Just over a year ago, something interesting started happening in the U.S. job market. In March 2021, 3.7 million people left their jobs--at that point, a record number for a single month. Since then, the number of employees leaving their job every month has been on a steady skyward trend, topping out at a whopping 4.5 million in November 2021. And while the pace of quits has slowed slightly in the new year, it still stood at a previously unfathomable 4.25 million in January, the latest numbers available.
The phenomenon has been dubbed the Great Resignation by industry watchers, but this moniker robs what's happening of important nuance and context. People aren't simply quitting their jobs. It's not, despite what some talking heads may imply, an issue of people "not wanting to work."
Instead, we're witnessing the power differential between employers and employees--perhaps for the first time in living memory--meaningfully shift in favor of employees. Members of the workforce--particularly working moms and families--have ample options for mobility, and are asking themselves some key questions, like: Do I feel valued at work? Do I connect with my company's mission? Does my employer value me for all that I am, including my family, and not just the output I produce during working hours? So really, what we're seeing isn't a "Great Resignation." It's better termed a "Great Reassessment."
To be clear, this phenomenon is a positive one--for everyone. Employees are empowered to find a workplace that truly works for them, and employers--those that will succeed, anyway--are taking the opportunity to comprehensively evaluate benefits, pay, culture, and all the other elements that determine whether they're serving as a departure point or destination during the current moment of upheaval.
As a research-driven organization that's helped more than 17 million families navigate the stages of family health, from fertility and pregnancy to birth and parenthood, my company and I have spent the past two years understanding the new stressors placed on mothers, families, and working parents. And our members, many of whom are working mothers, have often taken on an outsize brunt of the labor when it comes to parenting during a pandemic. It's clear that the new stressors families have faced in the past two years have played a large role in the seismic shift we've seen in the workplace.
There are a few significant drivers feeding large-scale quitting cycles. Of our members who've left a job, they've told us via surveys that they did so because of a few key reasons:
- Child care issues: Above all, the child care gap amid the pandemic has led millions of parents to leave the workforce or find jobs that are better suited to caring for children amid a lack of affordable, accessible, and dependable child care.
- Workplace culture: The hustle mentality is finally falling by the wayside. Employees have lives outside of work: families, interests, hobbies, friends. The grind-it-out culture that's been cultivated over the past 30 years is falling out of favor, as members of the workforce seek environments that instead value psychological safety and allow them to focus on what's important, like family.
- Inclusion and belonging: DEI is more important than ever. Employees are seeking working environments in which they feel not only included but like they truly belong. Beyond a few lines in a corporate handbook, DEI measures need to be integrated at every level of an organization, championed genuinely by company leaders, and embedded within the culture.
- Work-life balance: In a remote-work world, the line between work life and family life can fade into obscurity. Employer fears over lost productivity at the beginning of the pandemic never materialized. In fact, employees found themselves working more than ever--to their own detriment. Amid the Great Reassessment, employees are looking to regain that balance in every kind of working environment.
- Greener grass: More quits mean more job openings. The cycle feeds itself, as employers scramble to fill vacant posts in an almost unimaginably competitive job market. That leaves employees feeling empowered to make career changes they may have been considering for a long time.
It's clear that the most important elements of a working environment are the ones that reverberate far beyond the confines of the workday. They relate to how much satisfaction an employee is able to derive from their work and their colleagues, and how free they are to enjoy life outside work. Those are the metrics that make the most difference.
My company and I set out to find the best ways for employers to create the type of workplace that's most attractive to employees in the current job market. So we surveyed 2,919 parents to ask them about the elements that are most important to them. According to the results, it's all about benefits. In fact, nine in 10 respondents said they'd leave their current job for one with better benefits.
But what are the benefits that are most important? The top five, in descending order:
Competitive leave policies
This isn't just about a longer vacation. Parental leave, for both mothers and fathers, not only is a main metric of competition, it also has direct downstream impacts on health--as well as health expenditures. Research shows that every additional week of paid parental leave corresponds to a reduction in the risk of adverse health effects for mother and baby, including infant mortality. And although there's a cost associated with longer leave, it pays in the long run: Longer leave can save about 50 percent on average versus losing an employee.
A culture that puts family first
Luckily, we're already seeing flexibility become more normalized in many workplaces. Parents can leave to pick up their kids or bring them to a doctor's appointment and, for the most part, nobody bats an eye. If that isn't the case at your organization, it should be and fast. This is an effort that needs to be led by managers and company leaders--they should be not only talking about their own families and making sure that they put family first, but also asking employees about their lives outside work and ensuring that employees know that they can take the time and space they need for their families.
Hours and working environments that are flexible
Spending nine hours a day in the office, sandwiched on either end by a grinding commute, simply isn't sustainable for most employees anymore. For all its flaws, pandemic-spurred working from home showed us that traditional schedules and in-office mandates aren't only unnecessary, they can actively discourage productivity and recruitment.
A supportive return to work
Returning to work after parental leave can be a challenging time and a pivot point. As parents struggle with the emotional and physical stress of caring for an infant, they're more susceptible to outsize stress levels from work as well. Employers should implement programs like pre- and post-leave checklists, part-time options upon the return to the office, and manager training. Employers should also consider leave for parents who experienced a miscarriage.
Accessible, easy-to-understand benefits
Benefit policies can be extremely difficult to decipher--and it isn't made better by a typical lack of communication around policies, changes, and available supports. If you've created a slate of desirable benefits to attract and retain services, you're doing yourself a disservice if no one understands them. Make it a standard practice to talk about benefits in the workplace, create and circulate benefits checklists, and ensure benefits language is inclusive and easy to understand.
All of these changes are ones that are relatively low cost to implement. They mostly revolve around the desire of employees to bring one's whole self to work--and feel as though they're in an environment that aligns with their interests, their ethics, and their families. The Great Reassessment is placing new importance on the human aspect of work--it's incumbent upon employers to listen.