At Staffing Advisors, we do a lot of research to help clients and candidates make sense of shifts in hiring and the job market. And in writing about topics from return-to-office and hybrid work to pay transparency and salary expectations, our goal is to help you navigate the seemingly endless maze of changes in what people expect from their work relationships. Through all our research, one article stopped us in our tracks—it’s the best piece we read this year. We’d like to share highlights of it with you.

Returning to the Office Isn’t What We Expected

“More than 19 million US workers—and counting—have quit their jobs since April 2021, a record pace disrupting businesses everywhere. Companies are struggling to address the problem, and many will continue to struggle for one simple reason: they don’t really understand why their employees are leaving in the first place.”

This is the introduction to a previous McKinsey article that prompted veteran Adria Horn, a lieutenant colonel in the US Army Reserve and executive vice president of workforce at Tilson Technology Management, to reach out with a response. 

McKinsey published excerpts from her letter and interview in “A military veteran knows why your employees are leaving.” Horn proposes that “employees don’t know why employees are leaving.” She points to something deeply human in the piece, rooted in how we respond to trauma and change.

You can find reputable data on how many people are leaving jobs and when, what workers do and don’t like about work, and how employers are engaging employees. But the numbers fall short of revealing what Horn gets at directly.

Employees themselves don’t know why they are leaving.

Horn parallels the experience of returning from deployment to the experience of returning to the office post-shutdown—being happy to be back but not fitting in, routines feeling strange, a loss of control, and the sense that things are just different and not what you expected. 

We’ve heard these sentiments on countless calls with clients and candidates. People are trying to get back to work as they once knew it, and it doesn’t feel right. But they aren’t sure what will make it feel “normal” again.

So, the restlessness continues. In record numbers, workers are leaving their jobs—looking for a situation that might feel better somehow—while employers struggle to entice them to stay. While a portion of this is typical turnover, job seekers in this market are more empowered to seek out meaningful work, better benefits, higher pay, and environments that more closely align with their work-life balance needs. But many who have taken new jobs since 2021 are looking again. And no one can explain exactly what’s going on.

Empathy Might Be Your Best Strategy

Horn’s words remind us that, to varying degrees, we have all experienced trauma and social separation over the past few years, “The employee response we’re seeing is a normal response to a traumatic period. If employers truly acknowledge this, they can empower employees to find their way.”

She recommends “creating a professional and psychologically safe working environment” and choosing  to drive your interactions with empathy, “… everyone’s been through a collective trauma and they deserve a break.” 

Less of a Business Problem, More of a Human One

Horn offers a new way to look at the challenges we are facing now and likely will for some time, “It’s grief from a series of micro changes that we can’t even identify.”

McKinsey senior partner and interviewer Aaron de Smet concluded the conversation with this, “I mean, the labor shortage is a significant and challenging business problem—but ironically, it may be that the best thing employers can do for their business right now is to stop thinking of the Great Attrition as a business problem, and instead simply address it as a human problem.”

We’ll continue to research, analyze data, and review trusted sources to help you make sense of what comes in 2023 and make informed decisions about hiring in the way that’s right for your organization. Hiring is about people—humans working together to meet their individual and collective needs. The best hiring decisions are made when everyone involved keeps that at the forefront of their thinking.