Great resignation. Quiet quitting. She-cession.

What these meme-ish terms have in common is that they describe how burned-out employees are behaving. Millions of employees have left their jobs or are setting firmer boundaries around when, where, and how hard they are willing to work if they remain at their jobs.

Disproportionate numbers of those people are women. COVID-19 hurt workers at all levels, it’s true. But women bore the brunt of the upheaval COVID wrought—and women of color were hit hardest.

In February 2022, Forbes reported that while men and women lost roughly equal numbers of jobs in March-April 2020, the early days of the pandemic, by early 2022 men had returned to work at three times the rate of women.

Women lost work at higher rates and returned to work far more slowly, according to Kimberlee Davis of The Bahnsen Group, partly because women-dominated fields like education, hospitality, and retail were among the most affected by COVID. Bumpy returns to in-person school, scarcity of affordable daycare, and women’s disproportionate role as caretakers for both children and elderly family members has meant that many women simply haven’t returned to the workforce.

This is the she-cession. It wiped out over a decade of women’s progress toward parity in the workforce.

Workers are setting boundaries too

Not every exhausted, burned-out, or overburdened worker—of any gender—has left the workforce, of course. Some remain in unsatisfactory jobs—jobs where they’re constantly asked to do more, accept additional responsibility without promotions or pay raises, and, in some cases, endure mistreatment from customers or patients.

This is where the she-cession overlaps with what managers call “quiet quitting,” a demeaning term that seems to label anyone who—in times of severe short-staffing—actually shows up and does their job as a slacker if they do not constantly do more, work longer hours, be available on Slack or email 24x7, and always go the extra mile—even though many have not received a raise or promotion in years.

Recovering from the she-cession and re-engaging burned-out workers demands some changes in how leaders hire and treat their workers.

What’s a leader to do?

Advice abounds, from the heavy-handed to the vague. But some companies are taking steps that other leaders can emulate—making changes that provide greater flexibility to workers while promoting productivity and improving workplace culture.

In Forbes, Neil Hare suggests “low-hanging fruit” for leaders, such as setting an example by not sending email on weekends or expecting employees to work over weekends; reducing the number and length of meetings; and limiting the always-on pressure of tools like Slack.

Offering greater flexibility is a key demand from workers, and some companies’ leaders are responding with significant changes.

As it reopened after COVID, Google rolled out several more grandiose policies, including hybrid workspaces, enabling employees to move to a different Google office, remote work for some employees, and “work-anywhere” weeks that allow employees to work temporarily from a remote location. In addition, they’re offering “reset” days—days that the entire organization is off—to eliminate the stress of getting behind or missing meetings on a needed day off.

While not all companies can offer all of these options, many can cobble together their own take on what “flexibility” means for their workers in their environment.

Others suggest that the “she-cession” and “quiet quitting” phenomena require a deeper solution.

Changing worker–manager relationships

Employees’ relationships with their jobs, their employers, and yes, their managers and leaders, have shifted from highly transactional to more relational, according to management professor Shannon Taylor in MIT Sloan Management Review’s “Five Ways Managers Can Help Prevent Quiet Quitting.”

Seeking more than a paycheck, employees “want interesting, challenging work. We want opportunities for growth and development. We want to build meaningful relationships and be supported,” Taylor wrote. When workplaces don’t provide that, workers stop going the extra mile for those employers.

Key elements of fostering that relational connection include building trust with employees, starting with clear, open, and honest communications around what is expected. Leaders who treat employees with respect in organizations where everyone is treated fairly and workers have “high-quality work” tend to have satisfied workers who don’t quiet- or actual-quit.

What is high-quality work? According to Sharon Parker in the same MIT Sloan article, high-quality work is varied and meaningful, and it affords workers some autonomy over how, where, and when they do that work. Providing high-quality work also means having reasonable expectations and demands. Leaders who acknowledge that workers are stressed, fatigued, and depleted from the demands of their work and nonwork lives—and who adjust their expectations accordingly—are less likely to lose those employees.

Finally, rebuilding or solidifying connections between workers and their colleagues and between workers and the company's culture and mission can combat quiet quitting and re-engage employees.

Combating the she-cession

Changing workplace culture to reverse “quiet quitting” and attract or retain workers can help with the she-cession as well. Lack of flexibility is a key reason so many women left work or failed to return, post-COVID. More is needed, though.

Remote, hybrid, and other flexible workplace configurations make it possible to hire more diverse employees—leaders have the opportunity to act on expressed desires to improve diversity. That may start with actively recruiting and promoting women, but it extends to recruiting minorities, people with disabilities, and other under-represented employee demographics.

This could require a focus on skills and abilities, rather than focusing on a person’s resume—and, especially, recent gaps in work experience. It could mean using video interviews and other processes that are more accessible to women juggling childcare, work, and other responsibilities that make multiple in-person interviews impossible.

And it can mean learning from successful women and leaders how they overcame obstacles—and what they do to help other women move into and advance in the workplace.

Join the conversation

The Learning 2022 Conference, Nov. 6–9 in Orlando, Florida, dives into this and other challenges learning leaders face every day. Join the conversation, whether in a daylong workshop on advancing diversity and improving culture; a panel discussion of how to promote and support women leaders; or a discussion of what constitutes great leadership.