I’m part of the Great Resignation. Seven lessons from why I quit

Lisa Ormenyessy

Lisa Ormenyessy quit her job last year and has found joy making ghee. Source: supplied.

If you’re looking at the Great Resignation headlines and thinking it’s all a load of rubbish – think again. I’m living proof it’s happening. 

Last year I decided to call it quits on my career after more than 20 years of coaching and consulting. It turns out I’m not alone.

More people than ever are leaving their jobs. One in five Aussies changed employment last year and a quarter are currently considering leaving their workplace, according to new research from National Australia Bank.

According to the study, the Great Resignation, a trend that has been unfolding in the United States, is expected to take off in Australia from March.

Employees around the world are citing burnout, the demands of family and children, the desire to start something new or to accomplish something they’ve always dreamed of doing, as the key factors in their resignation.

At first glance, for me at least, it was a combination of the former and the latter. But the more I think about it, I can now see there was something deeper at play.

‘What was I working for?’

As the pandemic roared into its second year, I was still ‘all in’ in my career. However, my stress levels were increasing, sleeplessness was now a part of my life, and Zoom fatigue was never-ending (a story already well documented by many). 

The pandemic brought life into focus. Upon closer examination, I found my work-life lacking. What was I working for? Why was I giving work my everything? 

The answer was murky at best.

So I left. After half a lifetime of playing by the rules, and giving my all to my industry and employers, a small and stubborn thought occurred to me: “If I can’t follow my joy at 50, what’s the point?”

To blame this entirely on the pandemic is a gross oversimplification.

Instead, I blame it on what I’m calling: ‘death by a thousand cuts’. 

It’s not something you’ll read about in HR books, nor is it something I could have even acknowledged when I resigned, because it was caused by actions so small and seemingly insignificant. The little things that you can’t quite put your finger on at the time, but collectively they start to weigh you down. Eventually you can’t bear the weight any longer so you leave.

It could be the tone of the organisation, an email, occasional disrespect that gives away someone’s true character, mixed messages from leadership, unsaid or growing expectations, double standards for staff, or decisions that don’t match the organisation’s purported values. Nothing you want to make a big deal out in the moment, but over time they suck the life out of you.

This is something we’re not talking about. Employees are undoubtedly tired, weary, and worried about the state of the world right now, but businesses have a part to play in this. Too many businesses are taking away an employee’s enthusiasm, energy, and dedication over time without refuelling it.

Now that I’m out the other side, here are seven reflections on why professionals like me are leaving and what employers can do to stem the tide.

1. It’s the little things that count

For me, it was simply a tone someone spoke to me in and a flyaway comment about the security of my job in the pandemic. At the time, I was the only one left, doing way more than I was ever hired to do, working for a company I joined 11 years earlier with 30 employees. I was the last one standing after a business sale restructure and I had put my life into that company.

That one comment was enough to make me say ‘enough is enough’. I once jumped out of bed to do this job but it didn’t matter.

When someone leaves, it’s not because something happened or they were frustrated by an individual decision. Remember that every action, decision, email, request (even small and petty things) can leave a bad taste in the mouth. In his book, The Critical Non Essentials, Dr Paddi Lund argues we must take care of the incidentals, the little things, or what he calls the ‘critical non essentials’ if we want to earn respect. So ask yourself, what are the critical non-essentials that matter?

2. Retention matters just as much as recruitment

When recruiting someone, companies put so much time, energy, money, and effort into finding that perfect culture fit for the organisation. The person that not only shows up but turns up, is switched on and is committed to getting the job done.  These people take initiative and put their heart and soul into their role, not because they have to, but because they enjoy it and are genuinely passionate about it.

Everyone wants to find that employee and that employee was me. That statement alone should give any employer pause for thought. 

We need to recognise that retention matters just as much as recruitment. While the new employee receives accolades, the old one is often giving them advice behind the scenes, teaching them about the systems or cleaning up their ‘newbie’ mistakes. 

The longer you’re in a role, the less ‘shiny’ you become. That’s got to change. Where is the engagement plan for employees that have been around for more than 10 years? They don’t exist.

Turnover is costly for any organisation, but the intangible costs are often much higher, with employees taking their knowledge and experience with them when they leave.

3. Ask your people and invite genuine feedback

Employers should take a holistic view of their workforce and investigate what might be causing disengagement. You might be surprised to find out the cause of disengagement is a single process, a regular meeting that could be an email, a decision, or a single manager.

Dig deeper. Ask your people what they would do differently and ask them to tell you straight. 

4. Recognise and reward employees for their dedication and hard work

It’s not rocket science, but it is something that often gets overlooked. A little bit of recognition can go a long way, and it doesn’t have to be anything expensive or elaborate.

Get personal. Find out what the employee values and what’s important to them. A simple ‘well done’ may have changed everything.

5. Cultural change

Create a company culture that encourages employees to be themselves, to take risks and to freely voice their opinions. Employees will be much more likely to stick around if they feel they can be themselves and their voice is welcomed.

6. Encourage employees to have a healthy work/life balance.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to this. Too many companies talk about flexibility but still expect their staff to be on Zoom at 8:30am. That’s not true flexibility. 

Trust goes two ways: employers need to trust employees and employees need to be able to trust their employer to do the right thing by them. That means not working them into the ground and allowing them to have a life outside of work.

The traditional model of the employee working long hours, sacrificing their health and wellbeing for the company is no longer sustainable. 

7. Reignite joy at work

I was one of the lucky ones: during the pandemic I discovered I had a passion for making ghee and have now left to run my own organic and biodynamic ghee brand. The joy that I had for my previous role had been rekindled into something new and now I bounce out of bed every morning. 

Leaving was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, but many people stuck in their roles don’t want to leave. They just want to find some joy at work again. They are mourning the excitement they felt in their first few weeks in the role, that ‘new car’ feeling, the joy, motivation, passion. It’s time to reignite joy at work. 

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