Ibgui is adamant: “For no money in the world would I go back to my pre-covid life.”
And many were pushed to the breaking point by employers who responded to pandemic staffing shortages by increasing demands on remaining staff, rather than reducing expectations accordingly.
After 25 years managing human resources for various agencies in the federal government, Mike Stein of Potomac, Maryland, quit a job he’d started during the pandemic after being “micromanaged and disrespected like I’ve never experienced even up to my last day.” As he told me in an email: “If you are close to retirement and your work is completely fungible and your benefits all transfer and your work can be done in any organization on the planet . . . there is no reason to stay and fight stupidity.”
Michelle, a North Carolina tech worker who asked to be identified only by her middle name because she is still working for her employer, reported that “during COVID my specific team was cut down from 40 to seven, and we experienced a hiring freeze that lasted about nine months.”
Her company is now back in “rapid growth mode” and growing faster than replacements can be hired, Michelle said.
A Washington state resident with nearly four decades of experience in child care left a child-care center where she had worked for four years after management changed practices in ways that she feared could endanger workers and their vulnerable charges.
She said in an email that initially, “not even complicated pandemic protocols in a classroom full of toddlers discouraged me from going to work every day. I truly felt essential.”
But management at her local center started making changes to workload and demands on staff that, she said, made it difficult to balance safety and productivity, and the physical and emotional strain drove staffers to quit.
The woman finally resigned in August over her concerns that the center’s practices weren’t in line with appropriate protocols — and that the day-care facility’s teachers would bear the blame for any resulting incidents. “If I had been fired for any reason involving state law, I would never [be allowed to] work in my field again,” she said.