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The Great Resignation is sparking fears of a ‘Great Burnout’ that could cripple America’s workforce

March 17, 2022, 8:45 PM UTC
Production at U.S. factories like cast iron producer Lodge rose modestly in January amid the continued Great Resignation.
Bloomberg/Getty Images

The Great Resignation isn’t really about employees permanently leaving the workforce. In most cases, workers have been quitting in search of better opportunities — and finding them

That, however, may change if the employees who are left behind don’t get some relief from the extra work they’re shouldering as a results of this great reshuffle. 

At least 4 million Americans have quit their jobs every month since July 2021. In January, about 4.3 million Americans, or 2.8% of workers, walked out the door, according to the latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released last week.

But the constant churn hasn't stopped the economic recovery. Consumer demand for goods and services has soared, which in turn means companies have needed more workers. Industrial production, for example, is back to where it was prior to COVID, says Ron Hetrick, a senior economist with labor market data company Emsi Burning Glass. 

“What's happening is employers are pushing their current workers to quite the extent to get things out the door,” Hetrick says. 

To get to that level of recovery, many companies are making do with fewer workers and less institutional knowledge — especially in the face of high turnover and constant open jobs. The Great Resignation is more like a game of musical chairs, and the workers who aren't changing jobs are typically left trying to manage a growing workload, usually without the help they need.  

Over half of those who chose to stay at their jobs say they’ve taken on more responsibilities amid the Great Resignation, according to a report released by the Society for Human Resource Management in October 2021. About 30% of workers left behind say they struggle to get all of the work done, while nearly as many, 27%, reported they feel less loyalty to their employer amid the continuing tumult. 

That could lead to long-term job dissatisfaction and burnout to the point of people not only quitting but dragging their feet in finding a new job. In fact, the number of quits in manufacturing in January was at an all-time high, Hetrick says, who says he's very concerned about burnout. Manufacturing logged 483,000 hires and 476,000 separations (which include quits, layoffs, retirements) — essentially breaking even.

Adding to the squeeze: About 1.4 million Americans working pre-pandemic still haven’t returned to the workforce as last month, according to a recent analysis by leading economists Jason Furman and Wilson Powell III for the Peterson Institute for International Economics. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics clocked the labor force participation rate at 62.3% in February, still below the 63.4% logged in February 2020. 

Many of those missing workers include working parents, immigrants, retirees, and even those struggling with long COVID and other health issues that make them vulnerable in the current pandemic. Nearly half a million families, for instance, are struggling to find child care so they can work, according to a recent Wells Fargo Report.

Getting those workers back into the workforce is important to alleviating some of this labor pressure, Hetrick says. "I think the hope is that we can get some reinforcements in and help us."

“We’ve seen some promising gains in the payroll surveys the past couple months, but, labor force participation has barely improved,” Hetrick says.  “With millions on the sidelines and an economy that is desperately trying to expand, employers need to actively recruit beyond just simply posting a help wanted ad.”

And those recruitment efforts may need to include not only resources for new hires, but also improving pay and benefits, including additional mental health and employee wellness programs for existing employees

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