Burnout leads to mass resignations: working has become unsustainable

Lack of manpower o destruction of manpower? This is the question to ask in order to understand the recent social phenomenon that is affecting many countries around the world. The alarm was raised in the United States where, between July and August, more than 8 million of workers gave up their jobs, 28% of whom did so in the dark, with no alternative. The phenomenon is not limited to the United States, it tends to spread and intensify in many parts of the world, now qualifying as global phenomenon.

The big papers use big headlines, like Great Resignation (The great resignation) o Big Quit (The great abandonments), to explain what happens. Conservatives and business leaders hastily and opaquely call it “labor shortage” and, for this, blame government subsidies. There are who, how Robert Reich, an economist and former Secretary of Labor during the Clinton government, incorrectly defines it as “unofficial general strike”, as if a strike could be the simple sum of the individual behavior of workers and not their conscious collective action.

Numerous empirical researches, on the other hand, indicate it as the main cause of the phenomenon psycho-physical exhaustion of workers, be they white, gray or blue collar workers. Almost half of the respondents in various researches explained that they were forced to leave work due to burnout (psycho-physical exhaustion). This is not only a consequence of grueling shifts, prolonged hours and the intensity of work rhythms, but also the result of a salary that no longer guarantees survival, for oneself and for the family. From this perspective it is easy to understand that there is no “labor shortage”, instead there are working conditions and wages unsustainable that push workers to leave the labor market. As Reich put it: “Many just don’t want to go back to backbreaking, tiring, low-wage shit jobs.”

Not a few commentators explain the rampant phenomenon as a consequence of the pandemic. In fact, the signs, as well as the causes, have been around for quite some time. The current situation has been driven by years of attacks on working and wage conditions on a global scale. It would be enough to read the report Working Conditions in a Global Perspective (2019) – made by Oil ed Eurofund – to understand what is happening now. These are data obtained from extensive and comparative research on the working conditions of about 1.2 billion workers in different geographic areas: EU28, China, South Korea, Turkey, United States and many countries of Central America and the south.

Despite the structural differences in the industrial development and labor markets of the 41 countries analyzed, one fact emerges as unifying: the high exposure to hazards or psycho-physical damage of workers around the world. More than half of the workers (that is 600 million) declare to carry out repetitive movements of the hands and arms and the percentage of those who are forced to assume stressful or painful positions is slightly lower. Everything turns into usury and physical damage, often permanent. In addition, more than a fifth of workers are exposed to high or very high temperatures, or to low or very low temperatures during their work. Up to a third of workers worldwide, and up to 44% in Turkey, report damage (temporary or permanent) caused by loud noises in the workplace.

Intensive work – as a consequence of the increase in pace, speed and tight deadlines – is an experience experienced by a third of workers in EU countries, by half of workers in the United States, Turkey, El Salvador and Uruguay. 25-40% (variable percentage depending on the countries analyzed) of workers declare that they carry out jobs that require a strong or unsustainable emotional commitment.

Differences in working hours exist, but there is an increasing trend everywhere: only 15% of workers in EU countries declare they work more than 48 hours a week; the percentage rises up to 40% for workers in China and South Korea, while in Chile the percentage reaches 50% and in Turkey up to 60%. In all countries, at least 10% of workers report being forced to work in their free time. Without exception all over the world, women work harder than men, even without considering unpaid reproductive work. In all countries, women earn significantly less than men and are mostly placed in the lower wage bracket. To these data should be added those on the constant and general wage compression, particularly in Western countries, to understand the progressive impoverishment of workers on a world scale.

The picture that emerges is clear: working has become physically, psychologically and economically unsustainable. Reason why, instead of “Great Resignations” it would be more correct to speak of “Great Exhaustion“(Of the workers).

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