While many are still debating whether the ‘Great Resignation’ will ever fully reach Australian shores, there is one worrying truth emerging from our workforce: employees are burnt out and it is one of the biggest reasons for their resignation. Laith Adel uncovers what can be done.

Flexible work hours and inclusive benefits have become a staple feature to entice employees, but is it enough and are we attracting employees by addressing the right issues? What can project leaders do to help retain and sustain their teams?

The Great Resignation in Australia: different or delayed?

The Great Resignation, a term coined in early 2021 to describe the wave of employee resignation in the United States, may not be as visible in Australia, but research shows we may be facing a shift of our own.

While the unmet labour demand in Australian retail, hospitality, and construction industries has contributed to lower aggregate job mobility and resignation statistics, white-collar employees are facing a different reality. Research from LinkedIn – a platform focused on more white-collar industries – Jobs on the Rise in 2021, shows that employees are not stepping away from jobs completely like in the United States, but transitioning into other jobs with job status changes rising by 26% on the platform compared to October 2020.

In fact, the Great Resignation may simply have been delayed due to Australia’s repeated lockdowns with a PwC research study, What Workers Want, discovering that 38% of Australian employees were looking to leave their current employer within the next 12 months.

Why it’s happening

While there is a combination of factors contributing to employee resignation, a survey from Limeade, Workplaces in Crisis: Employee Care Still Missing the Mark, reveals that one in three Australian-based employees cited burnout from the last 18 months of remote working as the primary reason for resignation.

A global study by Adecco, Resetting Normal: Defining the New Era of Work shows that Australian employees were the most burnt out of all nationalities in the last 12 months.

Here are some statistics on burnout in Australian employees from the last 12 months.

  • 53% of employees suffered from burnout.
  • 36% of employees worked more than 40 hours a week.
  • 16% feel their sense of morale and team culture has deteriorated.
  • 13% experienced worsened job motivation.
  • 12% of employees believe their workload has worsened.


Key reasons for burnout

Remote working may have brought about many benefits to both employees and employers, but there have also been several issues such as increased workload, lack of work-life balance and lack of connection. The 2021 Global Workplace Burnout Study by Infinite Potential found the following key causes of burnout:

  • unreasonable time pressure and unmanageable workloads
  • lack of managerial support and leadership
  • outdated models of working
  • chronic structural under-resourcing
  • value-mismatch.

The changing values of employees

Burnout has left employees reconsidering their priorities and values. The PwC study shows that while remuneration and rewards are still the highest priority, employees are valuing wellbeing as a close second, with workplace culture and experience following right behind.

Mental health and wellbeing have become such prominent factors for employees that Atlassian research, Return on Action, discovered two in three employees would consider turning down a promotion to protect their mental health and wellbeing.

Retaining employees as a top strategic focus

The Great Resignation may be delayed but it is a prominent issue global companies are taking seriously. Research from Gartner shows that company boards and senior management consider the challenge of retaining their workforce as one of their top strategic priorities, experiencing an 81% increase from 2020. High employee turnover also poses several risks to projects as it can result in the disruption of routine, reduction in productivity, and diminishing team morale leading to further resignations.

However, retaining talented employees requires more than simply offering higher pay and benefits. Employees are looking for organisations that are better aligned with their more recent focus on mental health, wellbeing, and culture. While many organisations are already offering different remuneration and benefits packages, many are missing the mark and still failing to retain their people.

The issue lies in the critical mismatch between employee value priorities and employer perceptions of those employee priorities. McKinsey studies show that employers believed lack of compensation, work-life balance and poor physical and mental health were the biggest factors contributing to resignation. While those issues did matter, they simply did not matter as much as they thought.

The lack of feeling valued by the organisation (54%), by their manager (52%), as well as the lack of sense of belonging (51%) were found to be the top three reasons why employees resign.

This should come as no surprise as these feelings can be directly attributed to the above-mentioned causes of burnout, with a deeper look into those causes revealing an underlying problem in organisational structure and culture. This has further highlighted the importance of project manager leadership skills and the necessity for their skills to expand beyond the typical results-based approach to a more holistic, socio-cultural approach. The way forward to retaining employees cannot be limited to remedial packages alone, they must start with deep-rooted structural and cultural changes that address the two core priorities: feeling a lack of value and sense of belonging.

What can project leaders and executives do?

1. Making people feel valued

While remuneration packages are still a significant motivator for employees, they want to know they are valued for more than simply being a cog in a machine. Showing your team that their leaders and the organisation cares about their lives, careers and wellbeing can be done through employee development and learning, clear career progression, and work-life balance measures.

Surveys by The Harris Group show that 70% of employees are open to leaving their current job for an organisation that is known to invest in employee development and learning. Yet, work-related training has been steadily declining in recent years and the burden of upskilling has been pushed onto the employees. Investing in employee development, alongside providing clear career progression, shows employees that the organisation cares about their career growth and see long-term value in maintaining the relationship.

If an organisation preaches that they care about employee mental health and wellbeing, work-life balance measures are necessary. Some measures include offering:

  • wellness days
  • flexible hours
  • establishing off-hour communication expectations
  • encouraging autonomy.

However, an employer’s duty of care can no longer end the moment an employee clocks off.

The PwC study shows that 37% of employees depend on their employers as their primary provider of mental health care services.

Investing in employee mental health care is not only a dutiful act for responsible employers but also brings financial benefits to organisations. The same research revealed that every dollar spent on successful mental health programs can return organisations more than double ($2.30) on average.

While these measures can easily be introduced, establishing the right culture and environment that will enable these measures to be fully adopted and encouraged is the biggest challenge organisations face. Too often benefits and programs are made available, yet the underlying issues of work overload and overtime is never fully addressed. A critical responsibility for project managers and leaders will be spending time to analyse and evaluate pre-existing culture and practices within both the organisation and their projects to help build value inducing environments for their teams.

2. Building a sense of belonging

It has been a long-established fact that a sense of belonging is an intrinsic human need. In the work setting, having a sense of belonging can give employees getter confidence in their work and can improve performance by up to 56% based on BetterUp’s report, The Value of Belonging at Work: Investing in Workplace Inclusion. 

While initiatives targeted at building belonging are often traditionally physical, the recent shift towards virtual remote work means that organisations need to implement new ways of engaging with employees. Some examples of initiatives that can be implemented virtually include:

  • introducing employee-led communities
  • implementing new collaborative technologies
  • inviting input with feedback evaluation and implementation systems
  • introducing inclusive targeted benefits.

Inclusive benefits such as additional childcare benefits, not only let employees know they are valued, but according to the research from Gartner, it can also increase feelings on inclusion by 38%.

Organisations like pmo365 have even started tapping into new platforms like Discord for its fluid chat room and channel system to bring a better sense of virtual ‘togetherness’ and collaboration within its remote teams. There are many tools and technologies emerging that can help reduce the relational and cultural barriers that come with remote teams.

However, a true commitment to building a sense of belonging must be embedded into the everyday practices and culture of an organisation and its projects. A terrific way of evaluating an organisation’s practices and culture is by applying the DEIB framework. DEIB, an acronym for diversity, equality, inclusions, and belonging, encourages employers to ask four critical questions.

  1. Who gets to sit at the table?
  2. Whose voice gets heard at the table?
  3. Whether everyone has equal access to the table.
  4. Whether employees are enabled to perform at their best by being themselves.


By applying this framework to new initiatives and programs, organisations and project managers can build a greater sense of holistic and impactful belonging.

Caring for your employees

Caring for your employees is no revolutionary concept, but as the demands of our increasingly fast-paced and complex lives grow, so must the way organisations care for their employees. The pandemic has radically changed the way we work, potentially marking the end of corporate culture as we once knew it to welcome in a more human-centric approach.

Project management, as a result, needs to also become broader as a discipline. It can no longer simply remain in the realm of project controls and managing processes. It needs to actively consider the many emerging factors, overwhelmingly human factors, that can impact project performance. Social responsibility can no longer merely be an add on but needs to be brought to the forefront of project practices and methodologies is we are to sustain healthy project teams and secure project success.

While the flexible work hours and inclusive benefits might seem unprecedented to us, we might have simply returned to valuing that which makes us human and, in the process, discovered that enabling people to be themselves is the best thing we can do for them, our companies and our society.

This article appears in the Autumn 2022 edition of Paradigm Shift magazine. Find out more about the AIPM digital magazine and take a look at the full edition.