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Did the big resignation save your life?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

As the story goes, stopping self-care led to millions of employees quitting their jobs to save their sanity last year. About 4 million people quit every month in 2021 in what is called the Great Resignation. According to the Pew Research Center, the top reasons people quit their jobs were low pay, lack of opportunity for advancement, and a sense of disrespect at work. Childcare issues, lack of flexibility and poor benefits also played a significant role in workers’ exit decisions. But did these resignations really improve anyone’s life?

These five workers, all part of the Great Resignation, look back on their choice to step away from their daily grind and reveal the truth about what happened next.

Why she quit: I decided to leave because I was mistreated. During the pandemic, working in retail was difficult. Seeing how people treated the workers opened my eyes. Being Asian American and working during the pandemic was not a good combination. I had many clients who were actively avoiding me. Once a mother stopped her child from walking towards me by saying, “No honey, don’t come near her, you’ll get sick. A lot of other customers just acted legally. Once I handed in my resignation letter, I felt so liberated.

On her relationship with her family – and with herself: Quitting made me more confident in myself and in my own worth. I have always been a people pleaser. I was afraid to tell my mother that I had quit at first. My mother immigrated here from Vietnam, but we are Chinese. As the daughter of an immigrant, I felt like I was taking the easy way out and giving up. I didn’t want her to feel like I wasn’t doing my best or trying hard enough to do something with my life. But she ended up being super supportive. She said she didn’t want me to come back there.

On creative activities: Now I’m a freelance writer and strategist, but YouTube is my passion project where I document my life and talk about style. Currently, I don’t make any money from YouTube, but it’s a way for me to hopefully make others not feel so alone in this crazy world. When I was working full time, I would work over 40 hours a week and come home and spend two hours filming or editing. I was exhausted. I couldn’t pursue YouTube like I am now because my time was consumed elsewhere.

Why he quit: Due to the pandemic, I started to suffer from mental health issues due to the constant stress and fear and not knowing what was going on. Often, it was felt that the library management did not take staff safety very seriously. Then there were constant issues at work that management did not address. There was a customer harassing the staff, and a staff member searched for sensitive information about me and other staff. I had a major decline in my mental health and took almost three months off. When I returned to the library, I still felt underappreciated. We got the good news in December 2020 that my husband was getting a huge raise which meant I could quit my job and we could afford not to work.

On complicated feelings: It was the first time in my life that I was unemployed. I had feelings of shame, like I should be ashamed of being “lazy,” that I was an able-bodied person who could work and choose not to. I also felt shame wondering, Am I still a librarian? I hadn’t thought of the Great Resignation as a movement until I quit and started to find comfort in talking to other people and seeing articles giving it a name, then I realized that I was not alone. That’s when some of the shame is gone.

Upon returning to work: I remained unemployed until June 2021. I started a new library position, which was part-time and my dream job. I saw the list and I had to go. I missed being in a library. In February, I took another part-time position. I am now back 40 hours a week. I wish I had this freedom sooner. Holding these two part-time positions, I had never been so happy with my work-life balance before.

Why she quit: I worked as a traveling sales representative for a mobile communications company for about six months. I don’t know if it was the pressure of selling or the constant traveling out of my town, but it had a major impact on my mental health. The therapy was not working. I had to make the choice to resign around mid-December with no job planned. It was probably the best decision I’ve ever made.

On why the fight was worth it: I was unemployed for about a month and a half — absolutely no income. I tried doing Uber for a while, and it brought in some money but not enough to support myself and my daughter. We relied on my mother. She paid my bills for a month and a half while paying hers. I have been very blessed.

Feel respected at work: This position I currently hold, as general manager of a convenience store, is one of the biggest positions I have ever had. I had something to prove — that quitting wasn’t because of what I can or can’t do. The first month, I overworked myself because I was trying to prove myself. My supervisor saw it, and he said, “I hired you for your resume; I trust you.” It was very nice to hear that they appreciate this work-life balance and reassuring to know that I made the right choice. People are starting to realize that it is not that a question of money, at least for me and the people around me. They start looking for employers who value them. When something does not correspond to someone’s morals or values, it is a signal instant and sufficient alarm to make people stop.

Why she quit: I was a marketing copywriter for a tech company, and the company sent an email offering severance pay to employees over 50. It was just before Christmas 2020, so I felt like I was being given a Christmas present. I had never worked as an adult, even with three children. I took maternity leave, and that was it. I felt like I was jumping off a cliff, but I trusted that everything would be fine.

On how she spends her days: I always get up before the kids get up, probably at 5:30 or 6 in the morning, and use that time to write. During the day, I work on an independent project or on my fiction or on a voluntary project – I sit on the board of directors of a small arts organization in my town and I help organize writing programs. I don’t want to waste this time. I have always wished that there was more room in our society for creative activities and volunteering. Working in a full-time office demands so much of a person.

In the future: It is temporary. I have kids going to college soon, and we will definitely have loans, tuition, and other fees to pay at that time. At over 50, time is running out. But I try to give myself some slack and realize that life moves in waves. Sometimes you are able to focus on your career and sometimes it has to be family. I don’t need to do everything now.

Why she quit: I worked in a behavioral health hospital for children and adolescents. Our patients were not kept in secure environments. If there had been enough staff, if we had been given the supplies we needed to work, we could have prevented these problems. But because the management was so bad, the facility was not maintained, we had no supplies. A lot of people quit. After about six weeks, a new Director of Clinical Services was hired to be my boss. It took about five days to have a really bad interaction with her. She forced me to hug her. I kept saying, “No, I don’t want to hug you. Finally I understood, If I want to get out of this situation, I have to kiss my boss. I’m a sexual abuse survivor, and it was triggering to have that unwanted touch. I ended up writing seven pages documenting everything that happened and went to HR, and they couldn’t offer anything that I thought would make it a safe place to work, so I left.

By rediscovering joy at work: When I quit, I said I didn’t even know if I wanted to be a therapist anymore. I was thinking, Let me try another therapy job for six months and see how it goes.. I went to a mental health clinic and suggested they start a music therapy program. It was so different from my last job. I can have fun and help people use music to find their joy and have artistic experiences.

On the Great Resignation: The workers have been mistreated for so long. We are exploited, we receive low wages, and it is getting worse and worse. We work in hazardous environments. It’s fantastic that the workers demand better living conditions because the people who exploit us get rich from our work, and that’s not good. Quitting smoking was 100% worth it, and the reality is that if I could, I would shut down my old employer – this whole hospital.

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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