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How the Great Grief led to the Great Resignation

April 11, 2022, 12:36 PM UTC
Nurses and healthcare workers remember their colleagues who died of the virus during a demonstration outside Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan on Apr. 10, 2020, in New York City.
Johannes Eisele—AFP/Getty Images

Before the Great Resignation, there was the Great Grief.

In this unrelenting pandemic, we’ve lost loved ones, our sense of safety and well-being, and trust in the structures that had scaffolded our lives. We’ve had to give up our freedom, habits, and plans.

Our grief fueled great personal upheaval and pushed many of us to question how we spend our precious, finite time on earth, especially considering that about a third of it is spent at work.

The Great Resignation shows no signs of slowing. In November 2021 alone, a record 4.5 million people walked off the job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report. This exodus from structured work is a symptom of collective grief.

Too fragile to be useful

As a psychologist, I have worked with high-performing people, especially entrepreneurs, to reset their priorities amid loss. Sadly, I am somewhat of an expert on grief. It’s not a qualification I asked for–but losing my dad to cancer and my brother to suicide within a six-month period made me think a lot about how confounding loss can be.

Many of us are grieving. Last April, science writer Ann Finkbeiner estimated in the New York Times that on average, nine people were grieving for each of the 565,000 people who had died of COVID. “That’s more than five million people going through the long process of grief,” she wrote. Almost a year later, with 900,000 deaths, millions of our neighbors, friends, and colleagues are grieving.

This is what I know from personal experience: Grief is much more than sadness. It’s a shock to the system that dysregulates our lives for weeks, if not years.

Grief cuts a path through our minds and bodies–and begets cardiovascular disease, infections, cancer, and other chronic diseases. Bereaved parents and spouses are nearly twice as likely to die than those not bereaved, and after a year, they are still 10% more likely to die.

It’s reasonable and predictable that bereaved people have asked themselves how they want to spend their finite time–which brought us to the Great Resignation. Many of us didn’t feel fit to work. We also didn’t feel our jobs were set up to support us. We couldn’t handle the lack of empathy, understanding, freedom, and autonomy. In grief, we want to set our own terms.

In my most intense periods of grief, there were many moments when I seriously considered discontinuing my work.

Those who will never go back

In the dark crevices of the pandemic, our home and work lives have bent to breaking point. One of my clients was working 60 to 70 hours a week in a management role she’d held for several years, while also caring for a toddler.

During the onset of the pandemic, job demands increased until she felt overwhelmed and burned out. She could never keep up with her emails, no matter how many hours she worked. She finally quit in order to spend more time with her daughter. 

Other clients have lost family members to COVID or have become sick themselves. One, after plumbing his soul, decided he needed more freedom to spend time on his hobbies and work with his hands. I’m helping him work through his grief and ambition, and where to channel his energies.

Many workers will never return to work. Instead, many of my clients end up carving out more meaning and independence through entrepreneurship. A recent study by Intuit QuickBooks found that 17 million Americans will launch a new business in 2022.

Those who will

If we are to recover from the Great Resignation, we must better understand the grief that provoked millions of Americans to quit their job. If employers want to retain or attract new workers, they must find ways to let their employees grieve, with a focus on solutions.

The vacuum created by loss can’t be filled up with another busy day of emails and meetings. It’s possible that bereavement groups or in-service presentations are needed for your workers or some other meaningful emotional support.

Outside of work, people must strive for a balance of action and inaction. Keep your hands busy or go running, so you have something to occupy you as you go through dark feelings. Find space for your grief, but also space to rest, sleep, and tend to your body.

Far more than simple sadness, grief is loud and forceful and dynamic and sometimes demands profound change, and additional support. Grieving well is hard work.

Sherry Walling, MAT, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, speaker, yoga teacher and entrepreneur. Her podcast, ZenFounder, has been called a “must listen” by Forbes and Entrepreneur magazines. She is an advisor to Intuit’s Early Start campaign for entrepreneurs. Her books include How to Run Your Business Without Letting it Run You, and the upcoming title Touching Two Worlds: a guide for finding hope in the landscape of loss.

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