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Transforming the Workplace

Meredith Experts Reflect on the “Great Resignation” – and Where We Go From Here

By Gaye Hill
A graphic of a woman in a yoga pose with headphones on and a computer in one hand.

Transforming the Workplace

Meredith Experts Reflect on the “Great Resignation” – and Where We Go From Here

Edited By Gaye Hill

Widely described as the “Great Resignation,” a dramatic economic trend in 2021 saw a historic number of workers leave their jobs. On average, more than 3.98 million workers quit their jobs each month last year.

But dig into the data and it quickly becomes clear that it’s far more complicated than a record number of people quitting. To help make sense of this trend, we asked some of Meredith’s faculty and staff to reflect on the Great Resignation. Their perspectives offer insights and lessons learned regarding the impacts of COVID-19 on women, the workplace, and how it may affect our society moving forward.

Meredith Alumnae: How the Pandemic Impacted My Work

Hear from alumnae whose professional lives have been directly impacted by COVID-19.

A consultant for Deloitte, Kate Breen,’01, recognizes the cost-savings of limiting travel as well as the negative impact on her profession.

“I can’t imagine consultants will ever return to 80% travel; it is a waste of time and money for both the client and consultants. Yet we have confirmed there’s no replacement for face-to-face interactions. We get more done. We bridge gaps more quickly. Our relationships are stronger. There’s a more clear sense of community.

When we’re able to increase travel, I suspect those who became consultants for the first time since March 2020 will be in for a surprise. Some of them specifically joined to never feel pressure to travel, and I fear they’ll never know the joys of consulting since those aspects of our job are removed. Those of us who are holding on, hoping we can resume a similar, pre-COVID lifestyle that brings us together with our clients more often, will soon be joining the Great Resignation ourselves if it doesn’t return. Because we know what we’re missing and we can find a travel-less, client-facing role elsewhere.”

After becoming increasingly unhappy with her work as a staff pharmacist, Melissa Turner, ’08, decided to start her own business, Tarheel PGx Consulting, LLC.

“I was in a dark place before the pandemic but the demands of COVID made everything worse. We were already struggling to fill prescriptions on time, and then COVID testing was added as a service at the drive-thru. This made the lines even longer and further frustrated our customers.

I still wanted to be a pharmacist but I wanted to do it on my own terms. I didn’t want to have to answer to anyone or be controlled by anyone else. I wanted to set my own schedule. I didn’t want to miss out on any more time with my husband and family. I wanted to be happy again. I wanted to be able to help people, not just medicate them.

I wake up excited to do my work, and I get to work from home. I don’t have to worry about traffic or gas prices. I get to eat lunch without interruption and go to the bathroom when I need to. I don’t have to stand on my feet for 9-14 hours a day. I get to go to church every Sunday and Wednesday night. I don’t miss out on birthdays, vacations, and celebrations with my family and friends.

I love teaching people about their medications and how their genetics can affect the response they get. I love teaching other healthcare providers about what I do and how it can help them. It was up to me to make the change and I’m so glad that I did.”

Jane Matthews | Assistant Director, Employer Relations – Office of Career Planning

“I don’t think the term ‘Great Resignation’ is entirely accurate. I view it as more of a ‘Great Realignment’ – a realignment of values and priorities from the perspective of employees.”

The world of work has changed dramatically and continues to do so. Individuals are no longer satisfied with working for employers that don’t value them as people first, don’t provide flexibility or competitive wages, and don’t align with their personal values.

As a result, from an employer’s perspective, it is an incredibly competitive market. Candidates have made it clear they have choices and are choosing not to ‘settle.’

In the short term, employees are tasked with doing more with less and working in environments that are short-staffed, which will continue to lead to burnout and disengagement. In the long-term, employers will have to work much harder to market themselves as ’employers of choice,’ with flexibility in the work environment and competitive salary and benefits packages to attract strong candidates.

The pandemic has impacted women disproportionately and will have lasting impacts on development and advancement opportunities, according to a recent Gallup article. Higher overall stress, burnout, and increased pressure on working mothers are a few points cited that have contributed to more women choosing to leave the workforce or find alternative employment.

From a career development perspective, it will be increasingly important to coach and counsel our students preparing to enter the workforce to seek out mentorships early, to advocate for themselves in the interview process, and to be intentional and discerning when identifying potential places of employment. Employers who advocate for women in the workplace, remove systemic barriers, and develop flexible ways for women to advance will become employers of choice.”

Angela Robbins | Associate Professor of History

“I read something recently in which the term ‘Great Redirection’ was used, and I think that may better describe it because people aren’t just dropping out, they are critically evaluating what they want and need, and potentially moving in a different direction. And that’s a healthy choice in many cases.”

“Women as a percentage of the labor force provides a jumping-off point to talk about change over time in gender roles and expectations.

In January 2020, pre-pandemic, women had become a slight majority of all American workers for the first time in our history. In my history classes, I have taught it as a victory, for the most part tied to 20th-century laws and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in particular, which protect women from workplace discrimination. 

The reality that women lost more jobs than men in the pandemic – over 5 million jobs, many of which have not been recovered yet – is a real setback when you look at it through this historical lens.

The short-term negative effects include the reality that many employers suspended hiring, but now that the economy has bounced back and there are jobs to fill, the long-term effects may prove beneficial for our graduates. 

Women continue to confront gender bias in the workplace, which leads to lower pay and fewer promotions even in the most lucrative fields. Having this awareness is the first step to tackling it effectively. A potentially big paycheck has its appeal, and breaking the ‘glass ceiling” is important, too, but what we’re seeing is that women who make up part of the ‘Great Resignation’ are also thinking about what they value most. 

Whether you feel respected at work, and what your workplace will offer – mentoring, diversity, collegiality, work-life balance, mental health support, etc. – are things many workers are examining now. Likewise, this is a time for our students to determine what they want and need from their degrees, evaluate whether their chosen major will bring them fulfillment, and think about the kind of work environment they want to be in.”

Pamela Norcross | Assistant Professor, Human Environmental Sciences & Child Development Program Coordinator

“Many people resigned from their employment as a response to a greater problem, exposing the vulnerabilities in our society with the high costs of childcare, role overload for women, and inequitable pay for women. The pandemic confounded this already vulnerable environment, where the burden was placed higher on mothers and women.”

“Costs of childcare have long been an issue for many working families. Often women are working jobs in which they are paid too little while also paying expensive childcare rates.

When the country shut down in March 2020, most schools and childcare centers closed for children of all ages. Oftentimes, mothers take on more of the child care role in parenting at home, including the education needs of their children. Thus, during the pandemic shutdown, working while parenting created a considerable challenge and burden that caused a role overload, particularly for working mothers of young children. Since the shutdown, women have exited the labor force at twice the rate of men, by either outright quitting, scaling back their jobs, or being laid off disproportionately. 

When women are not participating in the workforce, there is a loss of potential, capacity, and innovation. When childcare isn’t fully supported in society, women are most affected. It sends the message that women’s employment is not important. Many women opt not to work while their children are young simply because their earnings are less than what they would be paying in childcare, which is a huge problem, not only for women and families, but for our society as a whole.

Then we add the global COVID pandemic to this already stressful issue for families. Some women took control over their lives during the pandemic by prioritizing the needs of their families, especially their young children, who were now forced to stay home and participate in online schooling. 

Deciding to quit one’s job is a tough decision, and in the short term, may have helped reduce the stressors of having to parent and work at the same time. It also allowed women to leave jobs that they may not have been happy in, providing a chance to take time to discover new and creative employment opportunities. 

Long-term, the Great Resignation can impact women in positive and negative ways. First, women may have found more satisfying and higher-paying employment, which is great for family functioning. However, some women felt overwhelmed by working full time at home while also parenting young children, forcing women to make choices they would not have otherwise made. In such cases, resigning affects opportunities for women to be promoted, lost chances for raises, and lost networking opportunities. 

There are now fewer women participating in the workforce, which means fewer opportunities for women to contribute to the society in which they live. Women’s jobs seeming disposable makes it difficult for changes in equity and equal pay, and the lack of universal childcare perpetuates these vulnerabilities.”

Joe Mazzola | Associate Professor and Program Director, Master of Arts in Psychology | I-O Psychology concentration

“The important thing is that employees have more choices (or at least perceive they do) in a way they did not before. This gives people more power than they previously had to make decisions to maximize not just their salary, but their overall life satisfaction.”

“While research shows that men have slowly taken on more childcare responsibilities over the years, most of the time and energy for that task still falls on women. When the pandemic hit, and childcare outside of the home was virtually non-existent, more of that burden fell on women to take on these new childcare needs in the home while still maintaining their own work schedules. 

Such demands have led to burnout issues for women in particular, given the number of hours they were putting into work and home responsibilities combined, which also reduces the rest and leisure time that research shows us is vital to recovering from the energy depletion from work. 

Even today, childcare and school hours are often unpredictable, as a whole daycare may be shut down for a week if one child demonstrates COVID symptoms. Uncertainty and the extra responsibilities have disproportionately fallen on women in the workforce.

My fear, and I think we have seen this in the short term at least, is that companies will not make many changes and will use staffing shortages to spread the same amount of work to fewer employees, leading to more burnout and job dissatisfaction.

My hope, though, is that worker empowerment will result in better benefits and work conditions for employees as a whole, particularly as they relate to more work-life balance and less stressful jobs.

When workers feel they have the power to leave (and the market allows applicants to be picky), organizations have to work harder to recruit new employees and convince the current ones to stay, by offering both intangible benefits like pay but also intangible things like more flexibility and more positive workplace culture.”

Anne York | Professor and Program Director, Economics

“The term ‘Great Resignation’ is referring to job quit rates, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks, as being at record high levels during the last half of 2021. So the term is appropriate!”

“As an economist, a key economic indicator I have watched is the female labor force participation (LFP) rate. The LFP rate, the percentage of women working or actively looking for work, is a measure of women’s economic empowerment. 

From 2016 until just before the pandemic started, it was on an overall upward trend, from 56.6% to 57.9% in February 2020. By April 2020, the female labor force participation rate plunged to 54.6% as businesses shut down. The last time the female LFP rate had been that low was in 1985.

By August 2020, the female LFP rate had recovered to around 56% and more recently is getting closer to 57%. It will be interesting to see how long it takes until the female LFP rate surpasses its pre-pandemic level of 57.9%. Will that happen soon as issues with COVID-19 go away or will it take years and fundamental changes to the economy, such as more access to childcare resources?

As our economy gained strength throughout 2021 and into 2022, many people were sidelined from working because of health concerns or childcare reasons. So those working had a prime opportunity to quit jobs they did not enjoy and find jobs better suited to their desires. When there are better matches between workers’ desires and employers’ needs, the labor market operates more efficiently.  

In the short term, such changes represent a positive development for workers and the firms that hire them, but of course, it creates difficulties for the firms those workers left. But if a firm finds that many of its workers are leaving, ideally that firm would take steps to improve its working conditions and make it better for the future workers they hire.    

Women did have slightly higher quit rates than men during the pandemic. Hopefully, most of those women quit for better jobs, but we know many women had to leave the labor market for childcare reasons. 

Our economy will not fully recover from the pandemic’s harm until all women who want to work can find a suitable job. Labor shortages give women more bargaining power over their working conditions. I am optimistic that over the long term, the pandemic has caused both workers and employers to re-examine the value of work and much-needed improvements are being considered, such as more acceptance of flexible work schedules.”

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