Opinion

Emma Fulu
How to turn the Great Resignation into the Great Revolution

Already, it has been called the “Great Resignation”. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, people are quitting their jobs en masse. Bartenders, sales assistants, healthcare workers, teachers and tech developers are calling it quits – a record 4.3 million American workers in August alone. It is unclear whether Australia will have the same kind of worker revolt, but some predict we may see a similar trend in early 2022.

Perhaps this should be called the Great Reflection. Faced with one’s own mortality, the harsh reality of home-schooling and the new normal of rolling lockdowns, people are questioning their very existence, the meaning of work, and what matters most in life. It is not just our attitude to work that is changing. It seems we are questioning everything – as reflected in rising divorce rates, a baby boom, more businesses being established and an urban exodus.

While not everyone has the privilege of being able to resign, and many more have lost jobs, even those in low-paid industries are departing in favour of entry-level jobs that offer greater benefits, professional development opportunities and alignment with their own values. Individual motivations may vary, but research suggests that this mass exodus is related to three things: the pursuit of greater meaning, worsening work–life balance and toxic workplace cultures.

For me, this resonates deeply. My great resignation came nearly 10 years ago, and for exactly the same reasons.

I left a successful international career as a gender expert, leading global research projects for organisations such as the United Nations, after a serious case of burnout. At 35 years old I was living in South Africa, where I’d moved to lead one of the largest global programs to prevent violence against women and girls in low- and middle-income countries. In tow were my four-month-old twins, who I was still breastfeeding, my two-and-a-half-year-old toddler, and my then husband who, at this time, had taken on the role of primary carer. After a particularly gruelling work trip, which took me across three continents in three weeks, I collapsed. As I sat in my doctor’s office to get treatment for a chronic sinus infection I’d picked up during New York’s snowstorm, I broke down. I was broken.

I had lost myself somewhere along my overly ambitious path. As I strived to have it all, do it all, and look perfect while doing it, I had forgotten to ask myself if this was what I truly wanted. I ignored the flashing warning signs telling me my life was out of control because I felt immobilised by responsibility – I had to support my family, people were depending on me, and I believed everyone would be so disappointed if I didn’t keep up this charade. Thankfully, my body and mind called an urgent timeout.

I resigned. Without a contingency plan, we moved back to Melbourne to live with my mum. I started again. After much rest, counselling and deep reflection, I knew I was still driven by a deep desire to advance gender equality and address violence against women and girls. But I needed to do it within an organisation that valued health and wellbeing and truly lived its values.

Seven years later, flexibility and hybrid work are becoming the norm. Covid-19 has proved to employees and employers alike that it is possible. But is that enough?

If we think the Great Resignation is just about flexible work, I fear we have missed the underlying drivers of this phenomenon. I believe many people are resigning because they are exhausted and burnt out. Just like I was. And most of them are women.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the highest quit rates are in sectors such as healthcare, aged care, education and hospitality – all female-dominated industries. For these front-line workers, not only did their jobs become significantly more demanding and stressful, but many also took up the majority of additional unpaid labour at home, including home-schooling.

This reflects the structural gender inequalities in our society, which have only been exacerbated by Covid-19. A 2020 global McKinsey study found women with young children were significantly more likely to report that they were considering resigning or downsizing their careers compared with male counterparts. Women were also less likely to get government support because JobKeeper excluded short-term casuals who, in the hardest-hit industries, were mostly women. They were also the first to have JobKeeper cut – think early childhood educators.

But now that kids are back at school, maybe these issues have been solved? Not so quick. There may be something even deeper and darker lurking beneath the surface.

I believe we are in the midst of a reckoning with authenticity and integrity at both an individual and institutional level. And I don’t mean the “you be you” social media version of authenticity. I am talking about the very definition of integrity – the state of being whole and undivided. I believe this is what we seek as human beings, and it is what organisations must deliver if they are to survive.

If I were to reflect on the years before my own resignation, I was performing multiple roles: the professional woman, the mother, the wife – I felt like I was being torn into little pieces, never fully whole. Now I realise that disconnection contributed significantly to my burnout.

Unfortunately, this lack of integration is embedded in workplace culture. Don’t bring your personal life to work, they say. But this no longer makes sense when your workplace is your bedroom; when everyone can see your dirty laundry, literally; when your children and your dog are demanding your attention in the background of a Zoom meeting.

Similarly, many workplaces have historically presented an airbrushed image to the world, while the reality faced by employees inside those organisations was toxic. But that facade is also being shattered.

The Black Lives Matter movements have shone a spotlight on the epic lack of diversity in organisations that profess values of inclusion. The Me Too movement revealed the tragic disconnect between what we were shown in Hollywood movies – glamour, wealth and stardom – versus the toxic, misogynistic and violent reality that many women in the industry faced on a daily basis.

Like millions of women around the world, I can say #MeToo. I experienced harassment while working at the United Nations, of all places. And I certainly was not alone. But working in an organisation that professes to promote justice and equality in the world, while silencing victims on the inside, is the toxicity that is making employees consider calling it quits.

Sexual harassment in Australian workplaces is widespread and pervasive. One in three Australian workers report having experienced sexual harassment at work. Those rates are even higher for First Nations women, women with disabilities, young women, and people with diverse gender identities. Tragically we have seen such violence and abuse even in the Australian parliament. Women already experienced high rates of  violence and harassment pre-pandemic, and Covid-19 has exacerbated these risks, both at work and at home.

This is not about the bad behaviour of a few individuals. We have deep structural problems that have allowed decades of sexism and abuse within organisations to continue. The system is broken, and just adding a work-from-home option is not going to fix the problem.

Rightly, people around the country are asking: Why would I spend half my life working for a corporation that doesn’t treat me with respect? Why am I spending all my waking hours in a job that doesn’t align with my values?

Hopefully, organisations are waking up and realising that they must do more to create cultures of safety, inclusion and belonging if they are going to survive. It is no longer enough to look good on social media, or have a meaningless list of positive values plastered on the office wall. Employees want authenticity and integration. They want to be able to show up to work as their full human selves. They want to be seen and respected for who they are. And they want to work in an organisation that lives their values.

This is the Great Realisation. Perhaps it will lead to a Great Revolution.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 27, 2021 as "The Great Revolution".

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Emma Fulu is founder and executive director of The Equality Institute.