COVID-19 and the Great Resignation

How human resources can foster employee retention in a post-pandemic workforce in healthcare organisations

Uche Nwabueze

Uche Nwabueze

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Uche Nwabueze received his Ph.D from Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom in 1995. For 28years, Dr. Nwabueze has dedicated himself to the advancement of the theory and practice of management through research, consulting work, and teaching across four continents (North America, Europe, Asia and Africa). His students describe their classroom experience with Dr. Uche as he is fondly called; as a scholarly adventure in critical thinking, problem-solving and reflective analysis.

The paper posits that the negative impacts of remote work and the imposition of COVID-19 preventive measures to be the biggest drivers of the great resignation and quiet quitting. Structurally, hospital systems through HRM policies like flexible work schedules and employee participation in the decision-making process as it relates to post-pandemic measures will be effective in decreasing the number of employees who choose to leave their jobs.

In the spring of 2021, over a year after the COVID-19 pandemic entered the global stage, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a staggering calculation: over 4 million people had voluntarily quit their jobs (Cook, 2021). Many who remained employed decreased their working hours, which plummeted by 17.3 per cent shortly after the onset of the pandemic. This decrease in working hours, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), is the equivalent of the loss of 495 million full-time jobs (Cotofan et. al., 2021). These figures constitute a record percentage of workforce loss, a phenomenon has come to be widely referred to as the Great Resignation and calls attention to what should now be Human Resource’s top priority: solving the employee retention problem (“How to Manage the Great Resignation,” 2021). The purpose of the following analysis is to isolate the factors driving the Great Resignation, connect their impact to employee resignation, and establish modern methods with which Human Resource personnel can incentivise employees to remain onboard. This paper hypothesises the negative impacts of remote work and the imposition of COVID-19 prevention measures to be the biggest drivers of the Great Resignation, and further hypothesises that the availability of a flexible work schedule, coupled with employee autonomy in participation with pandemic prevention measures, will be effective in decreasing the number of employees who choose to leave their jobs. The importance and urgency of this research is echoed by the Journal of Human Resource Management, which states explicitly that “in response to the COVID-19 crisis, job retention should be seen as a central aim and practice of Human Resource Management” (Spencer, et. al., 2021).

How COVID-19 Re-Shaped the Workplace

To assess the factors that may be influencing millions of people to quit their jobs, we must initially examine the ways in which COVID-19 has transformed the workplace, as well as the reasons these transformations are linked to the factors influencing the mass exodus of the employed. To study such impacts that have been experienced on a universal, global scale, the following analysis will be focused on two factors that have widely impacted most of the workforce. The first of these factors is the proliferation of remote work; the second is the widespread imposition of politically charged COVID-19 prevention methods. The following sections will deep-dive into each of these factors, to assess the impacts of each and more effectively prescribe employee retention solutions as antidotes to the Great Resignation.

The Consequences of Pandemic-Prevention Methods

Because the impacts the pandemic has imposed on the workplace surely extend far past what can be adequately covered here, for purposes of conciseness we will now focus on a second, and far more politically charged example: the presence of COVID-19 prevention measures in the workplace. Though mandatory masking has undoubtedly been the culprit of much political discourse, the requirement (or lack thereof) that many employees either become vaccinated or forfeit their positions is undeniably the most contentious; thus, our attention will focus specifically on this factor. Indeed, while those employed by the federal government have had the choice made for them, private sector leaders are now faced with the thorny task of balancing the safety of some of their employees with the individual rights of others (McLeod, Pearce, 2021). The reluctance of many employees to receive the vaccine is apparent in the low compliance rates with vaccination when it is not mandatory, even in the presence of widespread persuasion campaigns (Brown, et. al., 2021). The cost savings to the organisation that could potentially arise from mandating vaccines, preventing a potential sickness, and thus alleviating the costs associated with lost productivity and employee absence, must be balanced with the certainty of employee sickness and absence that will result from the assured adverse effects of the vaccine itself. Finally, it is important to note that “each employment context, of course, will differ… a mandatory vaccination policy that works well for a close-quarters or contact-heavy workplace, such as a healthcare facility or even a meatpacking plant, might be too heavy handed for a low-contact team of remote computer coders. Likewise, different states, cities, and industries may adopt very different workplace vaccination rules, creating a thicket of regulation” (Brown, et. al., 2021). Thus, the trickiness and sensitivity surrounding the issue of mandatory vaccination is made apparent.

This sensitivity is tied to employee retention in a multitude of ways. Removing employees’ ability to choose what goes into their bodies has a distinct probability of breeding resentment towards the obligating organisation that can ultimately manifest in resignation (Brown, et. al., 2021).  This risk has been quantified by a study featured in The Journal of Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine, which showed that 7 per cent of employees faced with a mandatory vaccination policy chose to resign rather than comply with the policy (Dumyati et. al., 2021). While this figure may seem insignificant, when considered in the context of a short-staffed, small business, the ramifications of such a loss may seem more substantial, and once again serve to illustrate the inapplicability of a single solution for a range of organisational dynamics. Finally, though the number of potential resignations may appear small, the loss of experience and talent embodied by the individuals who comprise the resignation percentage cannot be discounted. Indeed, such a loss is historically likely, as evidenced by previous resignations and loss of experienced personnel when faced with loss of autonomy (Luthy et. al., 2016).  With the previous information in mind, we have thus sufficiently established the quantitative and qualitative ties between pandemic prevention’s most contested policy and the Great Resignation.

Research Results

Now that we have established the impacts to the workforce that have occurred because of COVID-19’s influence, assessed their resulting consequences, and tied these consequences to the rapidly declining employee retention rates, the initial portion of this paper’s hypothesis can be affirmed as true. We will now turn our attention to the ways in which such consequences can be mitigated. The following sections will focus on the methods organisations can and should employ to re-invigorate the wills of their employees to remain onboard, to provide companies with universally applicable, actionable prescriptions with which the Great Resignation can be slowed. Though these solutions will be broken out between the factors of remote work and the imposition of pandemic prevention measures, the findings of the following analysis reveal them to have many intermingling, positive effects in countering the negative impacts of both categories.

The Proliferation of Remote Work

We will begin with what is perhaps the most glaring example of the pandemic’s impact on the workplace, which is of course the transition to remote work. The significance of this transition is quantified by Oliver Baumann and Elizabeth Sander’s article “Psychological Impacts of Remote Working Under Social Distancing Restrictions,” which states that “in May 2020, 35 per cent of the US workforce worked entirely from home, compared to just 8 per cent in February 2020” (Baumann et al., 2021). The article went on to specify that “even industries that traditionally do not rely much on work-from-home arrangements were forced to introduce them,” information that effectively highlights the universal reach of remote work (Baumann et al., 2021). Thus, this information, coupled with the drastic reduction in working hours revealed in the introductory paragraph, blatantly illustrates the significance of the proliferation of remote work, as well as its selection as one of our primary impacts of COVID-19’s transformation of the workforce. Enacted as a measure of keeping instances of exposure to the virus at a minimum, this dramatic shift to remote work was accompanied by several either unexpected consequences or opportunities, depending on one’s point of view, the first of which is the broadening of employment horizons. Indeed, the removal of the requirement to report to work in person vastly increased the number of positions available to jobseekers, as applicants were no longer constrained by location to be considered eligible. This surge of plausible job options shifted a significant portion of bargaining power back onto employees and is a likely explanation behind the boldness that enabled so many to resign (“How to Manage the Great Resignation,” 2021). A second impact of remote work is the fact that it has additionally resulted in spikes in feelings of loneliness because of social isolation, a factor well-established to have adverse impacts on wellbeing and life satisfaction (Cotofan et. al., 2021). In the absence of the social networks our workplaces can offer, as well as the support that accompanies them, it again becomes increasingly understandable why so many would not wish to continue with an employment that contributes to one’s feelings of isolation, especially when one considers the unprecedented increase in other available opportunities. This hypothesis is supported by evidence offered by the US National Library of Medicine National Institute of Health, which found that loneliness is correlated to declines in in work performance and satisfaction (Galanti, et. al., 2021).

The latter factor is complimentary to an additional impact of remote work, which is the erosion of the ability to bond with one’s team members. Indeed, now that the coffee-break banter that previously greased the skids in between concrete work tasks is confined to the far-less-organic constraints of communication offered via Skype for Business or Microsoft Teams, the soft skills responsible for cohesive team facilitation have sadly been stifled. It is no longer uncommon for new hires to never have seen their coworkers face-to-face, depriving them of the hands-on, in person training that typically facilitates job comprehension and autonomy. These factors combined account for a lack of loyalty and dedication to a job that is typically fostered by a sense of belonging and team membership; indeed, studies by the US National Library of Medicine National Institute of Health additionally found a time spent telecommunicating and individual team performance to be negatively correlated (Galanti, et. al., 2021). Thus, another explanation regarding the ease with which employees have been leaving their positions is revealed.

The impacts of remote work by no means stop at there. For many, the widespread expectation that employees work from home has imposed the coincidence of work and familial responsibilities, which encompass everything from meal preparation to general supervision to assistance with remote school, all to be accomplished in between check ins and Zoom calls (Galanti, et. al., 2021). It has additionally created a scarcity of workspace, due to the pandemic’s necessitation that it be shared between any spouses or children an employee might have, thus providing additional rationale for resignation (Galanti, et. al., 2021). Finally, this meshing of work and home life has seeped into employees’ schedules, blurring the line between the hours allocated to labor or leisure. This is particularly evident in employees holding a tertiary degree, a group that the Institute of Labor Economics showed worked a much higher number of hours than those who are either self-employed or who held lower educational degrees, with the predictable exception of those in fields deemed to be “essential” (Guadecker et. al., 2020). The reasoning behind longer hours worked in essential fields hardly requires explanation; one need not look further than the nearest overflowing hospital to make sense of this trend. Longer white-collar hours are understandable as well, for the newfound, widely normalised presence of work-related technology in the home has removed the ability of employees to leave work at work. The ease with which one’s boss can now contact a subordinate (or vice versa) at any given hour is unprecedented, and exacerbated by technology displaying whether employees are actively online. This trend’s coincidence with still less hours being worked overall, as mentioned in our introductory paragraph, is indicative of a shrinking number of people having to shoulder the burden of working hours left behind by those who have quit their jobs. The risk of burnout for those left behind because of unlimited working hours, coupled with the frustration of sacrificing uncapped quantities of personal time, and with it any semblance of a work-life balance, are additional factors contributing to the Great Resignation.

Solutions to the Consequences of Remote Work:

We will begin our prescribed organisational solutions with a response to the effects of remote work. Here, it is important to reiterate that not all these effects have been detrimental; indeed, as previously explored in this essay, remote work has additionally fostered numerous positive impacts. Such impacts have included a reduction or outright elimination of commute time, affording many employees what can amount to hours of free time given back to them daily. This dramatic cut in commute time can be extrapolated to additional impacts employees find beneficial; indeed, as well as the time given back to employees as a result of remote work, such as the reduction of wear and tear on one’s vehicle, its maintenance costs, the amount of money required to be spent on gas, price of eating out that might be necessitated by in-person work, etc. The monetary savings afforded by remote work are additionally not enjoyed exclusively by employees; indeed, employers while presumably able to benefits from each of the factors previously mentioned, may come to realise that in the absence of in-person work, the need for the provision of a physical workspace has become obsolete. This could result in the elimination of an organisation’s building lease payment, a significant cost savings that yields a multitude of potential avenues for re-investment in one’s company. This hypothesis is corroborated by Oliver Baumann’s article detailing the “Psychological Impacts of Remote Working Under Social Distancing Restrictions,” which emphasizes the “substantial reductions in direct costs for organisations” because of remote work (Baumann et. al., 2021). Baumann goes on to elaborate on the staying power of remote work, as it is increasingly facilitated by greater availability of technology and provides evidence that remote work has additionally been responsible for heightened employee productivity (Baumann et. al., 2021). The latter point unearths an additional cost savings to be enjoyed to the employers of telecommunicators, for with each incremental increase in employee efficiency, employers are in essence receiving a greater bang for their salary dollars. Thus, for all the previous reasons, and in spite of the drawbacks it additionally imposes, it would be unwise for organisations to combat the Great Resignation by disposing of remote work altogether, even once the subsiding pandemic enables this possibility. We shall instead turn our attention to the ways in which remote work can continue to be implemented in a more sustainable manner than it currently is.

An underlying theme in the previously mentioned benefits to remote work is flexibility. This theme is apparent most blatantly in the time savings that arises from the elimination of daily commutes, injecting an increase of individual freedom and flexibility into a vast amount of the workforce. The importance of such flexibility is expanded upon by Christina Pazzanese’s study “How COVID-19 Experiences Will Reshape the Workplace,” which offers that “organisations that offer employees the ability to work flexible workday schedules, to choose when and how they come into the office… would be wise to maintain and emphasize work flexibility” (Pazzanese, 2021). Here, an important concept extrapolating from the benefits of workplace flexibility is introduced: the flexible work schedule. This course of action is supported by the spread of remote-work technology, which has been developed in response to the current pandemic, and further backed up by statements from an article published by the Journal of Political Economy, “The Value of Flexible Work,” which claim that “technology has facilitated new, nontraditional work arrangements” (Chen, et. al., 2020). With the scene set to explain the present environment’s facilitation of the success of such a practice, we will now more deeply explore some of its benefits.

Put simply, a flexible work schedule is one that allows employees to maintain a work schedule other than the standard hours previously established by one’s organisation (“COVID-19: Flexible Work Schedule,” 2021). A more general definition can be found in Heejung Chung’s article “Flexible Working, Work-Life Balance: Introduction” in which the authors contend that a flexible work schedule can be distilled to the presence of a worker’s control over when and where they work… that is, [a worker’s ability to] alternate the starting and ending times), and/or to change the numbers of hours worked per day or week—which can then be banked to take days off in certain circumstances” (Chung et. al., 2021). The latter article reports a critical perspective in terms of remote work, which is the fact that one particular demographic, millennials, are overwhelmingly in favor of their employers offering of opportunities for remote work, to include both the option to work from home, as well as the option to work within a flex schedule. In addition to the undisputed benefit of catering to the workplace’s increasingly dominant and most represented demographic, offering a flex schedule provides recourse to the previously discussed conflict created by remote work between work and family life. Indeed, numerous studies have yielded results demonstrating that “flexible working can be used as a positive capability spanning resource useful for workers… to adapt their work to family demands,” as well as that “studies have shown that flexible working allows mothers to maintain their working hours after childbirth and to remain in human-capital-intensive jobs in times of high family demand… [finally showing that] this ability may increase women’s satisfaction with work–life balance by allowing women to maintain both” (Chung et. al., 2021). While the gender equality focusses of the previously cited article is not one that this analysis will be extrapolating on, its implications for increasing workforce retention are clear. By enabling members of the workforce greater flexibility in deciding what hours each allocates towards their own jobs, and what to allocate towards childcare or other family-related activities, a flex schedule removes the dichotomy between career and childbirth, and more broadly, the conflict between work and family life imposed by remote work. As we have previously demonstrated the consequences of forcing employees to choose between such obligations, the removal of this dilemma will undoubtedly positively influence retention rates for organisations willing to implement a long term, flexible work schedule policy, independently of the presence of a global pandemic.

Solutions to the Negative Impacts of Pandemic Prevention Measures:

We will now utilise the findings yielded from our analysis of pandemic-prevention measures and their impacts in previous sections to offer a responsive course of action to organisations currently struggling with employee retention. While managers in the private sector continue in their efforts to navigate a path forward regarding the balance between employee safety and individual rights, the discretion they are afforded in making this decision should not be discounted. The ability to decide whether to mandate or not to mandate vaccinations in accordance with the wishes of one’s own subordinates should be given significant consideration. Indeed, who better to represent the best interests of one’s employees than the employees themselves? This proposed democratic approach is one we have seen successfully implemented across a multitude of case studies, each a module example of extraordinary employee retention rates, and is a proposal that is corroborated by the Human Resource Management Journal. Indeed, the Journal addresses the issue of democracy in the workplace through the lens of employee retention in the wake of the pandemic by stating that “The task for HRM researchers… is to draw out the potential benefits of job retention during crisis to promote a new post-COVID-19 social contract at work that may guide practitioners of HRM and harness and consolidate support amongst different stakeholders to secure more sustainable forms of social partnership” (Spencer, et. al., 2021). Of particular importance within the latter assertion is the concept of this “social contract” employees must foster, for it prescribes what essentially could be considered the necessity of voluntary consent of one’s employees to any proposed safety measures at hand. In other words, these “more sustainable forms of social partnership” can be created through allowing members of the workforce to have a say in their organisation’s COVID-prevention policies. The Human Resource Management Journal goes on to elaborate upon a model with which such a social contract might be based, specifying its prioritization of “job security, good work and worker voice at the center of HRM… [in order to] create the basis for more democratic approaches to employment regulation whereby support for job retention is seen as a key element of any economic recovery” (Spencer, et. al., 2021). Thus, the connection between retaining employees in a post-pandemic workplace and prioritising their representation, autonomy, and overall democracy of their organisation by allowing them to decide whether or not to get vaccinated, can be established, and an actionable method in which Human Resource Management practices can continue to combat factors driving the Great Resignation is revealed. This strategy effectively implements the negotiated response to crisis that the Journal has prescribed (Spencer, et. al., 2021).

For employers who still prefer to mandate vaccines in their workplace, it is important to firstly examine the legal parameters surrounding such decisions. These parameters essentially allow employers to mandate vaccines, so long as well-established processes for granting exceptions to such a mandate are in place. The requirement for concrete processes with which to grant vaccine exceptions is supported in Jessica Brown’s article “An Employer Playbook for the COVID Vaccine Wars: Strategies and Considerations for Workplace Vaccination Policies,” which states that in the absence of thoughtful processes, “Human Resources (HR) [could be put] at risk of being overwhelmed by needing to decide, on a case-by case basis, who qualifies for an exemption (Brown, et. al., 2021). Such exceptions include medical disabilities that are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as bona fide religious exemptions, as covered by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (McLeod, Pearce, 2021). When employers who choose to move forward with the requirement that their employees be vaccinated encounter personnel who are not valid candidates to either such exceptions, but nonetheless opt to refuse the vaccine, the Risk and Insurance Management Society, Inc. recommends managers explore alternative courses of action prior to resorting to terminating the employee. Such alternative courses of action can be exemplified by exploring means of alternative working options, such as a schedule that does not coincide with those of other at-risk employees, or a transition to more permanent remote work, both of which ensure unnecessary hardship is not imposed on the unvaccinated employee McLeod, Pearce, 2021). However, the headaches of dealing with the previous scenarios could again be avoided by simply abstaining from vaccine mandating; indeed, when vaccination remains voluntary, “by contrast, no (or much less) formal process is needed” (Brown, et. a., 2021). Thus, allowing employees the autonomy to make vaccination decisions for themselves remains the clearest avenue for organisations to more effectively foster employee retention.

Versatility and Ease of Applicability of Proposed Solutions

We will now turn our attention to the cross-applicability of this paper’s proposed solutions, to further emphasise the benefits organisations could enjoy should they be implemented. Indeed, the theme of employee autonomy covered in the previous sections has the potential to create positive impacts beyond the provision of a roadmap for organisational leaders to navigate contentious vaccine mandates. This becomes useful when we consider this paper has not yet addressed an issue it identified earlier, which is the feeling of isolation created by remote work. To reiterate, this isolation erodes a sense of team membership in employees, along with the loyalty one might feel towards respective workplace teams, ultimately degrading the will of an employee to remain employed with their present organisation (Galanti, et. al., 2021). Here is where this autonomy again becomes relevant, for while it enables employees to opt in or out of an organisation’s COVID-19 related policies, it is also the driving factor behind their decision to participate in a flexible working schedule. A flexible working schedule can provide employees with more than the freedom to choose what hours they spend working; indeed, it additionally enables the freedom for them to decide when they report to the office. This can be key in facilitating any existing desires of coworkers to work collaboratively in person once again, effectively proving a method with which employee loyalty and sense of team membership could be invigorated. Employees would likely coordinate their in-person working schedules with others that held similar stances regarding vaccination and the necessity of mask wearing, further reducing feelings of alienation and isolation, and demonstrating the versatility of employee autonomy as a solution to both pandemic prevention and the consequences of remote work.

It is important to note that this latest benefit revealed through employee autonomy is dependent upon an organisation’s decision whether to maintain a physical workspace. As we have already established, they may be tempted to deem the physical workspace unnecessary and obsolete, for workers have demonstrated their ability to perform job functions remotely, and the cost savings of eliminating a rental expense from a business’s operating budget is substantial (Baumann et. al., 2021). However, in defense of the decision to retain a physical workspace, one must also consider the costs associated with the inability to retain one’s employees. Indeed, because we have shown team loyalty and the presence of a location in which employees can meet face-to-ace to have a positive impact on employee retention, it too should be considered a cost savings. This is due to the universally understood cost of having to train new employees, conduct turnover with the old, etc., both of which have very real time and monetary opportunity costs.

Such information may leave organisation leaders wondering how to proceed. Due to this paper’s emphasis on autonomy and universal applicability, we will refrain from prescribing a one-size-fits-all solution. Rather, companies should conduct their own cost-benefit analysis when determine whether to retain a physical workspace, in order to reach a solution and compromise that best suits its needs. Even more simply, the democratic approach this essay has previously recommended can be applied here, by simply polling one’s employees in order to discern their vision for what operating method of the company would best suit their needs. Once again, this approach can foster loyalty and therefore retention in its ability to make one’s employees feel heard. Perhaps best of all, employment of the democratic approach is cost-free, an aspect that again demonstrates the universal applicability of this course of action.


The short answer to solving the Great Resignation? It’s complicated. As this paper has repeatedly demonstrated, the path forward for each organisation will vary widely according to its size, location, and internal culture. The only recommendation to be taken from this paper that will apply in all cases is that these organisations need to base their course of action on the wishes of their employees. Though the political rhetoric and outside pressure to act in one way or another is deafening, organisations must adhere religiously to a democratic approach, shutting out outside noise to hear to what is wanted within. Simply put, employers must protect the interests of their own people or risk losing them.  Whether applied to the offering of a flexible work schedule or an optional vaccination policy, prioritising the preservation of employee’s individual autonomy has been shown to be the only constant factor positively influencing employee retention. Democratically deciding the path forward within each organisation is thus the best method for keeping one’s employees unified, and more importantly, on board.

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