With the Great Resignation, Australians are ditching pre-COVID burnout and pursuing better work-life balance

When my manager recently let me know my position was being made redundant under a sweeping new organisational restructure I felt a mix of emotions — gratitude for the time I’d worked there, sadness for the work colleagues I would miss, a tinge of insecurity about what my future would hold. 

But the strongest feeling I had was relief. I’d started this job on a four-month contract that had been extended for 14 months and, after enduring almost two years of rolling lockdowns in Melbourne, I could feel the risk of burnout seeping in. 

It wasn’t that I didn’t love my job — I absolutely did and respect the organisation I worked for. But I had started to reconsider my priorities post-COVID and realised I was looking for a less office-bound but more fulfilling life. And I’m not the only one. 

In what has been dubbed the “Great Resignation”, workers all over the world are increasingly retreating from pre-COVID work patterns. Many are unwilling to go back to the 9-to-5 office grind after having had a taste of working from home, or simply revolting against the idea that our lives should be defined by never-ending treadmills of career aspirations.

For Dr Zali Yager, who moved from Melbourne to regional New South Wales with her family after two years of uncertainty and disruption due to COVID, working remotely in a beachside town has helped her reassess her life priorities. She is set to resign from her secure university position. 

“When we first moved, I thought I would be looking for another university position up here. I now feel much less need for a ‘title’, and would rather be pursuing impact and making research matter in the real world rather than just writing scientific papers that are only read by other researchers,” she says.

Dr Yager, an expert in body image and psychological wellbeing in school, community and online environments, says she initially made the move because she was feeling under-appreciated and burnt out in her university job. The slower pace of life in a regional area has removed the pressures around work status and career climbing and allowed her to regain a sense of control over her own life beyond workplace demands. 

“I think this is something that we need to be talking about — but it’s hard to find people to talk about it with,” she says. “You can’t talk to your work colleagues about it because they are still wrapped up in that world. But for me, it has been a slow shedding of those old assumptions about how we should work and live.”

The Great Resignation taking hold

The phenomenon of the Great Resignation has been well documented. According to Microsoft research, more than 40 per cent of workers globally are considering giving their jobs the sack this year. In the US alone, 4.3 million people quit their jobs in August, according to the latest US Bureau of Labor report. 

In Australia, the trend seems to have been delayed because of our ongoing and extended lockdowns. But data from the people management platform Employment Hero suggests 48 per cent of Australian workers are planning on looking for a new job in the next 12 months. And there are now plenty of jobs out there.

In April last year — as COVID lockdowns took hold and businesses shut down operations — an estimated 780,000 Australians lost their jobs, with around 90 per cent of those lost in the first week of April 2020.

Now, 18 months later, as the country opens up again, businesses ranging from hospitality to high-end corporates are struggling to fill those same roles, with many workers thumbing their noses at job offers and instead opting to pursue new work-life balance aspirations. 

New data from global research firm Gartner, released exclusively to the ABC, shows company boards and senior management now consider the challenge of retaining the workforce to be among their top strategic priorities for 2021 — an increase of 81 per cent from the previous year. 

The research indicates that Australian employers face a rocky road ahead, with companies needing to “sell career development” to attract workers. And while companies have high expectations of growing digital capacity, it remains to be seen how that growth will be achieved with an exhausted workforce that’s ready to quit.

“Global pandemics often prompt long-lasting social change,” says Aaron McKewen, a behavioural scientist at Gartner. “The black plague arguably ended 300 years of feudalism in Europe and paved the way for modern democracy, largely due to a severe shortage of workers. We’re seeing something similar unfold with COVID.” 

After decades of globalisation, stagnant wages, automation and off-shoring, McKewen says, “we’re experiencing a severe global labour shortage that has tipped the balance of power towards workers”. “At the same time, as peoples’ worlds became smaller during lockdowns and they faced a very real existential health threat, millions of employees deeply reflected on what was important to them and the role of work in their lives.”

From wage slaves to time millionaires

Meanwhile, a growing number of Australian workers, buoyed by COVID lockdowns, have already gotten ahead of the curve. Tara Harrison says that during the first lockdowns of the pandemic, the travel industry shrank rapidly, and her hours working for Intrepid Travel were reduced to about one day per week. 

“I was so frustrated with the lack of control over my circumstance and I had time to reflect,” she says. “I think it’s important to check in with your career every year and ask if it’s still serving you, if you’re still learning and growing. If you’re not, it’s time to look at other opportunities.” 

For Harrison, the COVID opportunity was clear: “I felt stagnant. Had the pandemic not happened, I may have never had the space and time to build my business or redesign my life.”

Harrison says she started writing a book about travel and launched her own company called Aweventurer, which specialises in lifestyle travel such as yoga retreats and snorkeling with seals in Byron Bay. Her first round of domestic trips sold out.

The shift Harrison describes broadly fits a trend first identified by Financial Times columnist Nilanjana Roy as Time Millionaires: People who are no longer measuring their worth in terms of career advancement or financial wealth, but according to how much time they’re able to wrest back from employment to spend on personal fulfillment. 

It was challenging to reach Harrison for this article because she is in the midst of a yoga teacher training course — another feather to her bow of changes in her new look working life. “Next year we are launching international trips and I plan to be overseas all year, traveling and working remotely,” she says. 

“I’ll be doing a month working from Italy — I dreamt of that throughout the lockdown. I want my work to fit my lifestyle, and I want freedom and to feel creatively fulfilled. I would never think of returning to an office or someone else’s business now that I know how unlimited your growth and potential can be with your own business. It’s deeply rewarding.”

Who needs to check their privilege? 

Like with any global change event, these shifts in how we live and work are bound to produce winners and losers, for both employers and workers. 

In researching this piece, I have become acutely aware of the privilege involved in being able to swing between jobs, choose time and lifestyle over money, and emerge from COVID lockdowns in Melbourne, perhaps the world’s most locked-down city, feeling more financially secure and in control than ever. 

This raises the uncomfortable question: Are these new trends only applicable to a privileged minority of wealthy, often dependent-free, professional elite?

Aaron McEwen isn’t convinced. “I don’t think it’s a phenomenon reserved only for the privileged few,” he says. “Certainly, some people will find it easier to quit their jobs than others. And for some, it simply won’t be a luxury they can afford.”

But, he adds, “I think we’ve probably all thought about quitting our job. I’ve spoken to so many people and heard so many horror stories of abuse, bullying, harassment, humiliation, health scares. In this sense, it shouldn’t be seen as a privilege to question your work. In cases where a business has created a toxic environment, then it is the business and its leaders who need to change their behaviour.” 

Instead of feeling guilty, McEwen says, workers across the board are rightly demanding more from their employers. “Frankly, corporate leaders will need to ‘check their privilege’ and adjust to the new balance of power,” he says. 

“The pandemic has rewritten the psychological contract or employment deal that was forged during the eras of neoliberalism and austerity. Today’s workers want to be seen as people — complex, messy, colourful, diverse, flawed, fabulous humans. That means that they need to rethink how work is done in the post-COVID world and rethink how they attract, retain and manage their people.”

Tara Harrison agrees COVID lockdowns have triggered a “reset” for people across the board. Perhaps during this past 18 months we have all had more time to reflect and realise what aspects of our lives served and nourished us, and many are now choosing to pursue those over things which depleted and diminished us.

“Whether we were drained by commutes, or stressed in the office, or denying our passions for a steady paycheck, this has enabled a redesign of our lifestyle to find more fulfilling work, hobbies and relationships,” Harrison says. 

“It is confronting for some to now return to a work-life that perhaps felt [like it was] on autopilot. There’s a window of bravery before a transition is accepted as the norm and we are witnessing that window right now.”

First published on the ABC

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