The big quit: How the pandemic has spurred what may be the largest wave of resignations in years

For Ottawa lawyer Erin Durant, the burnout was months in the making and like “death by a thousand cuts.”

Her practice, with a large, national law firm, was busy and thriving during the pandemic, but she was struggling with her mental health. By January, the prospect of another year under the same crushing workload became too much. She took a six-week leave and spent most of that time in bed.

Durant returned to work at the firm, intending to remain in her role, but within a few months, she recognized triggers of the stress that led to her burnout and realized she needed a change. She left and started her own firm, where she could tailor her work life to her own needs and those of her clients.

“I think I may have come to the same spot eventually, but the pandemic sped things up a bit,” she said in a recent interview, adding that being away from the office eliminated the large-firm social life she enjoyed and left her to reflect on the more negative aspects of the high-stress environment. “I primarily worked at home, I had a lot more time and space to think.”

Durant is not alone. In a spring survey of more than 500 workers conducted by recruitment agency Robert Half Canada, 13 per cent of professionals said they had changed jobs during the pandemic and 21 per cent planned to look for a new job in the coming months.

This trend has given legions of previously office-bound employees more power in the job market, forcing employers to take a closer look at their own shortcomings when it comes to corporate culture, wellness and flexibility.

“All of this is happening very rapidly. About two months ago, my LinkedIn feed turned from the normal garbage into this honour roll of people leaving and changing jobs,” said Wojtek Dabrowski, managing partner of Provident Communications Inc. in Toronto.

“I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

As an employer himself — he hired three people during the pandemic, almost doubling the size of his public relations firm — and with a keen interest in the work lives of professionals, Dabrowski began his own informal survey of LinkedIn contacts to ascertain what was behind all the movement.

“When you put somebody in their house … and the line between work and home gets rubbed away almost entirely, it leaves employees in a state of constantly thinking about their career,” he said.

“A lot of what I’m hearing from people as to why they’re leaving and why now, the underlying cause of all of it is the experience they had during the pandemic with their employer and it being negative.”

By the end of last year, a recurring Morneau Shepell survey on mental health found working Canadians were significantly more distressed than they had been in pre-pandemic times. About a quarter of employees were considering leaving their job, with “increased mental stress/strain at work” cited by more than half as the reason. Twenty-four per cent said their employer’s response to COVID-19 was spurring them to consider a change.

Jennifer Kidson left her job in communications with a Toronto health organization in December to pursue her dream career in film editing. She didn’t have a job lined up but felt so disillusioned with work during the pandemic, including many months during which she felt her skills were underutilized by her employer, that she made the leap. She said she was lucky to have a supportive partner, which allowed her to risk being out of work, but she quickly landed several contract jobs and has since found a full-time role with Toronto production company 90th Parallel Productions.

“Had the pandemic not happened, I might have continued to make excuses in my head and said, ‘Oh, I can explore my passion next year.’ But when the pandemic hit, it was ‘No, it is now or never,’ ” Kidson said.

“I think there’s a reason we’re seeing the ‘great resignation’ now,” said Aaron Baer, a lawyer who left a Bay Street firm in May to join Renno & Co. Inc., an innovation-focused law firm that works with startups. “People are re-evaluating their lives and how their current roles fit with what they’re looking for and saying, ‘I’m done with this, I want to do what makes sense for me.’ ”

“There’s a lot of power right now in employees’ hands,” said Baer, who also used time during the pandemic to co-found 4L Academy, a legal training company for new law grads, and speaks often with young lawyers about their career paths.

Many people have felt let down by their employers during the pandemic, he said, pointing to companies that have said they will not adopt flexible return-to-work policies as well as those that failed to recognize how their own corporate culture contributed to mental health challenges.

“A lot of employers have unfortunately poorly understood these things and are just saying, ‘Take vacation, do some yoga.’ They’re not necessarily realizing that for some employees, the cause of that anxiety and depression is partly the pandemic, but it is partly their employer and the culture and expectations they have.”

Employees are also increasingly seeking guarantees of continued flexibility in their work environment and hours as companies plan an eventual return to office life. While many employers are signalling they will support a hybrid workplace and flexible hours, others are going all-remote or, in some cases, telling employees everyone will be expected back in the office largely full-time, Monday to Friday.

In a Thomson Reuters survey of 471 Canadian lawyers conducted in March, 63 per cent said they wanted to work flexible hours, up from 35 per cent in a similar poll conducted pre-COVID. When it came to location, respondents on average said they wanted to work 1.9 days per week at home, up from 0.6 days before the pandemic.

“It’s not just about money and perks, but flexibility — where you can work, the hours you can work,” said Baer. “For white-collar jobs, that’s going to be one of the number-one drivers for people. If employers get that wrong by being a little bit too prescriptive, I think they’re going to lose a lot of people.”

Businesses stumble when they fail to treat employees as people first, said Michael Held, founder and CEO of LifeSpeak Inc., which provides digital health and well-being content to large companies, government agencies and insurance providers.

“If you run a factory, you’re not going to not oil the machine or plug it in or fix the parts. Yet, human assets are the most integral part of any business and we don’t do the same.”

Supporting employees in their personal lives is not a new idea — Held left his own unfulfilling career as a corporate lawyer when he saw the opportunity to start LifeSpeak in 2004. But while the company saw growth for the past several years, he said the pandemic accelerated demand for expert advice on topics from sleep to finances to kids’ behaviour and loneliness. LifeSpeak went public in June, raising more than $ 80 million in net proceeds as it listed its shares on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

“There was a stark realization that every human being knows people dealing with COVID plus the fact that anxiety, loneliness and depression were elevated during the pandemic,” Held said. “To me, the biggest thing that happened is the C-Suite (chief level) now recognizes that this is a business imperative to deal with, otherwise they can’t run their business.”

A recent RBC report said LifeSpeak is tapping into a “corporate well-being digital content market” worth about $ 15 billion (U.S.) annually, and said there is growing data to suggest business leaders see wellness as important. It pointed to PwC’s CEO Panel Survey from last summer that ranked initiatives related to remote work and employee wellness programs as the third- and fourth-highest priorities, behind digitizing core business operations and adding new digital products and services.

Deborah Bottineau, district director at Robert Half Canada, said companies that performed well during the pandemic were able to adapt quickly and find ways to continue connecting with their employees as they worked remotely. Without that sense of connection, she said, some employers failed to see the warning signs of fatigue and disengagement that could lead to departures.

“I think the expectation employees have today versus pre-pandemic when it comes to the level of support they’ll receive from their employers has definitely increased,” Bottineau said.

“Companies who were less proactive around health and well-being and having proactive career conversations with their employees will find themselves blindsided by resignations that maybe they just didn’t see coming.”

Bottineau said much of the heavy lifting has fallen on middle managers, who were faced with the unenviable task of managing and motivating workers in an unprecedented remote world. “From an executive perspective, there has to be a focus on equipping middle-level managers with the tools to navigate these challenges.”

As the “war for talent has become much more fierce,” she said, people are leaving for a number of reasons, including flexibility, better compensation, opportunities for professional development and employers whose values align with their own, including around diversity and inclusion.

Large companies with thousands of employees will likely face challenges meeting everyone’s needs, but for some employers, the desire for flexibility and a new way of working could be a selling point.

Durant, for example, added a junior lawyer from Toronto to her fledgling firm plus an experienced law clerk based in Barrie, and said they’re creating the firm culture together. That includes everyone taking a day off after wrapping up a big file and flexible hours; for example, her law clerk works longer days earlier in the week to take Thursday and Friday afternoons off.

“I never would have thought of having remote workers before the pandemic,” she said. “But we’re really just looking for good lawyers and staff … and trying to create a place where we can do our best work and be healthy.”

TORONTO STAR