How the Great Resignation shifted work-life balance
In 2021 and 2022, nearly 100 million Americans voluntarily left their jobs in the Great Resignation. They left in search of better pay, better benefits, and/or better work-life balance. Many left to start their own businesses. Whatever their reasons, they’re mostly happy they did it, The Conference’s Board 2023 job satisfaction survey showed. The survey, which asks workers about 26 aspects of their working lives, had overall job satisfaction at its highest levels since The Conference Board began started the poll in 1987. Job satisfaction rose 5.5% since 2020, with 62.3% of U.S. workers satisfied with their jobs in 2022. Most happy were those who had quit their previous jobs. Of the 26 aspects, work-life balance saw the biggest leap, increasing 5.8% over 2021 levels. More than 60% of workers surveyed reported being satisfied with their balance of work and extracurriculars.
During this period, the definition of work-life balance has shifted. It’s more of a work-life integration. With remote and hybrid work prevalent, the lines between work time and personal time can blur more easily. The hours might not exactly correspond to traditional working hours, as evidenced by the emergence of a third productivity peak in the evenings. But it’s that flexibility to get work done when it works for them that’s driving satisfaction levels for workers.
“There was this change where people realized it’s possible to also prioritize family or private life, even during work hours,” Ioana Lupu, associate professor of accounting and management at Paris’ ESSEC Business School, told the BBC. “Because if work intrudes on your family life – on your non-work time – why shouldn’t the opposite be OK?”
With the prevalence of smartphones and laptops, people had already gotten used to work encroaching on their off time. Work emails and notifications were just a click away. Those who have found a good work-life balance in the wake of the pandemic and Great Resignation have learned to switch off during downtime. They’ve established boundaries for themselves and others, often setting specific hours to answer work calls and emails, designating spaces at home that are for work and for personal activities, and taking periodic breaks in nature.
They’ve also found the balance many American workers find the most difficult: caring enough about their jobs, but not too much. People who think about work a lot during off hours or put too much of themselves into their jobs run the risk of high anxiety burnout. On the other side of the coin, those who are just killing time at a job they don’t like have low rates of satisfaction, too. Try as they might, it’s difficult to keep that dissatisfaction from seeping into their personal lives as well.
Those who left their jobs during the Great Resignation often found themselves on either side of that divide. Those who have found work-life balance love it so much, most of them would choose it over better pay.
The employers that attracted those workers who report higher job satisfaction have, No. 1, figured out that acquiring talent in a competitive market requires concessions on their end. They’ve also figured out that retaining talent will yield far better returns in the long run given the high costs of turnover. When it comes to picking a new job, some 63% of those who switched labeled work-life balance a top priority.
Those companies that have won the Great Resignation have done so by offering greater flexibility.
“In ways big and small, companies are giving workers more flexibility in their schedules and in how they do their work, so that employees can better balance their personal and professional lives, and can be more engaged in both domains,” Anthony Klotz, a management professor at London’s UCL School of Management, told CNBC. “The pandemic brought the future of work into the present of work. Because these work arrangements give us more flexibility and control over our lives, and more autonomy and freedom in how we structure our lives, I don’t think most people are willing to go back to a traditional work environment.”
They’ve certainly raised pay and benefits too, a must given the labor market and its 50-year lows in unemployment rates. But hand-in-hand with flexibility, they’ve prioritized mental health, an oft-overlooked aspect of life that the pandemic brought into focus. They do it with special wellness programs but also with their approaches to work. These employers have open dialogues with their employees and integrate their feedback into daily operations. They make their companies places where workers can see a future for themselves.
“The No. 1 driver for people to change their job and look for alternatives is the company’s culture. If the DNA of a business is built on trust, transparency, teamwork, putting its people first, and investing in their well-being, that company would be likely to have very high retention,” Ronni Zehavi, CEO and co-founder of HR platform HiBob, told the Jerusalem Post. “No. 2 is career development. ‘Am I surrounded by great people that I can learn from? Do I feel that they have an impact on the business?’”
Though downturns in sectors like tech and media have led some back down the path of overwork, for the most part it’s the workers who define what balance means, rather than the employers.
“It’s a new era,” Zehavi said. “Instead of work-life balance, it’s life-work balance. Life goes first, work goes after.”