Quitting has become contagious

January 22, 2022, 1:30 PM UTC

On the TikTok landing page for the hashtag #iquitmyjob, which has over 45 million views, the mood is triumphant. 

A series of video stills feature pointed captions, each one the proud declaration of a person who has recently left their job and wants the world to know about it. You might even say that their spirit is infectious. 

The positive feedback from TikTok viewers is striking, as well. A post from August with a caption that reads, “Realizing my job isn’t worth my mental health no matter how well it pays & how loyal I am,” has been “liked” nearly 57,000 times. In another post, from November, a TikTok user writes: “My managers panicking cause they don’t know how to do my job.” It has more than 712,600 likes. 

Social media hashtags like #iquitmyjobtoday and #iquitmyjob, among many others, have racked up hundreds of millions of combined views since the spring of 2021, as unprecedented quit rates culminated in a “Great Resignation” of the American workforce. In November alone (the most recent data available), a record 4.5 million Americans voluntarily left their jobs. The two-year-long global pandemic, along with a slew of other factors, is exacerbating the tsunami of quits. But another component, some experts told Fortune, is the viral transmission of attitudes and behaviors towards work online.  

Simply put, quitting has become contagious.

How ideas become norms

The spread of ideas and behaviors between groups of people is the result of “social comparison,” a psychological theory that attributes societal attitudes and behavior patterns to a kind of group consensus over what’s considered normal and good. 

In short, people look to what others are doing to decide what’s acceptable at any given moment, and then act accordingly. Humans are social creatures, and are wired to want to fit in and be accepted.  

Throw social media into the mix, and it doesn’t take long for ideas to become trends and from there, widespread norms. Online comments, shares, and likes further supercharge the process by providing a clear, public-facing metric for how attitudes (“I hate my job”) and actions (“I quit my job!”) might be perceived by others. 

Social media is effectively “social comparison on steroids,” says Thomas Plante, a Santa Clara University psychology professor. “It used to be that you would read about things in the newspaper, and see what your neighbors or friends are doing. Now you have access to what everybody in the world is doing.” 

Sigal Barsade, a professor of management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, told Fortune that the interplay between group behavior and current labor force trends is of growing interest in her field. 

Barsade, who studies emotional intelligence as it relates to organizational behavior, agrees that shifting attitudes towards work online is likely at least one factor propelling the Great Resignation. Enough people are quitting their jobs that it has become normal to do so.

“When people say, ‘I’m going to quit my job,’ their family and peers aren’t responding ‘Have you lost your mind?’” Barsade says. “They’re actually saying, ‘Yeah, we feel that way too.’ And then you get more and more people doing it and you find yourself in a position where actually, what you’re doing is very normal.” 

Low worker morale is real 

Extenuating circumstances aside though, people don’t usually abruptly quit jobs that they love. 

That might be in part why quit rates in the food service industry have been consistently and dramatically higher than in higher-paying, white-collar industries, like information technology and finance. In November, an estimated 920,000 accommodation and food service workers left their jobs, as opposed to 95,000 finance and insurance workers. 

“People are done being treated poorly, overworked, and underpaid,” says Trav J. Walkowski, a people operations executive and organizational psychologist based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “People are done being fiercely loyal to a company that has zero loyalty to them. While there is a social component, it would not exist without the primary driver: Bad employee experience.”

Those negative job experiences are being shared on social media, as well—often, in conjunction with triumphant personal accounts of having left a toxic employer. 

Walkowski remembers a video he recently encountered on TikTok, in which someone who said they were a former fast food shift manager described being expected to assume the workloads of his general manager and assistant manager after both abruptly quit, with no additional pay. Eventually, the man said he also quit, because the job had become untenable. But Walkowski thinks his decision to broadcast the story suggests that the man expected his choice to quit would be well-received.

“It makes sense that people have reevaluated their lives during the pandemic, and are asking themselves: ‘Do I really still want to be doing this grunt work that’s not being appreciated?’” said Plante, the psychology professor. And if they see that people are going down another path, and they seem to be doing okay, they may think: ‘Maybe I’ll go down that path, too.’”

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