What can UK HR learn from the ‘nice resignation’?

Employers across the pond are facing millions of workers quitting in search of a more fulfilling lifestyle – and there’s much that the crisis can teach businesses in this country, says Eugene Farrell

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US employers continue to struggle with the ‘nice resignation’ — not people jostling for pay and promotion, but because they’re looking for a better lifestyle, fulfilment and a particular package of working conditions that suits them. There are estimated to be around 11.5 million unfilled posts as a result of staff resignations, with around 4.5 million employees leaving their job in March 2022 alone. 

Such high turnover comes at a massive cost to employers, and it’s important that HR in the UK learns the lessons. Replacing people means extra bills for employers already facing inflationary pressures. Evidence suggests each resignation costs up to twice the annual wage of that role: in recruitment costs, management time and coaching, as well as disruption to operations and cover needed from other members of a team. Most of all we need to look beyond the surface picture of good intentions and positivity, because one of the main underlying causes of changing attitudes to work in the US is burnout.

A US study found that 50 per cent of workers felt "burnt out from work within the past two weeks”; 57 per cent were “mentally and bodily exhausted”; and 51 per cent “emotionally drained”. For 43 per cent of US executives, their new job search had been brought about by a need for “higher work-life stability”. The pandemic experience caused a mass rethink among employees about their priorities, as well as only adding to workloads due to changing operations and market pressures. Workplace culture specialist O.C. Tanner Europe found the pandemic had contributed to a 15 per cent global rise in burnout, a figure which jumped to 81 per cent among lower-performing company cultures. Its 2020 Global Culture Report claims that even mild burnout causes a 220 per cent decrease in the probability of employees being highly engaged.

So in response, US employers have been looking to provide more flexibility as a retention tool: more home working, more flexible routines, more holidays, more paid sabbaticals. There has also been a greater emphasis on staff recognition schemes, encouraging more peer-to-peer rewards, and training for managers on awareness of psychological wellbeing and listening. HR departments there have been under pressure to measure the impact of investing in employee wellbeing and other initiatives, using spreadsheets to track the financial savings from reduced absenteeism and staff turnover.

Introducing blanket offerings around flexible working, and more holidays are a scattergun approach, and won’t necessarily bring the ROI that HR is hoping for. People are all different — and while there is a broad trend around burnout leading to ‘nice resignations’, the specific causes and decision-making behind it are very individual, built around wider home life circumstances and changes. 

Getting managers involved to spot signs of burnout is indeed helpful, but isn’t an answer in itself. While our cultural stigma around mental health and fears around implications for our careers persist, struggling employees still don’t want to open up or admit to what might be reported as a kind of weakness. The bigger underlying problem behind the tide of resignations, is the (mostly unspoken) reaction against a culture of overworking. In spite of the rethink caused by the Covid-19 period, the idea that overworking and burnout are just part of being ‘successful’, a sign of being a high achiever, is still with us. Overworking is bad for anyone’s health, no matter how strong they believe themselves to be. The exhaustion involved is serious and has implications in terms of work and home life — and the potential for ongoing problems with physical and mental wellbeing.

HR should be promoting the importance of healthy attitudes to work and the importance of a balance in people’s lives. Stress at ordinary levels is a good thing for motivation and for the pay-off in terms of a sense of achievement and overcoming problems. In this way, though, stress can be a kind of drug, encouraging overworking and risk-taking. There’s a need for HR attention to wider workplace cultures: do employees have a sense of control over their workload and practices; are they encouraged to take their leave entitlement for rest and re-charging; do people feel able to just take a short break away from their screens, to have a chat and a coffee with a colleague, take a walk at lunchtimes and get proper breaks?

HR needs to ensure retention is understood and dealt with as a real people issue, that there can be a personal approach to dealing with very individual situations and aspirations. For example, EAPs make sure everyone has access to practical support and advice, so that no-one has to feel like there’s nowhere to go without having that awkward conversation with their line manager.

Eugene Farrell is chair of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) UK