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Is the UK really experiencing a ‘great resignation’?

Employees are looking for great flexibility, better pay and more fulfilment at work, experts say

People across the world adapted to new ways of working during the pandemic and some began to reevaluate their careers as a result. That’s according to academic Anthony Klotz who, in 2021, predicted that the US was set to see a “great resignation” due to the sudden changes the workforce had experienced as a result of Covid-19.

The associate professor at University College London’s school of management gave four reasons for his theory, explained the Financial Times: “a backlog of pent-up resignations from the first uncertain year of the pandemic”, workers being “burnt out”, individuals having reflected “on how much meaning and contentment exists in their own lives” after being “confronted with death”, and “the unexpected freedom” that millions of workers had while working from home. 

“The idea was brave at the time, because it was not reflected in the US workforce data,” said the newspaper. Just weeks later, the figures showed that around four million workers had indeed quit their jobs in April 2021, the highest resignation rate on record. By September, that number had reached 4.4m. 

Is the UK seeing a great resignation?

While new research by McKinsey and Co indicates that in the US “this record-breaking trend isn’t going to quit any time soon”, said CNBC, the picture in the UK isn’t quite the same. 

Writing for the Economics Observatory collective, Professor Jonathan Wadsworth said that he has found “little empirical evidence that resignations, hiring or movement between jobs in the UK are at historical highs”. Analysing data from the Labour Force Survey, which tracks household employment trends, he concluded there has been no sign that UK quit rates have surpassed previous levels, “let alone reached dizzying new heights”.

But workers’ feelings of satisfaction with their current role do appear to have been impacted by the pandemic. Of more than 2,000 respondents in a PwC survey published in May this year, 18% said they were likely to change their job in the next 12 months, with 32% saying they were moderately or slightly likely to. The top three factors for making a job change included pay, wanting fulfilment, and wanting to be themselves at work. 

Is the world of work changing?

Time said last year that the pandemic had afforded “a chance to reinvent work” and “bring balance back into our levels to a degree that we haven’t seen at least since the widespread adoption of email and cell phones”.

Management practice professor Lynda Gratton told the London Business School’s Think blog that because people are living longer, they are focusing more on their health. “Rather than experiencing their life journey in those three traditional phases of education, work and retirement, people are starting to see life as a multi-stage voyage. They are hungry for the flexibility to mix and match the stages.”

Gratton has advised that business leaders can “weather the storm” of potential resignations by embracing flexibility about when and where employees’ work, understanding that this is the “beginning of the end for bad jobs” with unsociable hours and low pay, and keeping an eye on what competitors are doing and the benefits that they are offering staff.

The Overview

On this episode of The Overview podcast, The Week asks whether new ways of working will stick around after Covid. What do post-pandemic workers want? And should employees reconsider resigning as the world faces an economic crisis?

With guest experts Professor Wadsworth, Professor Gratton, author of Redesigning Work, and behavioural change coach Gemma Perlin.

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