Finding Purpose During the Great Resignation

Americans are looking for something more meaningful out of work. Organizations that offer it to them could reap tremendous gains, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman. 


Daniel Goleman, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond, is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, is available now. 

In April, 4 million US workers resigned voluntarily from their jobs — a 20-year record according to the Labor Department.

Normally, an upsurge in people quitting their jobs is the sign of a vibrant economy. But as many economists have pointed out, these times aren’t normal. On the one hand, the pandemic led to one of the worst recessions in US History. On the other hand, people are leaving their jobs, resulting in some industries experiencing a labor shortage.

This phenomenon has been dubbed “The Great Resignation,” a term coined by Professor Anthony Klotz of the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University. Klotz predicted an upsurge in employee attrition post lockdown, suspecting that many of the people who hunkered down and stayed put in their jobs during the pandemic (especially front line service workers) were just waiting for the right time to make their exit. “If the vaccinations do what they are supposed to do and the economy comes back, there are a bunch of people who are going to enact their resignation plans,” Klotz told the Boston Globe this June.

So, what’s prompting so many workers to resign?

One clear reason is burnout. Across industries, working conditions throughout the pandemic have been especially stressful. Regardless of whether they are remote or in person, Gallup polls found that workers’ life evaluations dropped over the past year. Sixty-one percent women and 52% of men said they felt stressed on a typical day, both increases from before the pandemic.

In the service and hospitality industry, the stress has been particularly acute: workers put their lives on the line; teams dealt with the repercussions of inconsistent staffing; new technologies were adopted; and frontline service workers were put in the position of reinforcing state and federal regulations around masks. 

But the burnout is only part of the equation. For some workers, the pandemic presented an opportunity to get clearer on what matters to them.

Jeremy Golembiewski is an example. A former general manager of a breakfast restaurant in San Diego, Golembiewski spent 26 years working in the food service industry. In December, when California went into their second lockdown, Golembiewski— who had contracted COVID-19 earlier in the year and brought it home to his family— was given the choice of working six days a week or taking a furlough.

When Golembiewski opted for the furlough, his entire life changed. He went from working 50-60 hours a week to being home with his young family. Instead of returning to work, Golembiewski resigned, leaving behind the career he had had since he was 16 in pursuit of a job with a 40-hour work week— one that would allow him more time with his loved ones.

"I want to see my 1-year-old and my 5-year-old's faces light up when they come out and see the tree and all the presents that I spent six hours at night assembling and putting out," said Golembiewski. Like many in the food service industry, Golembiewski almost always worked holidays.

While “The Great Resignation” poses a staffing challenge for employers, it reveals a lot about the importance of purpose.

People are wired to be motivated by what’s meaningful to them. Not only does purpose bolster wellbeing and engagement, but as we see in the case of Golembiewski, it can motivate us to embrace and catalyze change.

In this time marked by burnout, uncertainty and transition—organizations have an opportunity. Employees are leaving in droves because they want more.

And much of what they want seems to be something a sense of purpose can provide.

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.