What Is the Great Resignation? And Why It's Happening

By Drew Moffitt

Over the past few decades, work has changed drastically. Developments and trends like the gig economy, internet-connected workplaces, and remote offices mean today's jobs look very different than they did in the early 2000s.

The most recent trend is the Great Resignation. This ongoing trend, which started in 2022, has challenged companies to find ways to attract and retain workers seeking new opportunities and more-flexible work arrangements.

What is the Great Resignation?

The Great Resignation of 2022 was when a much higher-than-average number of employees quit their positions. This trend dates back to 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The term Great Resignation was first mentioned in an article on the business news site Bloomberg.

During the early months of the pandemic, professionals began to reassess their lives and realize that there were other opportunities outside of their current job. Many ended up resigning to spend more time with family, work on a freelance basis, pursue their passions, or find jobs allowing them to work from home.

Timeline of the Great Resignation

Between April 2021 and April 2022, 71.6 million people left their jobs. The trend began when states started locking down offices, stores, and public spaces to stop the spread of COVID-19. At first, many quitting employees were in hospitality or service jobs. By the end of 2021, however, the trend spread across many industries.

The Great Resignation led to a large number of job openings. At any given time during that year, there were more than seven million open positions.

Is the Great Resignation still happening? The Great Resignation slowed down by 2023. However, it was replaced by "quiet quitting," a less-defined trend where workers kept their jobs but did the absolute minimum to avoid getting fired.


Causes of the Great Resignation

Because it coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, many people attributed the mass exodus of workers to simply trying to limit exposure to the potentially-deadly virus. However, the motivations were more complex.

  • Work-life balance played a significant role in the Great Resignation. Workers found themselves confronted with a once-in-a-lifetime crisis. It caused them to reassess their values and work-life balance. Many decided they were too wrapped up in their careers and unable to enjoy the other aspects of their lives. People felt unable to change this dynamic, so they decided that quitting was the best option to restore a healthy ratio between work and free time.
  • A related motivation was the need to dedicate more time to other priorities. Many people had to take care of family members, ensure at-risk members of their household weren't exposed to COVID, and perform household duties often left to others. Some simply adjusted priorities after finding they enjoyed spending time with loved ones during lockdowns. All these different occurrences pushed jobs and careers further down the list of priorities for many people.
  • A lot of professionals embraced the idea of remote work. People who continued working during the pandemic had to log into their companies from home. Many liked this flexible job arrangement and the freedom it brought. As lockdowns eased in 2022, employees decided to quit instead of returning to the office. Their idea was to seek new opportunities that allowed them to work virtually.
  • Burnout and mental health concerns also drove the Great Resignation. Burnout was already a major problem in many industries. The added stress of the pandemic was the last straw for some people, who suddenly felt quitting was the only option for preserving their mental health. Others decided that returning to normalcy also meant returning to high-stress work environments. They decided to quit rather than return.

Some companies responded to the Great Resignation by offering workers more flexibility. Others, however, are still struggling to attract professionals.


The Great Resignation in numbers

Some critics suggest the Great Resignation was only due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, statistics show that it was a real and well-defined trend.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics used different calculations to measure the health of job markets. Regardless of the variables used, they found that the Great Resignation did have the highest quit rates in decades. The agency began the in-depth Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) program in 2000. It tallied monthly quit rates and job openings. The highest rates on record occurred in November 2021. During this month, 3% of all workers quit their jobs. That percentage was matched in December and March 2022.

The Great Resignation hit certain industries hardest. Retail, hospitality, and food services saw extremely high quit rates at the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the healthcare, professional, and business sectors had an above-average number of resignations. However, people in government jobs, financial services, and education were more likely to stay at work.

Impact of the Great Resignation on employers

Companies experienced problems during the Great Resignation, and they continue to experience issues today.

Firms were unable to maintain a full staff. They could not continue normal operations. In some sectors, quitting employees left a significant gap because managers could not find qualified replacements. The employee shortages led to disruptions, and the only solution in many cases was to find alternatives, such as outsourcing to third parties at a much higher cost.

Some companies adapted successfully. For example, services and B2B companies were able to continue operations during the pandemic by allowing remote work. Many continued the practice after the lockdowns expired. They are currently able to offer remote and hybrid work arrangements to employees. Not only does this change make them more attractive to employees, but they are also able to reduce operational costs associated with office space.


Impact of the Great Resignation on employees

Employees left their jobs for personal reasons. They were unfulfilled, burned out, or wanted to focus on family during the pandemic. However, because there were so many resignations at the same time, it created a job-seekers market. Companies needed talent and were willing to take steps to meet the needs of new employees and provide training and professional development.

Suddenly, job seekers had opportunities to accelerate their careers or change to a different professional path without starting in an entry-level position.

Also, because employers were hungry for talented workers, they were willing to make concessions and offer attractive pay and benefits packages. Employees could find better working conditions or bargain for higher pay, more vacation time, and hybrid work arrangements. As long as they remain productive, talented employees have a say in how they work. 

Because job vacancies remain high and resignations are still above average, job seekers can still find opportunities to take advantage of this hiring-friendly environment.

At the same time, there are drawbacks. Employees may feel isolated or have trouble adjusting to remote working conditions. Others may find that location independence allows companies to hire workers from other areas, meaning there is actually more competition and lower pay for certain positions.

Is the Great Resignation still happening?

In 2023, quit rates are still relatively high. January and February 2023 saw rates of 2.5% and 2.6%. These figures are higher than any during the pre-pandemic era. Even though resignations seem to have peaked, the trend has not gone away entirely.

Some people continue to quit to pursue remote work opportunities, while others are driven by their employers' unwillingness to increase wages to match current inflation levels.

Other trends are taking shape, as well. For example, companies realize that remote work setups allow them to increase their talent pools. This trend means workers can seek employment regardless of geographic location, increasing their chances of finding a new job that fits their needs, interests, and schedules better.


Strategies for employers to navigate the Great Resignation

Employers can navigate the continued trend of resignations by addressing the reasons that employees give for quitting.

  • Companies can foster a positive workplace culture and create an employees-first approach to operating their business. For example, a company can adopt a transformational leadership style. This management method seeks to engage employees by asking them to participate in vital business decisions and develop creative and innovative solutions to current problems or processes. They can also focus on employee development and accept feedback from workers.
  • Employees are often able to demand higher salaries for skilled positions. Companies may need to offer competitive compensation to draw the best talent to their workplace. Those with smaller budgets can offer other types of benefits. Some employees may be attracted by unique or flexible work arrangements, such as a four-day week, remote or hybrid arrangements, or daily schedules that allow for family time, such as driving children to school in the morning.
  • Employees cited stress and mental health as primary factors for quitting their jobs. Companies can address this by letting employees know they value a work-life balance. In addition to flexible schedules and time off, a company can offer wellness services to employees or provide perks, such as access to mental health professionals or fitness memberships.

By taking these steps, a company can attract skilled employees looking for a positive work environment.

Strategies for employees in the Great Resignation era

Employees may find a favorable job market as the Great Resignation continues. However, they still need to use a careful approach to their job search to ensure they find a position offering the best benefits and a work-friendly environment.

  • A new position can potentially fit with both personal values and professional ambitions. Therefore, the first step in the process is to define your values and your career goals. Many professionals focus on career advancement at the expense of values. However, because of the favorable job market, this sacrifice might not be necessary. Once you have your guidelines for the ideal job on paper, you can seek opportunities that meet both your professional and personal needs.
  • In many industries, you may be able to build on your past education and experience to get a new position. If your CV isn't good enough to qualify for jobs, you can improve your skillset with additional training, a degree, or a professional development certificate. Education can also serve as a platform for networking and finding opportunities to use your new skills.

Even if you find the ideal job, there will still be a learning curve to overcome as you transition to your new position. You need to be prepared to organize your schedule, prepare your workspace, and handle all the little aspects of the transition so that you can start fully concentrating on the job and be productive as soon as you get settled.


The Great Resignation continues to impact companies and employees

The Great Resignation may have peaked in 2022 but quit rates continue to be higher than normal. Employers can take advantage of this trend by offering flexible work environments that give employees the autonomy they seek. Meanwhile, professionals can take advantage of the record number of job openings to find a position that not only furthers their career but also fits their goals.

If you are hiring or seeking work, keeping up with the job market trends and employment news is essential. Ongoing research can help you find recent trends and opportunities and learn about employee expectations in the post-pandemic job market.

FAQs on the Great Resignation

Transform the way your team works from anywhere.

A virtual office in Kumospace lets teams thrive together by doing their best work no matter where they are geographically.

Headshot for Drew Moffitt
Drew Moffitt

Drew leads marketing at Kumospace. Prior to joining Kumospace, he spent his career founding and operating businesses. His work has been featured in over 50 publications. Outside of work, Drew is an avid skier and sailor. A wholehearted extrovert, he organizes VentureSails, a series of networking events for founders and tech investors.

Transform the way your team works.