Lessons from the Great Resignation in how to find meaning at work

The coronavirus pandemic has led many individuals to rethink the meaning of work in their lives and reconsider the importance of mental health and wellbeing

If news of the Great Resignation has you rethinking the meaning of work in your life and its impact on your mental health, you are not alone. The coronavirus pandemic isn't just changing how we commute to work, it's also changing how and why we work, and our thoughts and feelings about the role of work in our lives. As the acceptance of remote work and moving away from big cities becomes more plausible, people are rethinking the role of work and the potential for downsizing, suggests author and Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, Cal Newport. In the article Why Are So Many Knowledge Workers Quitting? published by the New Yorker, he notes that the proliferation of the internet has meant more knowledge workers have been able to leverage remote work to improve their work-life balance by replacing expensive cities with more scenic and affordable settings.

But it's not just knowledge workers that have been affected by the pandemic. A survey by Findex of more than 500 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) found over half say they have concerns about staff retention next year (some 85 per cent of their employees said they wanted to continue to work from home or retain a flexible work environment). While surveys by Microsoft and PwC of over 1000 Australians recently found 40 per cent and 38 per cent (respectively) are expecting to leave their jobs next year. Many say they will move because they can now work remotely. For others, mental health is a big factor in their decision-making, with workers increasingly demanding mental health support as well as flexibility from their employers.

Read more: Digital nomads: five key insights into the future of knowledge work

It’s important to remember that many employees, especially in the US, have also faced significant challenges pre-pandemic. The Great Resignation was preceded by a great stagnation in worker wages and benefits, which means the wages of lower-earning jobs, like those in hospitality and retail, have not matched the pace of inflation. The jobs themselves have also become more informal and precarious, a facet of work that many are now questioning. October was a popular month for organised labour in the US, with major strikes across various industries sweeping the country, as well as the record number of resignations.

There have also been recent reports that China is witnessing a version of the Great Resignation, where a younger generation of workers, disenchanted by their prospects and the relatively low wages in the manufacturing centres, are rebelling against the '996' work culture – where staff are expected to work from 9:00am to 9:00pm, six days a week – and are instead opting out of stressful jobs and 'lying flat' in what's being called the 'tang ping' movement. The social phenomenon is said to be a response to the increase of costs for housing, education, healthcare and other expenses rising faster than salaries.

The 'lying flat' movement in China is similar to the Great Resignation in that workers are refusing to sacrifice their mental health and wellbeing for employers.jpeg
The 'lying flat' movement has become a social phenomenon in China where employees are rebelling against the '996' work culture. Image: Shutterstock

The Great Resignation: how coronavirus forced many to question what is essential

Last year, many Australian organisations were forced to downsize, saying permanent goodbyes to employees. Job cuts take a toll on the morale of workers. Now, as the economy slowly recovers, perhaps more employees are simply considering their options. According to data by LinkedIn, employees are transitioning to new jobs at the fastest pace since the start of the pandemic. The number of workers changing jobs was up 26 per cent in October compared with the same month in the previous year. And many are finding value in the nonprofit sector, one of the fastest-growing areas in the job market. With workers growing increasingly dissatisfied with how they’ve been treated in the past, and life as a hamster wheel of increasing effort and diminishing reward, it’s not surprising to see reports of the Great Resignation in Australia.

While it may be too early to know whether the Great Resignation will truly hit Australia like it has in the US, one thing is clear – the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to consider what is essential, says Philosophy Professor Timothy O'Leary, Head of the School of Humanities & Languages at UNSW Sydney. For many, it turns out, this includes meaningful work. But ‘meaningful work’ will mean different things to different people, says Prof. O'Leary. For example, it might mean less time spent working and more time spent with family. Or it might mean working for a nonprofit organisation that’s leading the fight against climate change.

Whatever it is, how work creates meaning will be different for everyone, because it is the individual who creates that, says Prof. O’Leary. “Individuals create their own meaning, they give meaning to their activities and relationships with people and with the world,” he says. “So, it’s not that some kinds of work are necessarily more meaningful, even though we do tend to speak that way. It might just be the case that with some kinds of work it’s easier for us to see how meaningful they are. But ultimately, the meaning is given to work by the individual."

Couple exercise with dog outside during COVID-19 essential exercise.jpeg
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many Australians to consider what is truly essential in their lives. Image: Shutterstock

Australians want to make a positive contribution as well as a living

The pandemic has forced employees to question how they have been living in the past, in terms of their working lives they are earning income, their spending of money, their consumer habits or social activities. Workers are also questioning what is essential and imagining a different kind of life in which other things are given meaning. They are considering how they might make positive contributions to the world around them, which is clearly in trouble.

“I don’t think there’s any such thing as meaningful work, it’s about what you give meaning to. But I think one of the things that people look for now are careers and work where they feel they are contributing some way to making the world a better place,” says Prof. O’Leary.

“I think that’s a common way that people think about meaningful work, as a job that contributes to social wellbeing or improving the lives of others. It’s not all about career advancement and salary now, people also want to contribute to the world in some way. We are facing so many huge problems around the world today, and more and more people want to do something to make it better. So, they are looking for a way of combining work, income, and making that kind of contribution.”

Read more: Australia's Great Resignation and five top tips for employee retention

Navigating the impacts of coronavirus during climate change

As well as their work environments, people are dealing with the added pressure of climate change. “For me, you have to connect it also with other changes happening in the world and I think climate change is a really big one," says Prof. O'Leary.

"If you combine the growing impact of climate change and the growing sense that we need to change the way that we live, a lot of that actually is in harmony with, on the same wavelength as, some of these changes coming out of COVID-19.

"They might also lead you to say well I can’t commute 90 minutes to my office. That’s bad for the environment, it’s bad for the urban environment, it’s bad for me, and I’m just not going to do it. So, you want a more flexible work environment, and you want to maybe consume less, and therefore you might need less income," he says.

Man working from home with dog on his lap.jpeg
Flexible work environments have created more space for employees to cultivate their own definition of meaningful work in their lives. Image: Shutterstock

Remote work, mental health and wellbeing improve work-life balance

The coronavirus pandemic has also forced many to recalibrate the balance between work and home life. Due to working from home, “our employers have taken over a large part of our homes. They have outsourced some of the cost of maintaining a workspace to employees and other taxpayers, spreading the cost around to the community instead of being borne by the employer. That’s an element of the shift in the work-life balance which is, I think, problematic,” he says.

“It’s also important to recognise that the impact of working from home is not the same on everyone”, he says. There have been quite clear gender differences, he points out, in how the pandemic has impacted work-life balance. And, “we cannot forget the fact that many employees don’t have the option to work from home. So, the pandemic has underlined many of the existing inequalities between people,” says Prof. O’Leary.

Read more: The new rules for managing knowledge workers in a post-COVID world

What the Great Resignation teaches Australians about meaningful work

For those who have access to flexible working, it might be worth taking on projects and tasks that more closely align with their values, or that help to achieve other goals too. “You might have a dream of being able to work, even part-time, for a social justice organisation. But even if you can’t do that, you can use the skills you have in your non-social justice work, and the money you make in your non-social justice work, to cultivate other activities outside that align with that meaning,” suggests Prof. O’Leary.

There are other ways you can support your interests in the work you do, even if it doesn't always seem obvious, and this can make work more meaningful and fulfilling, which also improves mental health. “We have all had an experience of doing without things that we thought were essential, and it’s actually a really good experience because we’ve lived without cafes and restaurants and browsing in the shops and all the things that we used to think were so important… it’s a really good opportunity to reset," says Prof. O'Leary.

"The challenge now is, do we just slip back to the way we used to be, or do we use this as an opportunity to change some of the things we do?"

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