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What Mental Health Has to Do with the ‘Great Resignation’

young man packing up desk at work

The pandemic years have caused Americans to rethink their work-life balance in a big way. More than 4.2 million workers quit their jobs in January 2022,1 and the “Great Resignation” still seems to be charging ahead. One study found that more than a quarter of those responding to the study quit without lining up a new job — and that jumped to 56% of workers in the food service and hospitality industries.2

What gives? People are cleaning out their desks for a lot of reasons. Tied for top of the list: low pay and lack of opportunities for advancement, followed by feeling disrespected at work. And half of workers with children under the age of 18 quit because of childcare issues —nontraditional school schedules, homeschooling challenges, and unreliable day care made work a nightmare for parents. For just about a third of those who walked away, the coronavirus outbreak played a part in their decision.3

It’s been a long pandemic, so it’s no surprise that people feel burned out and ready to look for their next professional step, one with a company that better supports their mental health.2,4

“I think that after the pandemic, people are feeling more free to experiment and take some risks they didn’t take before,” says Kerrie Smedley, Ph.D. She’s a clinical psychologist in Annville, Pennsylvania. “They’re looking for higher pay, sign-on bonuses, and employers who are more attentive to their mental health needs.”

Your mental health is important, of course. But before you decide to jump ship, do your homework, Smedley cautions. “Make sure you’re not attributing all your problems to your job,” she says. “That’s the narrative in our culture right now, but it’s important to take an honest look.”

If you’re feeling burned out, stressed out, and mostly miserable, ask yourself these three questions before you hand in your resignation.

1. Are my mental health issues caused by my job — or is it something else? 

Jobs inherently bring stressors and challenges to mental health. It’s important to understand the difference between what’s normal to feel at work, and what’s not. It’s also worth taking stock of the other factors at play in your mental health.

While your surrounding environment, like your workplace, can have an impact on your mental health, your lifestyle and experiences also contribute. You could be having trouble at home or not getting enough exercise, and that may be what makes logging on each morning so unbearable. There’s even a strong genetic connection to mental health conditions, like depression.5 Smedley adds: “We all struggle with our jobs sometimes, and work can be very stressful. But not all mental health problems can be attributed to work.”

Mental health is vital, and many workers are putting a higher priority on it. In one survey, 49% of those who switched jobs have put their personal lives over their work lives, and 46% have decided that their mental health takes precedence over their careers.6 But it’s worth doing a little bit of soul-searching before deciding to quit.

“Make sure that quitting isn’t a knee-jerk reaction,” says Smedley. “It’s easy to say, ‘It’s just my stinking job or my awful boss [making me quit]’ And maybe that’s true for you. But take an honest look first.” Mental health truly is a combination of your environment, lifestyle, experiences, and genetics.

2. What would I lose by leaving my job? 

Humans are social animals — we need to feel connected to a group. A lot of those connections come through our jobs. Do you have a friend you drink coffee with, some co-workers who you can walk with during lunch, or somebody who’s become a friend outside of the workplace? Even if your paycheck isn’t as big as you think it should be, does it help pay the bills and give you a sense of security? Are you ready to give up those pluses to face an uncertain future?

“Think long and hard about what you would miss if you left your job,” advises Smedley. “What would the negative effects of leaving be? Human nature is to look for simple answers to complex problems and to blame the most obvious thing.

“In fact, it’s a lot more complicated,” Smedley says. “It’s always easier to see the positives of a change, like more money or vacation time, but we tend to overlook aspects of our job that we actually like. You might miss the routine, the structure, and the interaction with co-workers you trust.”

3. What exactly am I looking for in a new job?

Research your career move carefully — maybe even make a list of pros and cons — to determine if a change is right for you. Then figure out what you want from a new position. Almost a third of job changers left the corporate world altogether to start their own business or join the gig economy in fields such as photography or catering.6 An additional 1 in 5 workers say they’d be willing to take a pay cut in exchange for better work-life balance.6
For many, mental health has become a top priority: Some 33% of managers and 28% of non-managers say they’ve left a job to preserve their mental health.4 Nearly all are looking for a company that provides high-quality resources to care for their mental health.

Still itching to quit? Make sure you have a plan.

For lots of people, the Great Resignation is working out fine. Of those who quit their jobs in 2021, 61% say it was relatively easy to find a new position, and many say they’re earning more money and enjoying more flexibility.3

“Looking at yourself honestly will give you a blueprint for what you hope to find in your next job — maybe that’s more interaction, or greater flexibility, or more creative support,” says Smedley.

The most important thing is having a plan and putting it into action. After all, says Smedley, your job is good for your mental health. “Engaging in the routine and activity that work offers is one of the best treatments there is for depression,” she says.

Sources:

  1. Stats on Americans resigning: Quits levels and rates for total nonfarm by state, seasonally adjusted (2022)
  2. Stats on quitting without jobs lined up: The Great Resignation Update: Limeade Employee Care Report
  3. Reasons people quit: Majority of workers who quit a job in 2021 cite low pay, no opportunities for advancement, feeling disrespected (2022)
  4. Workers looking for mental health support: Shifting Tides: Changing Attitudes About Mental Health Care and the Workplace (2021)
  5. Risk of depression hereditary: Major Depression and Genetics
  6. Stat on mental health more important than careers: Pulse of the American Worker Survey: Life and Work in the Pandemic Era (2021)

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