Transitions Coaching Blog

Thoughts. Reflections. Intentions.

Why people are really leaving the workforce (and what to do about it)

By Jennifer Tucker, Writer and Content Creator  |  February 23, 2022

Amid the “Great Resignation,” you’ve probably heard (and maybe said) that we’re all confounded. It seems employers don’t know why employees are leaving. And if you listen to feedback from the millions of people who have exited the workforce, things become even more perplexing. As it turns out, even employees don’t know why they’re leaving.

A recent article from McKinsey explored the phenomenon in a new way, not for the sake of myth-busting but rather to apply a different lens to the way we’ve been thinking about it. The authors likened employees’ feelings to the feelings of soldiers returning home from deployment and the ambiguity of adjusting to a “new normal.”

Of course, transitioning from an office to work-from-home and back again can’t compare to the experience of soldiers entering and exiting combat. But the analogy is striking to us because it fits so well with what we hear from so many of the people we work with.

Leaders and individuals alike are experiencing mixed emotions.

And to cope with them, they’re reverting to old habits. They’re approaching this as a problem to be “fixed” with things like retention programs or job searches. But the thing is … this is not a business issue. It’s a human issue. And that changes the way you should approach it.

The ways people cope with ambiguity and adjustment are unique. Each individual feels and is equipped to navigate change differently. As humans, the best thing we can do is acknowledge, appreciate, and respect those differences.

What we can recognize right now is that people are experiencing:


We’ve never experienced anything like this, and no one prepared us for it. At the onset of the pandemic, we didn’t know what was coming, how long it would last, or what life would be like afterward. With all of that up in the air, confusion still reigns.


Experiencing a crisis causes many people to take stock. And in some cases, it leads them to make decisions they normally wouldn’t. As a result of their rethinking things, some people have been—and are still—inclined to make a life-altering change that may or may not work out for the best.


All our patterns and routines have been broken. And every time we think we’ve emerged or made progress, a new development seems to set us back and prevent us from reaching a new rhythm.


A lot of us have felt a sense of loss. At one point, we were grieving for the way things were before the pandemic—spontaneous office drop-ins, hallway conversations, real human connection. Now, approaching a return to work, we might be grieving for the way things were during the pandemic—greater autonomy, increased flexibility, more manageable work-life balance.

This is just a sampling of the range of emotions many people are coping with. Regardless of how closely they resonate with those you’ve observed or felt, we can likely all agree with one thing: people’s needs are going unmet.

It’s hard to work through what we don’t acknowledge. So perhaps the greatest takeaway here is that we need to shift the way we’re reacting to—and acting on—the emotions that have crept up and lingered.

If you’re a leader with a fear of people leaving, stop worrying about turnover and retention tactics.

Instead, start acknowledging the collective trauma people have experienced and the feelings that come with it. Be open to conversations about how people are coping and what support they might need to navigate the still-murky waters of post-pandemic work.

If you’re an individual grappling with “Is this the right thing for me?” stop fretting and don’t rush to make a potentially life-changing decision.

Instead, start creating the time and space you need to explore your wants and needs. Think about what would have to change in your current situation to satisfy those needs and whether that change is possible. And if it’s not? Then think about making a leap.

No matter where you are on your journey navigating the “new normal,” you might benefit from a few prompts to help you reexamine things. Our Take Control Template will give you a guide to start exploring what inspires, motivates, and fulfills you. Click here to download the free tool.