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One reason so many are quitting: We want control over our lives again

The pandemic, and the challenges of balancing life and work during it, have stripped us of agency. Resigning is one way of regaining a sense of autonomy — at least for the moment.

Hiring signs posted around Rickenbacker International Airport in Columbus, Ohio, Oct. 11, 2021. (Megan Jelinger/AFP/Getty Images)

Feeling that we have some power over our lives is fundamental to our overall well-being, social science research shows. Our capability to control our circumstances — to make choices and take actions that help us to achieve the goals we’ve set for ourselves — greatly impacts our life satisfaction, to roughly the same extent as having a sense of purpose, social connectedness, and even financial security. But exercising this personal power has become more complicated for many of us in this pandemic era. As it rattles our emotions in countless ways, the pandemic has also significantly undermined our autonomy.

One path to recovering personal power is to act decisively in ways that can change our lives — by quitting our job, for example. The desire to assert self-determination is almost certainly a significant and underappreciated driver of the Great Resignation, the term for the phenomenon in which an unprecedented number of workers have left their positions. In the United States alone, between August and October of this year, 12.9 million people quit their jobs — more than 8 percent of the workforce.

The problem is that the apparent “solution” to a sense of disempowerment — quitting — may, at least for some of us, not bring us any closer to resolving the real issues that trouble us. While walking away from a job may absolutely be the right answer for many, it’s important for people who are considering quitting to recognize that it might not be an effective elixir for what ails us most deeply. Knowing why you so badly want to leave your job may keep you from acting hastily and regretting it.

“Feeling powerless to change things any other way, we may jump to the nuclear option of leaving without even bothering to try a more measured approach first,” says social psychologist Vanessa Bohns, a professor at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and author of “You Have More Influence Than You Think.” “In the moment, leaving may feel like the only way to reassert our power over the situation, when in fact there may have been less extreme ways to do so.”

Even if you conclude that quitting is the right course of action, understanding the psychology underpinning your distress can help you perceive your situation more clearly.

Certainly, the disempowerment is real. General burnout and lack of control — often related to unmanageable schedules with personal and work responsibilities overlapping and clashing — are often cited by the people who leave their jobs (or are thinking about doing so). Women, overrepresented in low-wage jobs and saddled with more of the pandemic-induced increases in child-care duties, are in particular experiencing greater loss of control and burnout, reflected in higher resignation rates.

Why this stage of the pandemic makes us so anxious

The impulsivity that people feel when they lose a sense of control over their lives has biological roots. When we feel powerless and under threat, our behavioral inhibition system (BIS) switches on. The BIS is a neural motivational network that orients us toward mitigating risk and escaping harm. It does so by causing us to see challenging situations as threats to avoid rather than opportunities to approach; to see other people as hostile rather than trustworthy; and to see resources as critically scarce. Some psychologists refer to the BIS as an “alarm-threat system” that increases anxiety, fear, and frustration and trains us toward surviving, not thriving — toward preventing pain rather than seeking pleasure. When the BIS is blinking red, it tells us that we are not capable of fixing the negative things in our immediate environment (e.g., our job), making us less likely to try to improve the situation and more likely to try to escape it.

While quitting can infuse us with a surge of personal power, the surge may be fleeting; we can quickly sour on such an extreme decision. It’s true that the principle of supply-and-demand favors job-seekers in the labor market right now. Nonetheless, voluntary job change is rarely a cakewalk. Pre-pandemic research shows that even when job-switchers find a new position, they often experience decreased job satisfaction, less enthusiasm and vitality, greater emotional exhaustion, and greater work-family conflict — a recipe for the very stress and burnout that can make people eager to change jobs in the first place.

In short, changing jobs to reclaim a sense of personal power may amplify rather than attenuate personal powerlessness. During this pandemic era, Anthony Klotz, the professor of psychology at Texas A & M University who coined the term “Great Resignation,” says he is already seeing a wave of “boomerang employees” — people returning to jobs they’d left.

People experiencing a sense of powerlessness should carefully consider whether resigning will enlarge or reduce their power deficit. Even when jobs are relatively plentiful, already having a job increases a new hire’s leverage when they are negotiating things like salary, benefits, and vacation time with a new employer. Research also shows us that there is an “unemployment stigma” that leads potential new employers to rate job candidates who are unemployed — whether involuntarily or voluntarily — as less competent, less warm, and less generally desirable than currently-employed candidates. What’s more, in some places — New Zealand offers one cautionary tale — there simply aren’t enough job openings to accommodate the number of people resigning from old jobs and looking for new ones.

Of course, this doesn’t mean quitting is the wrong decision for everyone. Resigning is a good call for many, including those who can afford to leave a job that is decreasing their quality of life and people whose very souls demand that they extricate themselves from work situations that are harming their mental, spiritual, or physical health. Indeed, almost all of the concerns people have cited for quitting their jobs — poor work-life balance, unhealthy cultures, lack of purposeful work conditions — are, in our estimation, more than valid.

For many people, these concerns predated the pandemic and the pandemic only exacerbated them. Nonetheless, what caused people to act on those concerns, we’re suggesting, partly has to do with the sudden and acute loss of power caused by the pandemic, and the desire to reclaim it.

The reality — in the United States and elsewhere — is that many people who are barely surviving at work don’t have the luxury of walking away, whether to reclaim a sense of power or something even more fundamental: their human dignity. To regain a sense of power, these people might concentrate on doing what they can to change their circumstances at work. First, they can recognize the power that accrues to them as experienced employees who aren’t leaving. Then, they can try to leverage their “staying power” to renegotiate or redesign the least satisfactory aspects of their job, whether that’s hours, workload, role, task assignments, child care, or remote vs. in-person work. People who stay in their jobs might even consider requesting a pay raise or loyalty bonus.

The lion’s share of the responsibility, though, lies with employers, who can begin to re-empower employees by giving them more control to decide how, when, and where they work; allowing them more time and flexibility to manage other aspects of their lives that have been altered by the pandemic; and creating workloads and goals that are reasonable.

At the societal level, the Great Resignation, which has also been called the Great Reshuffling, may be an important catalyst for advancing more humane working conditions as employers compete to attract and retain top talent. If, to stanch the departure of some of their best workers, employers must think harder about building workplaces that empower employees and enable their human flourishing, that could be one positive development to emerge from the pandemic.