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“I quit.”

Maybe you’ve said those words to an employer, know someone who has recently, or have seen the countless viral stories of folks throwing in the towel when it comes to their jobs. It’s been happening a lot lately—so much so that the post-pandemic movement away from work has officially been dubbed “The Great Resignation.”

Harvard Business Review reported that 4 million Americans decided to quit their jobs in July, and the New York Times found a further 4 million did so in August—with more likely to follow. Bloomberg Businessweek also noted that a further 5 million workers are still “missing” from the U.S. job market after being let go during the pandemic.

And for those currently in the office: There’s a feeling of resignation. In their latest work trend index, Microsoft found that 54 percent of employees feel overworked, 39 percent feel exhausted, and one in five of their global survey respondents say their employer doesn’t care about their work-life balance.

What’s at the root of this unprecedented moment in labor history? Mental health—or, more specifically, a lack of awareness and acknowledgement about how mental health impacts employer wellbeing.

The Great Resignation has exposed a deep divide between people’s lived experience navigating work from home or work on the frontlines during the ongoing pandemic—and employers’ expectations of a swift “return to normal” pre-pandemic era.

But normal doesn’t exist anymore.

The ways in which we’ve seen employers historically handle mental health in the workplace doesn’t fit the increased need for support and resources of today—especially when it comes to marginalized communities who were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and continue to be underserved when it comes to mental health care.

The truth is: For employers to recruit, and retain, they’re going to need to show they care through leading on mental health benefit provision.

For employers to recruit, and retain, they’re going to need to show they care through leading on mental health benefit provision.

For many, this will require an entirely new pivot into listening exercises, followed by a leading-from-the-C-Suite on wellness at work.

Old Way vs. New Way

When corporate management started demanding a return to the office, many employees anecdotally felt frustrated by what was seen as a tone-deaf response to the continued pandemic. Here’s a (not so) fictional office scenario to illustrate the issue from both sides:

John is a 55-year-old financial services CEO who commutes into the city from the suburbs on the early train and returns home late after networking with clients/customers. He’s a busy man, divorced, sharing joint custody with his ex, and looking after his 9-year-old twins every other weekend.

John works hard and wants to see evidence of others doing so too. He likes to walk the halls at the office, dropping in on his direct reports to ascertain momentum, and responds well to watercooler-style face-to-face updates on projects and written quarterly reports. He’s even been known to send batch (“dictated not read”) memos.

Maria is a 45-year-old VP, in the sales department at the same corporation, with 18 staffers on her team. She has two children—one is a sophomore at college, who had to return home during the pandemic, and the other has special needs, but is still on track to graduate from high school next semester. Maria’s husband lost his finance job due to COVID and is struggling to find full-time work. In the meantime, Maria’s got a multi-generational household (and responsibilities), having taken over carer duties for her father who moved in with them last year.

However, Maria has embraced a new way of doing things. She’s co-opted a room off the kitchen as her office. She uses all the latest AI-enabled efficiency tools (Harvest, Asana, Google Meet, Slack) to manage a highly efficient flexible hours and totally remote team—as a result, their numbers, and profitability, are way up. She’s also incorporated virtual happy hours and signed off on all mental health requests to ensure no one is left behind.

Maria wants to roll out this hybrid format across the organization and has the numbers to back it up. She knows her mental health will suffer if she, and her team, are forced back to the daily commute. But John wants full capacity back at HQ by Thanksgiving 2021 to preserve corporate culture and the status quo—and he’s not backing down.

Guess who just updated their LinkedIn profile and let recruiters know she’s looking for a new opportunity?

It’s not hard to see why.

Building A People-Centric Culture

The truth is: If employees don’t feel their mental health is cared for or prioritized by their company, it’s going to impact employee retention.

“Talented people quit when they become overwhelmed by work or resentful of unrealistic demands—voting with their feet after being expected to do too much for too long. When they exit, their employers lose expertise, knowledge, and sometimes valuable customer relationships,” Dr. Erin L. Kelly, MIT Sloan School of Management, and Dr. Phyllis Moen, McKnight Presidential Chair in Sociology at the University of Minnesota explain in their book Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It.

Even long-established C-Suite and Boardroom incumbents are changing their tune. In her book My Life in Full - Work, Family and Our Future, former CEO and Chairman of PepsiCo Indra K. Nooyi recounts a grueling rise to the top. That journey included barely any sleep, months of commuting and staying in soulless hotel rooms, not making it home in time for dinner, and a desperation to conform to the corporate hierarchy and its demands for the perfect worker.

As part of a strong Indian-American immigrant family, Nooyi was luckier than most: She had a vast network of relatives and friends able to pitch in and provide support.

However, drawing on her own experience—and after reflecting on the lessons learned from the pandemic—Nooyi argues that the world of work has to change. How: By retaining remote working, promoting flexible jobs, and an affordable infrastructure for care. She is clear that employers are going to struggle to get good employees unless they turn away from paternalism, control, and requiring presenteeism.

Dr. Martha Bird, Chief Business Anthropologist at HR systems firm ADP, writing in MITSloan Management Review, says employers need to take a broader view and think of organizations as fully hybrid ecosystems—not as entities fixed in location, time, and space.

“Future workspaces will need to be more flexible, less centralized, and more people-centric to both attract and retain the best talent while ensuring that these workers are energized and creative both when working remotely and in person [and] the time has come for more nuanced approaches to workplaces as ecosystems rather than discrete physical locations,” she explains. “We need to be asking ourselves and, more importantly, asking our employees what kinds of experiences benefit from what kinds of spaces.“

UK-based hospitality businesses are a great example of how organizations can show—not just tell—staff that they care:

“Over the past 18 months, restaurants have been reckoning with how they attract, retain and treat their staff,” reporter Ajesh Patalay writes in the Financial Times. “Morale and welfare have become key concerns. For teams returning from furlough, restaurants have been throwing parties as a means of rebuilding community and letting off steam [and] alongside perks such as massages, language classes, gym membership, toiletries and supplier trips, staff are increasingly getting access to a therapist and other mental health support, as part of a permanent roster of benefits. Cultural shifts are happening with well-being in mind.”

Everyone’s mental health took a hit during the pandemic.

The isolation, fear of contracting COVID, grief, anxiety, and financial insecurity exposed existing fault lines when it comes to how we work.

But The Great Resignation has given us all a chance to course correct, cultivate wellness-first company cultures, and transform into workplaces that are proud to talk about how to put mental health first.