About a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers around the world quit their jobs, particularly in the US, where the highest recorded rate of resignations in decades was registered in April 2021 at 3.9 million workers. While this ‘Great Resignation’ received plenty of news coverage, there has been very little academic research into the causes of this phenomenon and the role of mental health in it.
People leave their jobs for many reasons including job switching, self-employment and mental health concerns. And while there has clearly been concern about the mental-health connection to the Great Resignation, analysing such a link through traditional economic data is difficult for several reasons: administrative data usually includes few measures of mental health factors relating to willingness to work; surveys usually capture a snapshot rather than comparing pre- and post-pandemic changes; employment can be a sensitive topic so survey responses can be stilted; and administrative data are time-consuming and costly to collect.
A new study co-authored at Cambridge Judge Business School adopts a different approach in looking at the mental health aspects of the Great Resignation: using text analysis to examine posts on content-sharing platform Reddit in order to ascertain changes in quit-related posts between 2018 and 2021, with a particular focus on discussion of mental health issues.
Study finds a surge in online mental health disclosures in quit-related posts since start of pandemic
“Our main finding is that mental health and work-related distress topics disproportionally increased among quit-related posts since the onset of the pandemic, likely contributing to the quits of the Great Resignation,” says the study published in the journal EPJ Data Science. “Our study underscores the importance of having access to data from online forums, such as Reddit, to study emerging economic phenomena in real time, providing a valuable supplement to traditional labour market surveys and administrative data.”
The study is co-authored by Luning Sun, a Research Associate at Cambridge Judge and Research Director of the School’s Psychometrics Centre, who says the study originated from a group project at the 2021 Summer Institutes in Computational Social Science in London.
Study highlights computational methods are increasingly useful in social science
“We used natural language processing to understand the drivers of the Great Resignation, and this highlighted the importance of having access to digital trace data to study socio-economic phenomena in real time,” Luning says, adding that computational methods used in the study such as topic modelling and sentiment analysis are becoming “increasingly useful in social science.”
Other recent research using Redditt subreddits or topics have included examinations of the 2021 rise in GameStop’s shares, parenting concerns, and polarisation and extremist ideologies.
The new study is based on the postings under the subreddit ‘r/jobs’, where more than 100,000 people shared work-related questions and concerns, which the authors say presents a more intimate look at mental health and the Great Resignation compared to official statistics.
We used natural language processing to understand the drivers of the Great Resignation, and this highlighted the importance of having access to digital trace data to study socio-economic phenomena in real time
The Great Resignation goes beyond cyclical trends in job markets
The study attributes some of the Great Resignation to cyclicality that regularly occurs in the job market: people generally leave their jobs to take better ones, so quit rates peak in times when job openings are greater; thus, the rapid economic recovery in 2021 following peak pandemic disruption in 2020 partially explains the high resignation rate.
Yet cyclicality fails to fully explain the Great Resignation, the study says: there was continuing labour market tightness in the US (the ratio of job openings to jobless workers), and the pandemic injected novel factors that incentivised quitting that were not present in most economic cycles – such as online schooling due to school closures and caring for sick relatives.
“From a management science perspective, the COVID-19 pandemic was a shock (ie a jarring event), and as such, may have triggered people to think about quitting,” the authors say.
“We argue that, while the increase in job vacancies and job switching were factors present in previous economic recovery periods, the COVID-19 pandemic unleashed forces leading to quit behaviour, such as mental health concerns, that were absent in previous recoveries. These additional factors could help explain the unusually high rates of quitting in 2021.”
The study addresses to what extent the connection of mental health concerns to the quit-rate rise was driven by an increase in mental health concerns or an increase in the strength of the relationship between mental health concerns and quits.
The analysis of Reddit posts found that the relationship between mental health concerns and quits remained fairly constant between the time of the pandemic and after the pandemic: “The onset of the pandemic did not change the character of the relationship between push factors (such as labour-market cyclicality) and quit considerations, but it elevated the prevalence of phenomena such as mental health and work-related distress, which in return led to more quits.”
The onset of the pandemic did not change the character of the relationship between push factors and quit considerations, but it elevated the prevalence of phenomena such as mental health and work-related distress, which in return led to more quits
Analysis reveals some discontent caused by toxic working environments
One topic that stood out for the authors was ‘hate job & want to quit’, which includes posts of people fed up with their jobs due to toxic workplaces. “The topic ‘hating job’ is not related to quitting, but related to toxic work, as people mention they hate or strongly dislike either their co-workers or the tasks they do in their job.”
As for the study’s methodology, the authors sought for the Reddit analysis to reflect average users, so spam was taken out of the sample as were the posts of authors who had more than 10 posts in the ‘subreddit’ used for the study’s data.
The Reddit topics analysed around mental health issues include:
- work-related distress
- mental health
- health issues/healthcare job/scheduling
Topics related to job-quitting intentions include
- switching jobs
- resignation letters
- quitting a new job
Mental health concerns decreased as job opportunities increased
The study finds that while the pandemic intensified people’s intentions to quit, some of the concerns about mental health and work-related distress were resolved when the Great Resignation started due to greater job opportunities.
“Taken together our results show that, among people that were talking about quitting, mental health concerns increased after the onset of the pandemic and before the Great Resignation. This finding suggests that distressing experiences at work and concerns about work-related mental health may have increased people’s motivation to quit.”
Distressing experiences at work and concerns about work-related mental health may have increased people’s motivation to quit.
Study highlights importance of well-designed work policies and emphasis on mental wellbeing
The results suggest that some of the distress caused by the pandemic are linked to working conditions, which “underscores the importance of designing work policies to reach the 2030 mental health targets of the World Health Organization,” the authors conclude. “Furthermore, our work suggests that businesses trying to retain their workers or hire new people should consider prioritising the mental health of their workers through, for example, the re-design of jobs or by providing company-sponsored therapy sessions for employees.”
The study – entitled “Mental health concerns precede quits: shifts in the work discourse during the COVID-19 pandemic and great resignation” – is co-authored by R. Maria del Rio-Chanona and Ljubica Nedelkoska of the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna and the Growth Lab at Harvard Kennedy School; Alejandro Hermida-Carrillo and Renata Topinkova of LMU Munich School of Management; Melody Spahpour-Fard of Science Foundation Ireland Centre for Research Training in Foundations of Data Science and the University of Limerick; and Luning Sun of Cambridge Judge Business School.
Rio-Chanona, R.M, Hermida-Carrillo, A., Sepahpour-Fard, M., Sun, L.,Topinkova, R. and Nedelkoska, L. (2023) “Mental health concerns precede quits: shifts in the work discourse during the Covid-19 pandemic and great resignation.” EPJ Data Science