Restless at Work? Don't Join the Throngs of Job Quitters Until You Read This

I quit post-it
Millions are doing it. Should you? Cn0ra

With nearly half of Americans fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the economy recovering and pandemic lockdown rules easing across the U.S. and other countries despite the Delta variant, restless workers are changing jobs, or planning to. The quit rate in April 2021 was the highest in 20 years—and May's was even higher than that. Indeed, between 25 to 40 percent of people currently employed are now actively job searching, consulting firm Korn Ferry reports.

No wonder labor economist Betsey Stevenson at the University of Michigan has called the present moment the "take this job and shove it" economy.

There's an inherent risk to job changes, as our research at the Harvard Business School has shown for nearly 20 years, which can result in both the individual and team's performances faltering. In addition, job changers make predictable mistakes when executing this risky maneuver, including insufficient research on the new company; changing jobs only for a salary increase or an escape from the current job; unrealistic optimism about their abilities and their odds of success; and short-term thinking. These mistakes are the results of various pressures that have been ramped up by both the pandemic and its relatively speedy recovery.

What can you do to avoid the pitfalls? Here are six ways the pandemic may put you—and your workers—at risk for a reactive, reckless, restless job change and how to smartly, thoughtfully counter their pull to determine if a career move is really right for you.

Emotional Reactivity

Survival psychology is the study of what it takes to endure and recover from long-term adverse circumstances—particularly when it's unknown when, or if, relief will come. Such circumstances have been the case globally for a year and a half, leading to "an economy that's been traumatically impacted," according to Stevenson.

"I don't even think it was possible to really have imagined something like this before, where people just had to stop going to work for their own health and safety, for the health and safety of others," she said during an interview last month on The Ezra Klein Show. Every aspect of life—from navigating the grocery aisle to navigating the C-suite—had to be rethought seemingly overnight.

When relief comes after prolonged stress and suffering, powerful emotions surface. These emotions can lead to reactive, impulsive decisions if their source is not understood.

Anger/resentment. Have you been irritable lately? Resentful? Feeling misunderstood, taken-for-granted, impinged upon by others? Or are you reasonably steady and cheerful, and mystified by your colleagues' (and neighbors' and family members') thin skin and short fuses?

"Anger, aggression and hostility amongst victims is universal" after they have been rescued from long-term adversity, according to psychologist John Leach. "The most common characteristic of such anger, however, is that it is irrational."

Man tearing up contract
Saying "take this job and shove it" has emotional appeal but quitting in anger doesn't yield the best outcomes. Ivan-balvan

Media anecdotes in stories about quit rates reinforce the aggressive "take this job and shove it" narrative. A typical article recounts a man who left his job due to "the culmination of months of perceived injustices, which he said he was able to evaluate more clearly because of the pandemic." His assessment may have been correct. There are many, many reasons for rational anger at the management of the pandemic and the failures of various institutions and organizations. For many people, this includes their own workplace, a fact reinforced by who, exactly, is quitting: public-facing workers in hospitality, food and retail, and on the other end of the economic spectrum, "professional and business services" workers.

The health risks and indignities suffered by essential employees during the pandemic are obvious. White-collar professionals, who largely moved to remote work, did not experience those immediate slings and arrows, but spent even more time on the job and in meetings than they already had as barriers between work and home disappeared, and frequently lost a sense of connection both with their teams and with the organization as a whole.

People have good reasons to be angry—and they will also be angry when they do not have good reasons. Irrational, unjustified anger is floating around like so many aerosol particles.

Need for action. For the first time in over a year, the future feels somewhat predictable, or at least back to prior levels of unpredictability. We can plan again, and to quote Leach, "The ability to plan for the future implies hope." The inability to do this kind of planning, to be forced to live in a kind of eternal present moment, is painful. People are eager to take action that will propel them toward the future and symbolize a break with the recent past.

Both of these emotional reactions are summed up in the current use of "revenge" as an adjective: revenge travel, revenge shopping, revenge bedtime procrastination. "Revenge shopping"—phones, shoes, event tickets, tourism—is expected to drive the economy for the rest of the year, an article in Adweek proclaimed. Women are buying "exuberant" clothes with "spirited prints ... and jubilant ruffles," and getting dramatic short haircuts, The Wall Street Journal reported: "The pandemic made many of us feel helpless. A hair transformation affords a sense of power." (The original short cut for women, the bob, became popular right after the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.)

Cognitive Recklessness

The pandemic has left people angry and eager for action. Meanwhile, a year of semi-isolation and severe disruption to personal and professional networks has left them without the information they need to make sure those actions are appropriate.

Narrow focus. Humans have an egocentric bias by nature, as anyone who had an "officemate" under age six last year can tell you. The only experience we have direct access to is our own, which warps our grasp of reality in predictable ways, such as overestimating our contribution to group tasks. (Ask each member of a cohabiting couple what percentage of the household chores they do; the sum will be greater than 100%.)

When our name is mentioned at a cocktail party, we hear it above the chatter of overlapping voices. Information that relates to our selves is noticed, retained and recalled more often and more sharply than information that is not self-relevant—and positive information about yourself goes on the mental browser bookmark bar for most people.

Missing context. Remote work—and not only remote work, but the absence of industry events, business travel, conferences and the like—has cut people from the context of their professional life. It's harder to pick up informal gossip, "read the room," take in the hundreds of informational cues that used to pepper the workday.

This makes egocentrism even more of a default. If a colleague arrives at work late with an extra-large coffee, mismatched shoes and a bad attitude toward everyone, you won't take it personally if they are curt with you in a meeting. Without that context, it's easy to assume an interpersonal conflict that doesn't exist...or, at least, didn't until you snapped back.

Interpersonal Restlessness

Despite our egocentricity, humans are a social species, and our behavior is shaped by what we see others doing, and by what they expect of us.

Contagion /Fear of Missing Out. Job changes and worker shortages are all over the media—and the availability of that news, combined with a psychological phenomenon known as confirmation bias, ensures that you'll notice those headlines if you're already thinking about the topic. Combine this with a lack of real information about what's going on in your company and field, add in the general desire for "revenge action," and you can begin to feel a chump if you aren't grabbing for a new gold ring.

Woman leaving job
FOMO is not the best reason to leave a job. Just because everyone else seems to be doing it doesn't mean you should too. Prostock-Studio

Social anxiety. Since March 2020, everyone has been training themselves to isolate and socially distance, to see other people—all other people—as a potential threat. We have all gotten out of practice at in-person interaction. People have adapted to a completely new set of social norms, and now are in the awkward transition phase to a "new normal" that might look very different indeed. Social anxiety is skyrocketing.

Interpersonal conflict and awkwardness are stressful for nearly everyone, and agonizing-to-impossible for some. The human brain doesn't respond to social threats as merely symbolic. They're as real as a sabertooth tiger as far as your amygdala is concerned.

This can make it difficult to push back on other people's assumptions, ask probing questions, request time for reflection—all things that need to happen when making an important decision. A brain in flight-or-fight mode doesn't integrate complex information well, either. Give yourself time to process.

Advice for Staying Rational

None of this is meant as a wholesale discouragement for those thinking to make a job change—only as a warning that neither the labor market itself, nor any individual within it, are especially rational right now. Some recommendations for the estimated 40 percent considering a switch:

Acknowledge your emotions. Just as you shouldn't eat when you're actually bored, don't job hop when you're actually lonely. If you're dissatisfied, spend some time contemplating what's really missing from your life. If you're feeling angry or resentful, give yourself a reality check about the reasons.

Understand your goals. Look at your past self. Journals are excellent, if you have them; if not, go back to anything you wrote about work prior to the pandemic and get in touch with what your goals were then. Have they really changed? To evaluate what matters most to you, contemplate what success means to you and consider what kind of careerist you are, as we outline in these blog posts.

Do your research. Immerse yourself in research. If possible spend a whole day devoted to it. Research the company you are considering joining and the one you currently work for, according to the same metrics. Then interrogate that research: Will the data available on your new company from 2019 really reflect what this company is in 2021? Can you make changes that will get those things in your current environment? If not, will you be able to get them in the new one? How do you know? (For example, if you can't set boundaries now, you're not going to magically be able to at NewCo.)

Interrogate everything. Outwit your biases by generating the ideas and information your brain isn't immediately offering. Play out the best- and worst-case scenarios, surface all the reasons not to switch jobs and then all the reasons to do it, ask yourself what advice Spiderman would give you—anything to break through habits of mind. Get advice from people you trust—if you've got a "personal board of directors" this is the time to bring them in, and if you don't, this may be the time to put together a mutual career-and-life-decisions support group.

Sleep on it. Sleep consolidates learning. This point cannot be overstressed. After you've immersed yourself in information or deep reflection, whenever possible, get a night's sleep before using what you've learned.

Boris Groysberg
Courtesy of Boris Groysberg

Practice. The first time you have lunch in an enclosed restaurant should not be your job interview. Ramp up and, if necessary, rehearse for any critical conversations or meetings. Not for the sake of appearing smooth (no one is smooth right now), but to keep yourself relaxed in the moment.

Boris Groysberg is the Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Robin Abrahams is a research associate at HBS.