More than 47 million Americans quit their jobs last year, a new record for the United States. While it is most obvious in North America, a form of ‘The Great Resignation’ phenomenon is showing up in Australia as well.

Recent surveys suggest that almost one in two Australian workers are currently looking to switch jobs, with more than one million people accepting new ones between September and November alone. That part matters, making the local trend more akin to a ‘Great Reshuffle’, in the words of Australia’s own Treasurer.

The fact is most people aren’t throwing off the shackles of capitalism and running from the workforce altogether. Rather an astounding number are simply searching for something better – and fast.

Workers are motivated to leave

The pandemic has understandably taken a toll. Exhausted frontline and public-facing workers have operated under heavy stress for two years. If they haven’t been locked down or quarantined then they have faced the genuine risk of contracting the virus. It’s no wonder then that the highest number of resignations have come from healthcare with retail not far behind. Meanwhile sectors like the arts have been quietly decimated.

Professionals fortunate enough to work from home have faced a different set of challenges, whether losing contact with colleagues or having the lines between their professional and personal lives blur.

Whether the pandemic led to burnout or gave workers time to reflect and reconsider their choices, much has changed since 2020. Whether they are fed up with the old or energised to start something new, the result is the same. They’re ready to move on.

It’s the economy, stupid

That’s not to say we lived in some kind of capitalist utopia before March 2020. Indeed since 2013, wages in Australia haven’t meaningfully grown across industries, placing increasing pressure on workers over the last decade to either demand or find their own pay rises.

Yet the record economic stimulus unleashed during the pandemic is changing that dynamic. Almost $300 billion in government spending helped expand the economy while JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments have kept households either in work or able to live without it.

Such was the level of support during the pandemic that overall Australians are actually, on average, better off now than they were before it to the point where we are collectively sitting on $260 billion in savings right now.

Meanwhile job openings are 45% higher now than they were pre-pandemic and unemployment has plummeted to its lowest level since 2008. Before that you’d have to go back to the 1970s to find anything comparable. Simply put, Australian workers are in hot demand at the same time they are in short supply.

This is an environment in which, for the first time in recent memory,  workers have genuine bargaining power in their current role as well as when negotiating for their next one. As the recovery remains uneven, there’s certainly an incentive to jump from one industry to another with mid-career professionals currently the most likely to switch careers entirely.

But whether it’s asking for a raise, finding a new job or taking time out altogether, this period has largely been a coup for employees.

Don’t let guilt boss you around

Rather than celebrating or exploiting this new power dynamic, many feel uneasy however at the thought of demanding more, let alone quitting their job.

Economically speaking, this makes no sense. Resignations aren’t a sign of fickleness. Workers that can freely pursue their interests and abilities in a more productive way are instead part of a healthy and efficient economy.

‘The Great Reshuffle’ can be seen as much a consequence of an economy that wasn’t previously functioning as it is the emergence of meaningful choice for a workforce that has been long without it.

Yet despite these sound economic and personal rationales, there remains a stigma attached to separating from our workplaces and going our own way. The idea of quitting can conjure up feelings of guilt, failure and even betrayal despite what we may stand to gain from it.

This is perhaps inevitable. Our jobs absorb eight or more hours a day, or more time than most people spend with their loved ones. Whether or not we grumble about them, they are so embedded in our culture and language that we talk about our ‘work lives’ as if they were interchangeable with our ‘real lives’.

Then there is a certain dependence associated with work. Beyond simply a paycheck, a profession creates a sense of identity and purpose. Consider the refrain ‘I am a doctor/a hairdresser/a butcher’. We are our occupation, or, more specifically, we are our current job. Significantly, this desire for the personal value of work has only increased during the pandemic.

In combination these ties can bind. The responsibility of a role can naturally and subconsciously manifest as an unreasonable obligation to stay in one, no matter how uncomfortable, ill–suited or even toxic it may be.

All of these factors help to stoke a sense of loyalty that is impossible to ignore. The fact that our motivations for leaving are all our own, whether to pursue a raise, a promotion or some other desire, only amplifies this further as we inevitably place our own interests above those of our employer and colleagues.

As a consequence, a resignation can feel an awful lot like infidelity. Despite our acceptance into the tribe, it is ultimately our decision, and ours alone, to leave it behind.

Bite the bullet

Resignation however remains a valuable right and a vital avenue of self-empowerment and self-determination.

An autonomous individual has an obligation to themselves to pursue the opportunities that interest and suit them and to find work that is both fulfilling and sustainable, or to exit employment that is harmful or boring.

There is also nothing shameful about periods of unemployment should we demand or desire some time out of the workforce. There is fortunately a growing appreciation of our wellbeing as people beyond our status as workers.

Whereas once gaps in resumes may have been viewed as red flags for prospective employers, there is a deeper understanding of the challenges behind them, whether related to family obligations, mental and emotional health or the pursuit of study or other interests.

There are of course different ways to leave work.

How to quit ethically

First, reflect on what is driving your decision. Is it a boss that micromanages, substandard pay and conditions, an unfair workload or a lack of opportunities?

If it is a single issue in isolation, consider seriously whether there are any possible remedies. Sometimes a frank discussion with an employer or manager can drastically improve a situation but first they need to know what is wrong. Businesses, especially at the moment, are motivated to retain staff and often may simply be unaware of what they can do better.

If you’re certain that your employment has become untenable, then you can be comforted by the fact that there is no other solution and feel justified in your decision to depart.

To counter any ill feelings of guilt that may arise, we need to interrogate its source. Generally guilt is brought on by the knowledge that an action has or will harm someone else or be immoral. In the context of resigning, it’s helpful to zoom out and consider the real world ramifications.

This analysis should both appreciate the real benefits of leaving and recognise the often minor costs. For example, by changing roles you may be in a better position to find or accept fulfilling work, or a job that allows you the flexibility you need to lead a more contented life.

By leaving, your manager may have to recruit someone else to do your job. This may inconvenience them for a few hours but will the business collapse as a result? It’s highly unlikely. In fact, they may well find someone more fitting for the role. Resignations simply aren’t a zero-sum game.

Nor does your decision represent a moral transgression. We know that resignations are a natural feature of any workplace. Feelings to the contrary can be mitigated by instead focusing on resigning appropriately.

Again it’s helpful to articulate your reasons to yourself before sharing them with a manager. Plan out how you will do it rather than letting yourself crack under pressure. Practice how you might break the news to your workplace. Schedule a private meeting, talk through why you’re leaving respectfully and end on good terms.

If you’re worried about offending your boss, don’t be. It’s unhelpful and unnecessary to lie or deceive them in an attempt to mitigate guilt. Instead keep your head high. By voicing your concerns you may help improve the workplace for future staff on your way out.

Ultimately, if you’re ready to go then resigning is in everyone’s best interests. If your job isn’t working out for you, quit feeling conflicted and throw in the towel.