A hospice nurse named Bronnie Ware spent over 15 years working with dying patients. During her conversations with them, she noticed a familiar theme emerge over and over again. Nearly every patient wished they had the courage to live a life true to themselves, not the life that others expected of them. 

During the time of the Great Resignation, people no longer wait until the end of life to find that courage. Instead, they’re taking action now and quitting their jobs in search of careers that better suit their true selves. Moreover, it’s not just employees. Now, bosses and even CEOs are joining in. According to a recent Deloitte study, 70 percent of CEOs seriously consider leaving their jobs. 

But why are so many quitting?

The first reason is because of the pandemic’s impact on the economy. CEOs and top leaders have been left holding the bag, having to figure out how to manage a changing economy’s impact on their industry. Inflation, a looming recession, and reduced workforces are forcing top leaders to make difficult decisions, having to do more with less and leaving a heavier load on those who remain. This dynamic has weighed heavily on many leaders. Top industries impacted include airlines, auto manufacturers, energy equipment and services, hotels, restaurants and leisure, and specialty retail stores.

Second, an overriding disconnect in perceptions between leaders and employees has also contributed to rising dissatisfaction amongst top leaders. On the one hand, CEOs care deeply about their employees. While on the other hand, their employees disagree. 91 percent of CEOs report caring about their employees’ well-being, whereas nearly half of employees feel the opposite. 

And the disconnect doesn’t stop there.

A recent survey by The Future Forum shows that executives are three times more likely to embrace a return to the office model than employees, believing that it is essential for productivity, innovation, and culture. Meanwhile, 90 percent of employees surveyed in an Owl Labs’ 2021 State of Remote Work Report are reporting that they feel that they are equally productive, if not more, working from home. According to this report, 84 percent of employees said they would be happier working from home.

The third reason is that many CEOs are searching for a better quality of life, especially in the wake of the pandemic’s impact on our mental health. This mental health crisis is not new and has long been in the making. Rates of suicide, for example, increased by 30 percent between 2000 and 2020. The pandemic has merely served as an accelerant to this already smoldering fire. A Boston University study revealed that rates of depression have tripled for U.S. adults, and the number of individuals reporting symptoms of distress, such as difficulty sleeping, overeating, and increased alcohol consumption, has dramatically increased, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll. Loneliness and substance use levels have also skyrocketed, especially for young people. Meanwhile, burnout continues to mount, with 89 percent of employees reporting that their work-life has gotten worse, according to an article published by the Harvard Business Review.

Worn down by unrelenting stress, back-to-back virtual meetings, and never-ending deadlines and pressure, millions of employees have left their jobs searching for a better work-life balance, and now top leaders are following suit. 81 percent of C-suite-level leaders reported that their well-being is more important than their career. 

Despite the bad news, there is hope – and hope lies with CEOs and managers being open to doing work differently. For starters, they can be the ones to bring discussions about mental health out into the open, putting the old-school “Check your emotions at the door” mentality to rest. The pretense that things are better left unsaid no longer fits, especially for today’s younger generation. In a recent survey, 91% of Gen Z job seekers told Monster that they want to be able to talk about their mental health at work.

Leaders can also set a new tone across the organization they are in charge of by encouraging open dialogue, which is what Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins did when he sent an email to all of his employees urging them to prioritize their mental health and engage in open conversation with their coworkers. Better yet, leaders need to be modeling vulnerability, as exemplified by tech CEO Joel Gascoigne who was open with employees at his social media software company about his struggles with burnout.

CEOs and managers can also begin going deeper, asking the questions that need to be asked. 

Is the workload unsustainable, and is the time pressure too great? 

Is there workplace conflict that goes unchecked? 

Do employees feel valued? 

Are employees encouraged to talk openly about their problems, or are they told to check their emotions at the door? 

These are just a few of the questions leaders need to stop and ask themselves, rather than blaming the employee for how they feel and offering token wellness programs that do little to resolve the root causes, which is often the workplace itself.

Finally, CEOs and managers can find ways to foster friendships at work, including for themselves. Longstanding data from Gallup shows that those who have a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be highly engaged in their work. This can be difficult for many CEOs and managers, as they often feel that they need to draw strict boundaries between friendship and work. I’ve worked with over 10,000 managers in our Managers on the Move program, empowering them to become multipliers of well-being. This program explores the various aspects of well-being, including social well-being. Through data, I show participating managers how being connected with others, including co-workers, is not only good for us as human beings, but it’s also good for business. Despite the multitude of benefits, however, I have found that this best friend stat often draws more ire from my participating managers than any other stat I provide. Now is a good time to change that approach.

With managers and CEOs now joining the Great Resignation, it’s high time that we begin to evaluate the systemic issues that have led us to this point so that we can implement practical, human-centric solutions that will create the conditions needed to sustain a happier, healthier, and more productive workforce. 

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