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Dispatches from a Pandemic: ‘We’re like rats in a cage’: Sick and tired of their jobs, American workers strive to regain their agency, their time — and their sanity

Work, how many ways do I loathe thee?

This is a question being asked by employees who have either quit their jobs or displayed a reluctance to rejoin the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic. Other people love their job — or like it, at the very least — and are seeking a more flexible work life where they can spend more time with family.

With office space lying empty — or vastly underused — across the country, millions of Americans are left with the bare bones of their work, a kettle and a Zoom
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screen if they’re lucky. And they’re also left with questions: What do I get from my job? Who am I without it? Is it worth it? What else is out there waiting for me?

Stephen Crain, 50, worked as an electrical engineer for 26 years in the Minneapolis area. He is one such employee who just called it quits. But he did not loathe is job. In fact, he had a much happier story: Crain handed in his notice on Tuesday to help his wife out with her growing business.

Ellen, his wife, started a standardized testing business, Homeschool Boss, five years ago and, during the pandemic, the demand for homeschooling increased significantly as more parents started working from home and/or moved out of cities and, crucially, away from their children’s school districts.

The business was born from their own experience homeschooling their three children. “Year after year, we’d go searching for a good test that would give good feedback and direction,” he said. “The options out there weren’t any good. They were 20 years out of date, bulky and slow.”

His employer was surprised that he quit, but they remain on good terms, and he is currently working out his two weeks notice before turning his attentions to Homeschool Boss. “It’s a privilege to be able to do it,” he said. “We seem to have won the rare pandemic lottery with her choice of business pursuits.”

“‘We seem to have won the rare pandemic lottery with her choice of business pursuits.’”

— Stephen Crain, who quit his job as an electrical engineer on Tuesday

The risk of exposure to COVID-19 is one salient and ever-present factor in people choosing to work but — as Stephen Crain’s story shows — there are a myriad other reasons underpinning the so-called Great Resignation, and not all of them involve bored, unhappy or even aggrieved workers.

The “quit rate” fell slightly in December to 4.3 million, dropping 161,000 quits from the previous month, but the rate was little changed at 2.9%. Quits are typically voluntary separations initiated by the employee and serve as a measure of workers’ willingness or ability to leave jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In an effort to cast more light on how people feel about their jobs right now, Gallup asked more than 13,000 U.S. employees what was most important to them when deciding whether to accept a new job. Respondents listed six factors, according to the report released this week.

A significant rise in income or benefits was the No. 1 reason, followed by greater work-life balance and better personal wellbeing, the ability to do what they do best, greater stability and job security, COVID-19 vaccination policies that align with their beliefs, and the organization’s diversity and inclusivity of all types of people.

“Compensation is naturally intertwined with development, growth, reward and recognition,” he said. “And we have all had a crash course in the importance of wellbeing in our work and home lives.” In fact, a separate report released this week said 1 in 4 people who considered quitting cited their mental health as the reason.

‘There’s more value in doing what I can to help her business grow than keep collecting paychecks,’ said Stephen Crain (pictured, wearing the hat).

c/o Stephen and Ellen Crain

How can you be happier at your place of work?

There are ways companies can help reduce the number of quits. “Managers should be trained to have this conversation and ‘pay with purpose,’” Wigert added. “Employees need to feel valued for their contributions and have an individual development plan that defines a path for future growth opportunities.”

Employees should also seek support rather than waiting for the company to provide it, Tessa West, a New York University social psychology professor with a particular interest in the workplace behavior, told MarketWatch. “Having a good friend at work is the biggest predictor of happiness,” she said.

Workplace friendships can sour quickly. “If any kind of competition comes along or favoritism it can really screw up a friendship. It’s one of the reasons why it’s hard to date at work because of the power. That dynamic alters our relationship in ways that we don’t like and ways we don’t expect,” she added.

Employees, particularly those who lower paid, are likely to underestimate how much more money they could earn elsewhere, according to this study by economists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, London School of Economics, University of Cologne and University of California, Berkeley.

“‘It’s important for employers to show up as a stabilizing force employees can count on through thick and thin.’”

— Ben Wigert, the director of research and strategy for Gallup’s workplace management practice

Economists at Barclays led by Michael Gapen say the “Great Resignation” is a red herring. “Instead, the true cause is a hesitation of workers to return to the labor force, due to influences tied to the pandemic such as infection risks, infection-related illness, and a lack of affordable child care,” they said.

Another less-talked-about reason for quitting: Over 80% of American workers polled by Goodhire, an employment screening company, said they might quit their job because of a bad manager. And 1.3% of employees at large U.S. companies describe their company’s culture as toxic or poisonous, a Glassdoor survey said.

“What does this mean for companies? It means that toxicity is the kiss of death,” Charlie Sull, co-founder of CultureX, a human-resources technology company that uses artificial intelligence to measure and improve corporate culture, wrote in a recent column for MarketWatch.

Why should this be a bigger deal now than pre-pandemic? People have less emotional bandwidth to deal with such shenanigans. “Even a whiff of toxicity will send employees running. Maybe they would have put up with it a couple of years ago; after the COVID-19 pandemic, they will not,” he added.

Tessa West, NYU sociology professor and author of “Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them.’

c/o Tessa West

Will the people at your new job be any better?

However, moving because of a bad boss or coworker can be a mistake, because you’re assuming that the smiling, seemingly happy people at your new job will welcome you with open arms, West said. On the contrary, they may have developed long-simmering resentments with their own corporate culture.

“Who’s going to become a partner at a law firm? The snake in a suit, the classic sociopathic behavior?” West said. “Getting to the top does require some of this jerkery. The dark secret is that it is, at least to some degree, encouraged. We’re like rats in a cage. If you reward that behavior, they’re going to get better and quicker.”

Intentionally or not, corporate culture rewards Machiavellianism, she added. For those who are privileged enough to work from home, not everyone is eager to get back to the office — and the office politics. West said it’s important to speak up and change the culture of your company from within, but also look at your own actions.

West said it’s important to invite feedback from colleagues on a regular basis. “There is a norm against giving unsolicited negative feedback, especially someone who is at the same level as you. You really have to learn how to ask for it in a way that defangs it, and won’t be super painful, and you won’t be threatened.”

Office meetings are the Serengeti of office politics. “The minute everyone is emotionally invested in the outcome, people’s true colors come out. Being a bulldozer, credit stealer, gaslighter or threatening the boss behind the scenes to make sure their priorities align. I’ve seen the nicest people do all those things.”

“‘Getting to the top in the U.S. does require some of this jerkery. The dark secret is that it is, at least to some degree, encouraged.’”

— Tessa West, a New York University social psychology professor and author of ‘Jerks at Work’

While it’s routine for outgoing employees to give feedback during an exit interview, workers often don’t think they could be the jerk at the office — or act like one. “People assume everything is going to be newer and shinier, but it’s not,” said West, author of “Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them.

If you stay? “You get into a situation where people are fighting over the dishes, but they’re not fighting over the dishes, they’re fighting over something that happened 10 years ago. We’re dealing with institutional memory loss when we move workplaces. It’s going to result in a lot of horizontal moves over five or six years.”

Crain, thankfully, does not have to deal with any of those issues with his own transition from full- to part-time work. But he does admit feeling a mixture of terror and excitement, probably not an unusual combination in these circumstances. “The terror and excitement ping-pongs between us,” he said.

In addition to helping his wife out with her business part-time, he and Ellen have started taking pottery classes. Who knows? Fate may intervene again and provide another opening in the market. “I expect to make enough pottery to where I need to give it away — or sell it,” he said.

Ultimately, his own reason for quitting was simple. “Her goal was to replace my income. I said, ‘How can I help?’” Crain said he knows that he is one of the fortunate quitters. First, he collected his annual bonus before giving his notice. (Obviously.) Second, he has confidence in the success of his wife’s enterprise.

Friends have congratulated him on retiring at 50. When they do, he tells them: “I’m only able to do this because of what she accomplished.”

Employees should also seek support rather than waiting for the company to provide it, and regularly ask colleagues for feedback, experts say.

jorge guerrero/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

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