The Great Resignation: What Cognitive Science Can Help You Do About It

In just the month of December 2021, about 4.3 million people, 3 percent of the workforce, quit. They didn’t leave one employer for another; they simply left. So what is happening, and what we can do about it?

The Fight-Flight-or-Freeze Response

The fight, flight, or freeze model defines three strategies for survival. Let’s say a mouse encounters a lion in the jungle. She must decide to either fight the lion, try to outrun it, or freeze and hope the lion passes by. Winning a fight or a foot race against a lion is unlikely, so the mouse concludes that the best choice is to freeze. However, a gazelle might perform the same calculus and decide to run for it, while a human with a gun would probably fight. (And now, it is the lion who must make the survival decision.)

While there are many people who face true life-and-death decisions every day, most of us don’t encounter a lion, metaphorical or actual, in our day-to-day experience. But the brain is a funny thing. In today’s workplace, most of the people who are resigning are protecting their psychological safety. They no longer feel safe with their coworkers, leaders, and organizations. And it really doesn’t matter if their fear is real or imagined. To them, work has become so threatening that no work seems a better option. They do the only thing they can to psychologically survive—they run.

Cognitive Load and the Toxicity of Busyness

John Sweller and colleagues established the theory of cognitive load in 1998. Basically, the idea is that the human brain has a limited capacity to process information, and this capacity is severely affected by internal and external distractions. In 2020, he updated his research to include stress and uncertainty in the mix. A significant source of this stress is the cult of busyness. When an organization values the appearance of being busy, employees feel pressure to take on increasing levels of responsibility, creating stress and anxiety. Let’s see if any of these thought patterns sound familiar:

• “If I have an open hour on my calendar, it inevitably gets scheduled for yet another virtual meeting.”

• “Since I’m working from home and not spending time commuting, I can add an extra couple of hours to my workday.”

• “I can’t keep up with work during the week, so I catch up over the weekend.”

• “If I exceed my goals one year, our leaders will ratchet up the stakes the next year.”

• “When I finish one high-priority task, another one appears on my to-do list.”

At some point, an employee’s ability to sustain this spiraling treadmill of expectations runs out. They wake up one morning and think, “I’m done.” That’s when they become a Great Resignation statistic.

What Can We Do to Help Employees Stay?

In A Minute to Think, Juliet Funt points out that despite all this apparent activity, we are less productive, less creative, and less happy. The solution to retaining your employees is a return to leadership practices that may seem quaint, even antiquated, at first. Try some of these for a week, and see what happens:

• Put a limit on how many meetings can be scheduled on any given day.

• Schedule at least 15 minutes between meetings, to give the brain some time to reflect on one meeting and plan for the next.

• Re-evaluate all the repeating tasks in your organization. Which ones are adding value, and which ones are busy work?

• Put a value on quality performance, rather than quantity.

• Make it OK to say, “I have too much on my plate.”

There are no easy fixes for the Great Resignation, but you may be able to help the people who are with you now stay in your organization. You don’t do that by fixing the employee: You do it by transforming your organization.
What strategies are you trying?

This post originally appeared on the ATD blog on February 22, 2022.

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