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Staying power! How to thrive in the great resignation if you don’t want to quit

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In the US, they are calling it the great resignation or (my preference) the big quit. In the UK, the language is less portentous, but the reality is similar: there are more vacancies than jobseekers. Nearly 1.2m jobs were open in the UK in the most recent quarter, with 15 of 18 sectors reporting record numbers.

People cite all kinds of reasons for quitting – they want a better work-life balance, they want more challenges, better conditions, more meaning. But what about those left behind? How do you stop your own career getting trampled as your colleagues race out the door? What’s the best way to deal with the void left by your familiar co-workers, not to mention the workload? How do you manage your Fomo and quarry some advantage out of the situation?

Rahaf Harfoush is a Paris-based digital anthropologist and the author of Hustle and Float; Marie O’Riordan is an executive coach; Alan Redman is a work and organisational psychologist at the recruitment consultancy Clevry; and David Harris is the managing partner at the employment solicitors DPH Legal. Between them, they have the answers to everything except: “What’s the point of work anyway?”

What if people quitting makes you want to quit?

What if you don’t hate your job, but you are worried about staleness – about everything returning to normal with nothing learned and nothing gained?

Ask yourself, Harfoush says: “Is the work still satisfying or not? You can be sad that colleagues are leaving, but if you’re burned out, unmotivated, depressed, uninspired, identify the root cause. Are you overworked? Or have you realised that there’s something else that excites you? Poll yourself and give your brain the chance to answer. You might not get the answer until a few days later.” Once you have identified the causes of your dissatisfaction, look for practical fixes.

But Redman says: “In the end, if those aren’t available, change jobs. Sometimes you’re better off finding somewhere that can offer the sources of motivation you’re looking for; something beyond salary and conditions, something more intrinsic.”

Study after study has shown that the most productive people in a workplace aren’t necessarily those with the most hard skills, but those who find the work most enjoyable. You are doing no one any favours if you stay in a role you don’t relish.

How do you stop yourself getting landed with extra work from the people who quit?

Redman describes the employer’s perspective: “Staff are being poached, especially people with very valuable skills, and this is causing difficulties with remaining employees in terms of how work is distributed. Employers aren’t necessarily in a rush to fill the vacancies, partly because it’s difficult, partly because it’s an opportunity to save costs, partly because they don’t know what the next six months is going to look like.” That is bad news for everyone, however, since overworked employees in a seller’s market can also leave, which creates a feedback loop. The more people resign, the more people are driven to resign.

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It is similar to the situation post-2008, Harfoush says. After the mass redundancies of the financial crash, the remaining staff found themselves doing what the Wall Street Journal called “super-jobs”, except they weren’t super in the traditional sense of “good” – the workload had just been supersized.

Don’t just cope until you can’t. Harfoush recommends a “role scope creep audit”, saying: “Look at your original role. Perhaps you picked up more work over the pandemic as companies went into survival mode. Ask: how far have I crept? How many more projects, how many more responsibilities?” Then spell it out for your employer: “Here’s what I was hired to do; here’s how my time is allocated now. So either we need to reprioritise or we need to reallocate.”

How do you compete when you are an old hand and there are suddenly new faces?

There are two things going on here: how do you stay fresh when others are fresher; and how do you rebuild a team, particularly if the old team was working well and convivially?

O’Riordan advises that you make sure you are at the centre of restructuring efforts, rather than resisting them. “If you do this to your advantage, so you have more junior staff reporting into you, this is a good position to argue for a promotion,” she says. “Take advantage of the void. There will always have been bad habits that were accepted as a team, so now you can get rid of them.”

Don’t pine for your departed colleagues, Redman says. “It’s near-impossible to find exact substitutes for people who’ve left. Whatever the composition of the new team, it will be a bunch of different individuals.”

A different team is likely to draw out different skills and traits from each of its members. “We are quite flexible,” Redman says. You might find that your stance and your role are changing, but don’t have an identity crisis about it. You are still you.

Is it time to ask for a pay rise or a loyalty bonus?

Everyone agrees that you have probably never been in a better negotiating position, between the buoyant jobs market and the logic that, if you are still in post after all this upheaval, you are plainly an asset.

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However, there is consensus, too, on a few fundamentals: Harfoush points to research that shows that “employees are only motivated by money to a certain point. Tap into yourself and say: ‘What would actually improve my quality of life?’” One constraint, Redman says, is that businesses have “a clearly set payroll and a plan, rules on differentials that it’s difficult to deviate from”, so it is better to have salary as part of a suite of demands, of which you might then get some.

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O’Riordan says: “It’s about seeing your value in broader terms. So, you could ask for flexible hours, working from home, childcare vouchers, gym membership, career development. These things will cost the company money, but they won’t necessarily come off the salary budget. It makes your negotiation look more mature and rounded and it’ll give you a better standard of living anyway.”

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Is it a good time to renegotiate your role?

In a nutshell, it is a good time for everything. “Optimistically speaking, there’s already a slight rebalancing in the power equation between the employer and the worker,” says Redman.

But don’t try unthinkingly to beef up your title; this is a good time to ask deeper questions. Is your work flexible enough? Do you have enough time for a life outside it? Are there elements of pandemic life that you want to take into your post-pandemic work?

Do you have to go back to the office/carry on working at home? (Delete according to preference)

There seems to be an organisational bias towards getting back to business as usual just for the sake of it, which in the first instance means everyone back in the office. Harfoush says: “Workplaces are not making a good enough case to justify their back-to-work policies. The frustrations that some employees feel is that they’ve been forced to re-evaluate how we gather and why we gather – and employers aren’t doing the same.”

Remote meetings sometimes created new equality, O’Riordan says. “Voices that would normally be quieter or shyer were suddenly being asked to contribute. People felt empowered and more collaborative, because they were forced to communicate more efficiently.” Others felt that they had more control over their hours, were spared a commute or could winnow out pointless, time-consuming face-to-face encounters.

Yet many people at the start of their careers and living in titchy flat-shares desperately miss the office, for space, camaraderie, learning curve and (sometimes) free coffee and sachets of sugar. This is a question for employers: how can they redesign the specification so that people are happier, and so perform at their best? But it is also a question for employees to figure out what they want; power concedes nothing without a demand.

“There’s no reason why those employees who are overloaded with excess baggage need to suck it up and get on with it,” says Harris, the employment lawyer, who has experience on both sides of the fence. “Check your terms and conditions. Think about your job spec and whether or not your workload is falling within it. Then raise a complaint, either informally or through a formal grievance. Employers will be more receptive to complaints at the moment – and we have direct experience of that.”

If that doesn’t resolve it and you decide to take it to a tribunal, excessive workload would fall under constructive dismissal. “These claims can be technically difficult to win – you’ve got to show that you’re at the end of your tether and that you have no option other than to resign. Only about one in five succeed, but that’s more about spurious claims being issued. It’s not a reason not to bring a claim.”

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You can seek legal advice from Citizens Advice; lawyers are expensive, but some have no-win, no-fee schemes. “Lots of individuals will have insurance via their home insurance, which is something people may not be aware of,” adds Harris.

Is the pandemic a message to retrain as something more useful to society?

It is not a bad idea, if there is something you feel excited by. However, if you are just reacting against an employer’s culture, after the scales have fallen from your eyes, that might not be a great place from which to make decisions. Like the pandemic, Redman says, the aftermath has separated the sheep from the goats, corporately speaking. “Some big firms were evil quite quickly, with lockdown layoffs and taking advantage of employees who were furloughed. Others were more progressive.”

Organisations are capable of change, even changing their values, and “the rules of talent are really being redrawn”, Harfoush says, citing initiatives at Nike, Bumble and LinkedIn, which all gave employees a week’s paid leave, just to improve their professional experience. It comes back again to psychological equity: you have more power than you once had. Use it before you quit. Or quit, if you like. Your call.

How do you harness the goodwill brought about because you have stuck around?

“I don’t think you’ll be rewarded just for not leaving,” O’Riordan says. “But there is more awareness now that the contract is a two-way street – the employer has responsibilities as much as the employee does. And younger millennials are creating a very different workplace culture – they’re not prepared to put up with old-fashioned workplace values.” Don’t think of it as “harnessing goodwill” or you will end up with a fruit basket. Think of it as “advocating for yourself”, Harfoush says. Don’t be embarrassed by it. “Nobody else is going to advocate for you.”

How can you make an old job feel exciting and new?

“Given that everything has been upended a bit, we’re all asking: ‘Is there a way to get more joy and sense of self from my job?’” says Redman.

As far as O’Riordan is concerned: “This is absolutely an opportunity to reinvent yourself.” Where vacancies are opening up around you, “instead of just taking on extra duties, you should think about a more creative way of restructuring the work”. When new people are taken on, try to manoeuvre yourself into a mentoring role – or, if they are at the same level as you, “step up to integrate the new cohort into the company’s way of thinking – so you’re carving a role for yourself, but you’re also suggesting yourself as somebody who embraces change and is receptive to new thinking”.