HR’s Guide to the Great Resignation in the UK

Quiet Quitting

In April 2021, a record number of US employees voluntarily left their jobs. And the number quitting each month has remained high ever since. As we’ll discuss in this article, the Great Resignation is not slowing down — and it’s no longer just an American phenomenon either. Read on for everything HR teams need to know about the Great Resignation in the UK.

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What Is the Great Resignation? 

The Great Resignation is a phenomenon that began in early 2021, which saw higher-than-expected numbers of employees voluntarily leaving their jobs. It was first noted in the US, when a record four million people quit their jobs in April 2021. 

At that time, this was the highest number of 'quits' recorded in a month since the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) started tracking this in 2001. A new record of 4.5 million was reached in November 2021, and then again in March 2022. The latest figures we have are from November 2022, when 4.2 million quits were recorded — suggesting that the Great Resignation is still going on. 

Since this phenomenon was first noted, it has spread beyond the US to countries including Australia, France and the UK. This has led to staff shortages in many organisations, and has left employers needing to do more to retain their employees. 

The Great Resignation In the UK

So, what does the Great Resignation look like in the UK? Let’s take a look at what the statistics tell us: 

  • After a significant drop in during the early stages of the pandemic, the number of job-to-job resignations in Q1 2021 was roughly the same as in Q1 2020, at 213,000. 

  • It then jumped to 295,000 in Q2 2021. That was the last time the total number of quits in a quarter was under 300,000. 

  • The peak of the UK’s Great Resignation was in Q2 2022, when job-to-job resignations reached a record 442,000. 

However, these figures only measure job-to-job resignations — when a person quits one job in order to start another one. That means that they don’t tell the whole story. 

The ONS also measures the number of people who are economically 'inactive', which means they are not working or looking for work. And that number has grown by over half a million since before the pandemic. While there are a number of reasons behind this, including an increase in people facing long-term sickness, it has still had a significant impact on the labour market. 

Another interesting figure to look at is the number of job vacancies available. The latest data we have is for the period October–December 2022, when there were 1,161,000 vacancies

Although this was fewer than there were in the same period in 2021, it still represents an increase of around 44% compared to pre-pandemic levels — suggesting that employers are struggling to fill positions. 

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What Are the Reasons Behind the Great Resignation? 

The term ‘Great Resignation’ was coined in May 2021 by Anthony Klotz, a professor at Texas A&M University. He predicted that a ‘Big Quit’ was coming after noticing four unique trends brought about by the pandemic: 

1. A Backlog of Quits from 2020

A certain number of employees quit their jobs every year. But in 2020, fear and uncertainty — plus rules about eligibility for furlough pay and the fact that there were very few job vacancies available — meant that many of them decided to stay put. 

That means that part of what we’re calling the ‘Great Resignation’ is really just people who would have quit their jobs anyway doing so after a delay.

2. Widespread Burnout Among Employees

A study by Indeed from March 2021 found that a huge 52% of employees were experiencing burnout — and two-thirds of respondents agreed that the pandemic had made burnout worse. While cases of burnout don’t inevitably lead to people quitting their jobs, it’s certainly an indicator that something isn’t right. 

3. A Re-Evaluation of Priorities and Values Around Work 

For a lot of people, 2020 was a chance to reassess their priorities and values. To illustrate this, let’s take a look at the results of a Gartner survey published in January 2022. In the survey:

  • 52% of people said the pandemic made them question the purpose of their job

  • 50% said it had changed their expectations towards their employer

  • 65% said it had made them rethink the place that work had in their life

  • 65% said it had shifted their attitude towards the value of aspects of life outside of work

All of this is to say that the pandemic changed many people’s expectations of work — and many were prepared to quit if their employer wasn’t ready to meet those expectations.

4. A Reluctance to Return to In-Person Work

The widespread, sudden shift to remote work in 2020 was one of the biggest changes that the pandemic brought to the world of work. But by early 2021, many organisations expected their employees to return to the office, at least part of the time. For many employees, this was a dealbreaker they were willing to quit over. 

How Has the Great Resignation Impacted UK Employers? 

The Great Resignation has created staff shortages in many organisations. This reduces the productivity of the organisation as a whole, which can affect profit margins. Plus, the remaining employees often end up overworked as they try to do the work of several people. This can lead to burnout and, ultimately, more resignations. 

All of this means that UK employers that want to survive the Great Resignation need to work hard to not only attract new talent, but also to retain the people they already have. Offering more competitive compensation can help: in a survey that asked 2000 people for their top reasons for resigning, 44% said that they’d left for a better salary. 

However, the survey also found that: 

  • 32% said a better work-life balance was more important

  • 20% were in search of a more meaningful career

  • 18% left to get away from a toxic company culture

  • 17% said they had no career progression opportunities 

  • 17% left because they received no recognition for their work

This means that employers need to do more than just increasing salaries and hoping for the best.

What Can HR Teams Do to Tackle the Great Resignation? 

HR teams play a key role in developing and disseminating company culture. This means that they’re in a perfect position to help organisations to hold onto their best people — and even attract new ones. 

Here are a few of the things HR teams can do to tackle the Great Resignation: 

  • Support employees to work remotely: According to an MIT Sloan article from January 2022, remote working arrangements are a 1.5x greater predictor of retention than salary. HR teams should support employees in getting the working arrangements that suit them, whether that’s remote, in-person or something in between

  • Keep an eye on engagement: Employees don’t go from happy and healthy to burned out overnight. And you can mitigate a lot of engagement problems by simply keeping an eye on things. Consider using an employee engagement survey to regularly assess how employees are feeling — and step in when you notice something isn’t right. 

  • Provide mental health support: Encouraging employees to look after their mental health in the workplace can have a big effect on retention — and HR is in the perfect position to help. This might include providing training on best practices or giving employees access to self-service resources. It’s also important to build company policies around support for employee mental health. 

  • Support career growth: One of the biggest reasons that employees quit their jobs is that there’s no room for them to grow within the organisation. HR teams should be doing everything they can to help employees progress in their careers, whether that’s providing access to training and certifications, or encouraging hiring managers to look for candidates internally before advertising new roles. 

  • Work on your employer brand: A big part of combating the Great Resignation is convincing candidates that your organisation is the place to be. This means working on your employer brand. This has the added bonus of reminding your current employees that your organisation is a great place to work — making them less likely to look for another job elsewhere.

Will a Recession End the Great Resignation in the UK? 

If the UK economy enters a recession in 2023, many employers will have to cut costs by freezing hiring and making redundancies. This means there will be more people looking for work, and fewer jobs for every candidate. 

The price of consumer goods will rise, and many will struggle to meet their living expenses. And both consumers and businesses will find it more difficult to secure loans. All of this means that we would expect to see fewer people voluntarily leaving their jobs if a recession hits. 

However, we can’t be certain that this will happen. Surveys from as recently as September have found that as many as 40% of employees plan to leave their jobs in the next 6–12 months. And, while the UK’s economy has been relatively weak since the pandemic began, the job market has remained tight throughout. That means there are more jobs available than there are people to fill them.

What we know for sure is that companies that don’t have the right teams in place will have a harder time getting through the recession. Organisations that want to survive should be taking action now to decrease turnover and attract the candidates they need. 

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