Our Psychology, Not Pay, is Driving the Great Resignation


Photo by Morgan Housel | Unsplash

Photo by Morgan Housel | Unsplash

Pay is a significant factor for many employees walking away from existing jobs and why so many employers are struggling to fill vacated job openings, but it’s not the root cause.


Don’t get me wrong. Dissatisfaction with wages is a tangible indicator of disruption, but not the actual driving force behind the great resignation. The countless reports citing concerns over pay are more accurately understood when thought of as warning lights on a vehicle’s dashboard. These glowing alerts signal something has changed. They even narrow down the source of the issue, like a flashing engine light. But such indicators only reveal so much. If you want to really understand what’s going on you are going to have to take a closer look under the hood.


Similarly, the real reason employers are struggling to obtain and retain employees runs much deeper than general economic indicators like wage satisfaction. Having studied disasters and mass traumas around the globe (including COVID-19) over the last fifteen years, I would argue that our psychology is the actual cause of the great resignation—and that it’s a sign of employee psychological growth.


To understand the underlying cause of the great resignation, we need to look beyond surface indicators by delving into how the pandemic is impacting people’s psychology.  

Across multiple studies, my colleagues and I have documented both negative and positive psychological changes in the lives of survivors. We found that being exposed to traumatic events like the pandemic can have a profound impact on five key areas of our life: appreciation of life, social relationships, openness to possibilities, personal strength, and existential change. Like a vehicle’s dashboard lights, these psychological domains are commonly used to detect psychological trauma as well as psychological growth.


We conducted a national study with participants facing chronic health issues prior to the pandemic and tracked their experience over time. This study showed that many of the participants showed evidence of psychological growth amidst COVID-19.  Studies we conducted years earlier in the aftermath of major disasters like the 2016 flood in Baton Rouge and Hurricane Katrina showed similar results.


Overall, our research shows psychological growth amidst adversity is possible, which many scholars refer to as posttraumatic growth, a positive change experienced because of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event. But we’ve found that psychological growth often doesn’t look the way most people expect it to look. It’s common for signs of growth and struggle to co-exist. Psychological growth rarely occurs “overnight,” it normally emerges slowly after significant engagement and reevaluation of what truly matters.


The great resignation is a sign that something is wrong, but it’s also a sign that something is going right.


Based on our team’s extensive response to COVID-19 we’ve heard from countless numbers of people who have shared how the pandemic has upended their lives, especially about what they thought was important. Taking stock of one’s life is common among people under immense stress and during periods of hardships. Though reexamining one’s life it is a sign of psychological growth, it has upended the job market since it has caused many Americans to reevaluate their careers.


If employers are going to curb the great resignation they need to create more opportunities for employees to find stability, dignity, connectedness, recognition, and meaning in their work. Because of COVID-19 people are leaving and avoiding jobs they believe offer little in the way of not just pay—but the opportunity for psychological growth.


Addressing pay issues is a good place to start, but people aren’t just looking for better wages, they are looking for better ways to live.

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