Although some reasons for the Great Resignation seemed obvious during the pandemic — people staying home to care for school-aged children or for loved ones who had fallen ill — just how much does burnout play a role in the vast numbers of people who continue to quit their jobs?
As several observers in Pennsylvania pointed out recently, the answer might depend on your definition of burnout.
“What is burnout? Is it a low-wage job that is just not worth it?” said Stephen Herzenberg, executive director of the Keystone Research Center, a research and policy development organization based in Harrisburg. “It’s definitely true that you have people who came to the conclusion that doing a low-paying job is not worth it to them anymore.”
In a recent study, Lensa, a job-search company based in West Chester, tried to get a handle on job burnout — analyzing the average working hours, annual salaries, commuting times and the number of Google searches for the word “burnout — and determined which states are the worst for employment burnout.
Pennsylvania was in the top 10, coming in at No. 8.
Texas ranked No. 1, and Illinois and Virginia tied at No. 9 behind the Keystone State.
Lensa said it looked at all 50 states, with each receiving a “burnout score.” In Pennsylvania, the score was 6.2 based on 38.42 working hours per week, an average salary of $66,000, a commute time of 27 minutes and 23,500 searches for the word “burnout.”
Several observers of the labor market in Pennsylvania said they don’t have specific data to back up how much burnout applies to resignations. But they say that low unemployment rates and high demand for workers continue to lead people to change jobs for numerous reasons that don’t always include money.
Sandra McPherson, an associate professor in the economics department at Millersville University, said that the so-called “quit rate” nationwide has been at about 2.7% recently, peaking last fall at about 3%. Before the pandemic, the quit rate was about 1.7%.
A Pew Research Center survey showed that workers cited pay as the No. 1 reason for quitting a job in 2021, McPherson said. But the top 10 reasons also include working too many hours, no flexibility with hours, no opportunities for advancement and feeling disrespected at work. While she said those reasons indicate job-related stresses, she cautioned that she didn’t have enough data to suggest that those factors are tied to burnout.
“It depends on how you define burnout, but too many hours could be an indicator of burnout,” she said. Burnout also could be defined as “mental exasperation,” which could reflect the answers around feeling stuck and not respected, McPherson also said.
Not everyone sees the trends as bad.
For decades, employers had an advantage over workers, Herzenberg said. During the pandemic, people re-assessed whether working long hours for minimal rewards was worth it. Studies are showing that many people retired, while others sought better jobs with less stress that led to the job hopping that still is going on, he said.
“You can call it burnout. You can call it an ‘it’s-not-worth-it effect,” Herzenberg also said. “You can call it ‘take this job and shove it.’”
Over time, the dynamics might change, Herzenberg said. For one, some retirees might come back into the labor force and the number of available jobs might diminish, he added. But he sees the trends playing out as an overall positive for workers.
“I think the pandemic experience provides a bit of a corrective in the terms of workers realizing that some jobs aren’t worth it—‘if you want me to work for you, you have to pay me better, you have to treat me with more respect, you have to schedule me so I can deal with my family responsibilities,’” he said. “American employers could do a lot better with how they treat workers. Employers like to say that their workers are their best asset. But if people realized it is not worth going back to a crappy job with a crappy employer, that would be a healthy corrective.”
No end in sight
The national unemployment rate fell to a nearly historic low of 3.5% in the latest report released in early August, when it also was reported that employers continue to hire at a brisk pace. The industries who were having trouble before the pandemic—leisure and hospitality and retail—have struggled the most and likely will continue to do so, several experts said. McPherson cited statistics from the federal Bureau of Labor statistics that those are the industries with the highest quit rates, followed by social assistance and health care.
Healthcare has had difficulties because of the additional stresses caused by COVID-19, said McPherson and Jesse McCree, CEO of the South Central Workforce Development Board, or SCPa Works.
“Burnout is notoriously difficult to measure because it is imprecise—you kind of know it when you see it,” McCree said. “Overall, anecdotally, we are seeing that well-being, mental health, burnout, and stress are still big factors in the healthcare fields.”
Overall, there are not enough workers to go around in many different sectors, so some workers are being asked to do more, and that might lead to job hopping, said McCree, whose organization covers an eight-county region of Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Lebanon, Juniata, Perry and York counties. In that region, the unemployment rate is about 3.29%, according to a report from SCPa Works. There still are two job openings for every person looking for work, which gives job seekers options, McCree said. Employers continually cite recruitment and retention as their main concerns, he added.
“Workers are not just looking for better wages but better working conditions and better schedules,” he said. “So maybe it’s not burnout but worker preference and choice.”
Job hopping will remain an issue for the foreseeable future, even with the economic headwinds this summer, such as high inflation, McCree suggested.
Another expert, Susan Graham of Susan Graham Consulting based in Camp Hill, specializes in placing people with backgrounds and skills in IT. Graham says she can clearly state that burnout is not an issue in her sector, which involves recruiting high level technical jobs, such as developers, programmers or project managers. Companies that hire this “cream of the crop” knew long before the pandemic that they must pay well but also must meet the work/home needs of these skilled employees or they will not stick around, she said.
“These employers don’t really have a choice. They understand that it is not all about money. It is about flexibility, No. 1,” Graham said, noting that things like dress codes in the IT fields went out long ago, too. “It is about working from home — work/life balance. I don’t see burnout. I see people saying they need flex time, they want to work a four-day work week, and things like that.”
Thomas Barstow is a freelance writer