The Great Resignation, a pandemic phenomenon marked by an exodus of workers from their employers in 2021, has quietly been years in the making. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that there has been a steady rise in voluntary resignations since 2009.
My own research indicates that a significant contributing factor to high turnover is a desire by workers for something more from their relationship with their jobs. While financial recognition and flexible work arrangements factor into many stay-or-go decisions, increasingly, clients tell me that they’re yearning for a sense of purpose, value and meaning, factors for which typical forms of workplace reward are not a substitute.
A recent conversation with my colleague, Julie, revealed that many of her executive coaching clients are struggling with feeling valued at work and appreciating their own worth. All too often, they described taking on job roles just to meet the needs of the organization without considering their personal requirements for fulfillment. Too few of them feel sufficiently recognized for their contributions in ways that matter most to them.
Yet, by all typical standards of success, these are capable executives who appear to have a firm grasp on the brass ring of life. Despite outward appearances, restlessness with their work experience was more common than might be expected. Many clients described having suffered for more than a decade with growing job frustration.
In short, it seems that some people don’t just summarily quit a job; they slowly death-spiral their way to resigning.
As Julie and I continued our discussion, it was clear we were treading in familiar territory. Both of us are “corporate escapees” who left lucrative executive jobs in pursuit of a passion and in search of our value. Each of us are also leading businesses designed to support individuals who are struggling, as we once did, with owning their value and aligning themselves to work that they find meaningful.
The stories our clients shared about their frustrations and need for more were achingly familiar. We had both been there.
Julie’s story, for example, isn’t unique. She was a glowing success at work, having risen to her dream job as a corporate executive with a seat at the table and a voice in the conversation. She worked hard and pushed herself even harder — behaviors that her company rewarded with large bumps in salary and multiple promotions.
“I was a true corporate animal, “Julie told me. “My job was at the center of my life.” She went on to describe multiple lavish vacations that she had worked to provide for her family, only to be physically absent for most of them or buried in her email or phone on the rare occasions when she was present. No effort was too great. No hours were too long. Julie did whatever was necessary to deliver outstanding results.
Her boss thought he showed Julie sufficient recognition for her work. He rewarded her handsomely with money and stock options, and he advocated for Julie to receive several promotions. These were things he thought she valued, and for a while, it seemed like enough. Until one day, it wasn’t.
Julie realized that she had become a “success junkie,” and her busy job was the drug dealer. But like with many cases of addiction, she had to hit rock bottom to realize what needed to change in her life. A cancer diagnosis provided Julie with the wake-up call she needed. It led her to resign from what everyone else thought was her dream job.
During a six-year battle that thankfully ended in remission, Julie had plenty of time to take stock of the factors that resulted in her health becoming compromised. Beyond obvious influences like a lack of rest and high stress, Julie sought to understand the foundational reasons that underpinned her actions and eventually led to her resignation.
I asked her what she had learned and what she might have done differently. She discovered that the answers were anchored to her own mindset and actions, over which she had ultimate control.
A need for internal validation
“I didn’t appreciate my own value, and it impacted my sense of self-worth. As a result, I sought validation of my worth from my job and the accolades I received from my accomplishments. If I could do anything differently, I would have spent more time reflecting on what mattered most to me, rather than relying on other people to confirm my own value as a person.
“It’s easy to get consumed by a demanding job, so taking care to carve out time for reflection and get back in touch with myself is something I’ve become more intentional about doing.”
Trading fulfillment for advancement
“Several times throughout my career I was fortunate to land in jobs from which I received great fulfillment. Yet, I consistently became restless because those roles weren’t always the ones that gave me the greatest exposure to leaders who could help advance my career. In essence, I pursued the next rung on the ladder instead of seeking the next role that would play to my passions and provide satisfaction.
“I learned that it’s OK to ride a wave all the way to the beach when you’re in a role you love. You don’t have to sacrifice job fulfillment for career growth.”
“As difficult as it is to admit, I got caught up in the trappings of success, like the house, the luxury cars, the jewelry, and the passport stamps to exotic places. I somehow thought that having all the outward signs of success would make me feel successful within.
“Cancer taught me that my definition of well-lived life needed to be redefined. Waking up happy and healthy every day is now my barometer of achievement.”
Valuing a support system
“I made the nearly fatal mistake of disconnecting from my support system. My family could see how overworked and stressed I was, yet despite their efforts, I kept ignoring their pleas to slow down. I should have been more receptive to their advice because they were in the best position to witness my declining well-being.”
Letting fear prevent recharging
“I had a real fear of being left out of the starting lineup of the game, so I ignored my better judgement and didn’t take time to recharge. I was concerned that absent my everyday presence on the job, I would somehow fall out of favor with the individuals who made decisions about my career. It was common for me, for example, to carry over significant paid time off days, instead of truly unplugging for a while.
“I learned that no one is indispensable, and we shorten the expiration date on our health when we don’t step off the hamster wheel from time to time. I would certainly have been a better leader by modeling that behavior for my own team.”
This article was first published in SmartBrief on Leadership, April 2022.