By Dr. Loren Martin
The Great Resignation of 2021 saw an average of approximately 4 million people quit their jobs each month, up from 3.5 million in 2019. Employee disengagement is a primary cause of turnover and a major burden on the economy. Even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic over 70% of the U.S. workforce was estimated to be either passively or actively disengaged costing companies up to $550 billion dollars due to increased accidents, reduced productivity, and greater turnover. Based upon the increase in turnover rates over the past year, it is safe to assume that the Covid-19 pandemic caused an increase in disengagement.
Reasons as to why an employee may be disengaged are best explored through the Conservation of Resources framework originally proposed by Hobfoll (1989). The COR model is based on the theory that people work to retain, protect, and build resources and are threatened by the potential or actual loss of these resources. As this relates to disengagement at work, resources may include job resources such as control, security, complexity, and support; personal resources mostly related to resilience; and social resources defined primarily as social support. Perceived or actual losses of any of these resources can cause disengagement with work.
Employees perceive that they have control in their jobs when they have decision-making authority, choice in the work that they pursue, and autonomy over work scheduling. Disengagement can thus occur when job control is threatened or limited. The restrictions in working environments caused by the Covid-19 mitigation efforts certainly created a disruption in the sense of job control for many workers.
Employees experience security with their jobs when their work is perceived as stable. Threats to job stability cause insecurity leading to disengagement, often resulting in employees seeking other job opportunities. Stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns created a great perceived and actual threat to a number of businesses resulting in a large increase in job insecurity.
Employees who are positively challenged in their routines experience greater job complexity. This increased complexity is associated with greater cognitive stimulation and demands. Employees with greater levels of job complexity are thus more likely to be motivated to perform work demands as they step up to meet challenges that are before them. On the other hand, jobs that are routine or monotonous are likely to cause withdrawal and disengagement. For many employees, the move to virtual meetings and conferences likely caused a sense of loss in job complexity resulting in greater burnout and disengagement.
Employees can perceive job support from multiple sources including the overall organization, an immediate supervisor, and coworkers. An overall positive work culture occurs when support is perceived across these levels. Conversely, the lack of support from just one of these levels can cause disengagement. However, this experience can be mitigated by support from other levels. For example, an employee may not feel supported by the organization but still be engaged with their work if they feel that they are supported by their boss or coworkers. For many workers, this support is experienced in the brief moments at the water cooler, or the down time in between meetings. Once again, the move to virtual meetings in response to the pandemic created a loss in this perceived support for many.
Since the majority of American workers were already experiencing work-related disengagement prior to the pandemic, what is causing so many more workers to change jobs? Besides the increased threats to job resources directly related to the pandemic response mentioned above, there have also been increased threats to mitigating factors including personal and social resources.
- Personal Resources
Personal resources including character traits and other personal attributes are important elements in developing resilience to challenging situations. Personality factors such as maturity, responsibility, cooperativeness, perseverance, and optimism are positively associated with resilience as are character traits such as self-efficacy. When an employee is experiencing a loss of job resources, resilience will help them navigate through the loss and stay engaged with work. Most of these traits are quite stable but they have been shown to change in some people over time and may change in response to major life events. Depending on an individual’s environment and circumstances over the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, these traits may have undergone significant changes impacting an employee’s ability to mitigate disengagement through personal resources.
- Social Resources
The presence of social resources through the support of others play a major role in preventing disengagement when job resources are diminished. Social support can come from individuals or groups. For example, an interaction with an organization that provides social assistance in the form of childcare is an important social resource for working parents with young children. However, social support more often comes from relationships with others that are perceived as loving or caring. When an employee experiences challenges related to job resources, leaning on the support of loved ones can help them navigate these challenges and prevent disengagement. On the other hand, the loss of a loved one or social assistance can cause a sudden shift in cognitive resources necessary for engagement with work. While the impact of the pandemic on resources has varied widely across individuals, perhaps the broadest impact has been to social resources. Thousands of workers directly lost loved ones who provided social support. In addition, millions of others experienced the loss of social support due to stay-at-home orders or fear of infection.
How these resources relate to The Great Resignation
At least some portion of the present turnover in workers is explained solely by the direct loss of personal or social resources despite strong job resources. However, for most workers, job resources were already threatened prior to the pandemic as evidenced by the estimate of over 70% employee disengagement cited above. Thus, without strong job resources, for these employees personal and social resources provided a protective element against seeking other employment. With the disruption in these resources caused by the pandemic, there is no wonder as to why The Great Resignation has occurred.
How employers can improve engagement and reduce turnover
For employers, disengagement and turnover can be mitigated through the implementation of mental health benefits. A recent WHO-led study estimates that for every $1 dollar invested in improving mental health, there is a $4 dollar return through improved health and productivity. Employers can promote a healthy work culture by providing tools for stress management and emphasizing the importance of mental health. The CDC recommends providing employees free or subsidized mental health self-assessment tools and clinical screenings as well as lifestyle coaching or counseling in addition to providing insurance benefits for psychotherapy and psychotropic medications. A solution for many companies has been found in the growing sector of mental health applications. While there are a number of applications available, employers should search for a solution that is built upon evidence-based practices and clinical science, and that can provide employees with social, emotional, and crisis support in addition to broader mental health support.
Dr. Martin is chief scientific officer for Alter Health Group and co-founder of Mindfuli, a mental health application that uses technology to enhance the collaborative relationship between clients and providers and personalize the delivery of mental health care.