The Great Resignation empowered workers, but that power could fade within months, say authors of major quitting contagion study

January 25, 2022, 1:03 PM UTC

The pandemic sparked an unexpected shift in power from worker to employer leading to the highest quit rates in 40 years. But authors of a seminal study on quitting contagion say the Great Resignation may not have the lasting effects workers would like.

The study, published in the Academy of Management Journal in 2009, found that one worker’s decision to quit a company was likely to inspire others who didn’t feel strongly embedded at the company to do the same. Viewed in the context of the Great Resignation, the study offers a prescient take on how the mix of pandemic lockdowns, remote work, and an online revolution towards healthier work we’ve seen recently would serve as a “perfect storm” leading to voluntary quit rates 50% higher than normal.

But like the virus that has kept people inside for the larger part of two years, the authors say this perfect storm of resignations is beginning to subside and may soon return to normal. 

“I don’t think things will get any better,” David Hekman, associate professor of organizational leadership at the University of Colorado at Boulder and co-author of the report, said about recent gains ​​workers have seen in terms of rights and better treatment from employers. 

Hekman says that workers will likely have power for two or three more months, while unemployment is low and job openings with higher wages are abundant, but as soon as there is an economic downturn, things will revert back to normal.

Brooks Holtom, another co-author of the report and professor of management and senior associate dean at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, agrees: “To the degree that those conditions exist, we will see elevated turnover. If job openings go to normal or lower levels, we will not see the same massive quit rates.”

The first stage of the pandemic

The study—called Turnover contagion: how coworkers’ job embeddedness and job search behaviors influence quitting—measured how different factors that determine embeddedness to a workplace—like job satisfaction, community roots and relationships with direct supervisors—were important predictors in determining the likelihood of someone’s resignation. It found that when one person was sprucing up their resume, searching classified ads, or scheduling job interviews, others with low work embeddedness were likely to do the same.

Phelphs likens it to dominos, falling one after another. “High demand for labor demand is what knocked over the first few dominos, but I think that the psychology of turnover contagion is why it is continuing.” 

Turnover contagion is influenced further by the greater media coverage of the Great Resignation and the visibility of quitting on social media

Social media hashtags like #iquitmyjobtoday and #iquitmyjob, among many others, have racked up hundreds of millions of views on TikTok since the spring of 2021, while the Reddit Internet forum Antiwork, which encourages followers to reevaluate their working habits, has ballooned from 180,000 members in October 2020 to 1.7 million by January 2022. 

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Hekman, likening the phenomenon to a pandemic of its own. 

The new normal

But while the quitting virus may soon begin to fade, it will have lasting effects and has highlighted the generational gap between older and younger workers. 

“It seems that many younger workers just aren’t that committed to their organizations,” says Will Phelps, an associate professor at the University of New South Wales Sydney. While before, people were attached to work through their kids, marriage, and religious commitments, young people, who lead the charge in the Great Resignation, aren’t as engaged with their community.

“For better or worse, young people aren’t as ‘tied down’ as past generations,” leading to less attachment to work, Phelps says.

The match that lit the flame

According to Brooks Holtom, social media is “gas on the fire.” He notes that it is not a catalyst but rather just an accelerator.

Holtom notes that the job shocks, like being passed over for a promotion, getting married, having a fight with a coworker, and getting accepted to graduate school, all lead people to rethink their careers.

“More than 50% of quits are precipitated by some shocking event that punctuates a person’s mental equilibrium,” Holtom notes. This is in contrast to the baseline, where people go on day and in and day out without questioning their careers.

“What’s different with the pandemic, is that every single one of us experienced the shock simultaneously,” Holtom notes. “That is the match.”

Whether the fire continues to burn is another question.

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