When the Great Resignation is a class privilege: ‘The reality is that there are bills to pay’

Many employees don’t believe in quitting their jobs to prioritize their mental health, and instead consider it a luxury they can’t afford. The financial pressure of not making a paycheck is just too high

A woman leaving the office with her belongings.
A woman leaving the office with her belongings.Getty Images

Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve read hundreds of articles about the Great Resignation, a phenomenon that started in the United States in which a growing number of employees have left their jobs in order to prioritize their mental health. If coronavirus has taught us anything about the workplace, besides the benefits of working from home, it is that professionals are no longer willing to put up with chronic stress at work. Having a purpose and enjoying one’s life has become the priority. Being employed at all costs is no longer the most important thing, and that has led to a series of high-profile resignations of professionals who have said, “the most important thing is you”. One of them was Sheryl Sandberg, the director of the Facebook project Meta, who quit last year: “It is a job that’s been an honor and a privilege, but it’s not a job that leaves a lot of time to do much else.” More recently, former prime minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern also resigned from her position. “Politicians are humans. We give all that we can, for as long as we can, and then it’s time. And for me it’s time”, she said. When it comes down to it, however, for the vast majority of workers, the reality and circumstances are quite different from those of these two women.

Marta Ventura, a 31-year-old historian from Seville who lives in Madrid, had to leave her job for mental health reasons a couple of years ago. She worked for the art publishing house of a big company, but after two years, her job became toxic. Her former boss asked her and her colleagues to meet goals that were unattainable. And when they failed to meet them, her boss would pressure and disrespect them. Ventura could not take it anymore. She wanted to quit, but it was not easy. “For me, the idea of resigning for mental health reasons was a privilege. That notion is a trap because not everyone can afford to do it,” she said. Ventura assures that her generation is more aware than ever of power dynamics in the workplace and practices like “mobbing,” which consists of groups of people targeting and bullying a co-worker for isolation, humiliation, and aggression purposes. “But the reality is that I have to pay rent and other bills”, she said.

For Ventura, quitting her job without a financial cushion with which to support herself for an indefinite time was not an option. The uncertainty of not knowing when she would find another job held her back. “I endured months of harassment at work because I knew the company would not pay me a severance. And if I left, I would have had to give up my unemployment benefits. I couldn’t afford it.” She held on until they fired her: “And not stoically, but clearly suffering from depression and permanent anxiety. Some of my colleagues did leave with their dignity because they had the financial support to quit. The concept of dignity is also there. In the end, it’s another privilege.”

The World Health Organization defines structural stress and anxiety within the workplace as burnout syndrome. According to a report by Fremap, an agency part of Spain’s Social Security administration, which manages the risk of disease and accidents occurring in the workplace, between 2015 and 2021 alone, sick leave due to mental illness rose by 17% in all age groups, a percentage that has continued to increase during the pandemic. Additionally, boredom at work is on the rise, especially since Covid, according to the latest report by Hays, a recruitment consultancy that has been drawing up a portrait of the situation of Spanish employees and companies for years. In 2022, 61% of Spanish workers said they felt unmotivated, 14% more than in 2021. They pointed out various reasons, but the primary one was economic. Money is the most relevant factor when it comes to changing jobs, in search of better salary conditions, but it is also what holds workers back, for fear of being left without a fixed salary. According to the report, 65% of Spaniards said that, if they saw a salary increase in their paycheck, it would make them want to work again; 35% would be helped by greater recognition, and 24% would be better off with more work flexibility.

For Christopher Dotty, Hays’ regional director for southern Europe, the fact that money is the primary factor when deciding to quit a job makes sense, especially in a country like Spain. “The fact that many rights here are linked to having a permanent job with seniority is a disincentive to leave,” he said over the phone. “Only once home and food are covered do you think about growth. Perhaps in Spain we guarantee security and don’t have the mentality to take risks.”

Isabel Aranda García, doctor in psychology and member of the Work Psychology Committee of the College of Psychology of Madrid, added: “We don’t have a Great Resignation in Spain because we have insurance that we are not willing to give up. If you have worked for many years, you are entitled to money, and if you leave you lose it, so you don’t leave. That’s why the older you get, the less likely you are to change.”

This is what happened to Andrea Marín, who prefers not to reveal her real name. When she was 40 years old, she worked as editor of a cultural magazine. When she got a promotion, her relationship with her superior turned insufferable. They could not agree on anything. The atmosphere grew more strained over time until she could no longer tolerate the stress. The choice was clear: either quit or ask for a leave of absence. So, she did the math. She asked herself: ”How much do I have to save up to quit?”. Marín thought that, with unemployment and severance pay, she could hold out without working for a year. She was lucky. She reached an agreement with the company. The emotional distress, however, affected her for a long time. “Even though I quit, I became anxious because of the fear of not finding another job. It’s very difficult to live an idle life if you’re just middle class, and I guess I was able to do that because I was single and childless.”

Since the start of the Great Resignation in the US, over 50 million people quit their jobs between 2020 and 2022. This phenomenon has also been studied in Spain: resignations increased by around 170% in 2022, with around 70,000 registered resignations, according to Social Security data. However, that figure is still low with respect to the total working population. Even Yolanda Díaz, Spain’s deputy prime minister and minister of labor, has addressed the issue on numerous occasions: “I want to send a message of tranquility. There is no problem with resignations in Spain.”

According to the experts consulted for this story, there are profiles of workers who are more likely to resign. Deanna Hellman, HR professional service manager at Adecco, also draws on the comparison between Spain and the United States. “There is no concept of severance pay there,” she says about the US over the phone. “If I’m not happy in a job, there’s nothing holding me back. It’s easy to change. That’s why they’re practically at zero unemployment.” Demand is key here: the higher the demand and the lower the supply, the more change, as is the case in the technology sector. But there is another important factor to keep in mind: age. The younger generations no longer feel tied to any one company. “If you’re young, a permanent contract doesn’t hold you back. It’s becoming really difficult for companies to retain young talent,” says Hellman.

Sandra Parmo, a psychologist and job coach, offers sessions to professionals who want to change jobs. Many of her clients have a similar profile: rather than workers who have completely given up their jobs, they are looking for a new job opportunity from the security of their current positions. “In Spain we have a culture of holding on. And even more so if you have family responsibilities.” She says that most of her clients are young women. She agrees with psychologist Isabel Aranda that the new generations understand that the best way to progress in a professional career is to jump from company to company. For Aranda, the mentality and priorities are changing: “Those who change jobs now take care of their personal brand and look for companies that add value to their career. The concept of a job for life and at all costs is over, much like the concept of marriage.”

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