Workers quitting en masse is ‘a great thing,’ says workplace happiness expert—here’s why

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Jenn Lim has made a career out of helping people be happier at work.

She’s spent a decade-plus as CEO of Delivering Happiness, a consulting company that helps organizations build better and more sustainable workplaces.

Now, as the pandemic has led people to re-evaluate how they live and spend their time, many are also examining their relationship to work. As a result, and in the context of a recovering U.S. economy, a record number of Americans quit their jobs throughout the spring and summer months.

Lim sees this trend as “a great thing,” noting that people are “standing up for themselves,” their personal values and how they expect to infuse purpose into the work they do every day.

In Lim’s latest book “Beyond Happiness,” she offers readers exercises to help them realize these values, and provides company leaders a framework to tap into these assessments and create a work environment mutually beneficial to its people as much as profits.

For Lim, the topic is also personal. She co-founded Delivering Happiness with the late Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh following the success of his book of the same name, which covers his business philosophy of building meaningful relationships with the customer and, ultimately, with employees.

Five weeks before her book draft was due to her editor, Lim learned Hsieh died unexpectedly. His larger-than-life persona gave way to stories of a man struggling with his mental health in recent years.  His death sent Lim to a depth of grief that many in the world were grappling with in their own way during the pandemic.

Here Lim, 47, shares with CNBC Make It her take on how people are re-evaluating work in the Covid era, what the new future of work looks like, and what she’s learned about channeling grief into her work as a happiness expert.

CNBC Make It: The U.S. has seen record waves of people quitting their jobs in 2021. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Jenn Lim: I actually see this as a great thing.

What people are calling the Great Resignation, I’m also saying there’s a Great Awakening here.

Around 11 million people quit their jobs over three months starting in April 2021. Many of these people didn’t even have another job to go to. We had so much time when we were in Zoomland where we had to think, “Wait, why am I waking up and doing this again?”

A lot of us fundamentally said to ourselves, “I’m not going to take this or continue this job because I don’t have enough flexibility, or because I want to take care of the people I love, whether that’s kids or families or aging parents. It’s balancing things out in a way so it’s not just C-suite level leaders or boardrooms dictating what needs to happen in someone’s life or for the economy.

I see it as actually balancing the scales to be more equal where people are standing up for themselves and saying, “This is what’s most important to me, and therefore, I will say no to what’s not.” That’s amazing.

How has the pandemic changed the future of work?

Before Covid, everyone had these grand concepts of the future of work around AI, automation, remote work. Then all of a sudden, the pandemic catalyzed us to this place where it’s not the future anymore, the future of work is here, and we’re living it.

I believe the future work is human. There are certain things that will take the place of what we do. But let’s not forget the fact that technology is and should be our friend. It’s coming from humans.

We’ve seen the bad sides of technology, but we’ve also seen the good sides. As long as we make good decisions of what jobs we take, how we run our companies, how we manage our teams, if we keep that in check, the future of work can be about technology but rooted in the core of who we are as human beings.

In the next year or two, I think it’ll be really clear that our human needs must be on the same plane as our technological needs. And the more that we can tap into that, the more successful our organizations and teams will be.

You’ve said businesses have the responsibility to repair some of the structural challenges fueled by capitalism: wealth inequality, racism, climate change. Do you see progress here?

Some businesses will take this on as, “Oh no, we can’t change the profit-driven structures of how we got successful in the first place.”

But I think there are other businesses that have a bigger vision of where we are going from a macro-level as a human race. Those leaders are actually taking this time to reflect within themselves: “What is it I’m really here for? When the impacts of climate change hit the fan, are we going to be sitting around a campfire saying, ‘I’m really glad our stock price went up that year?’ Is that what’s really most important?”

So what I think is pretty awesome and promising is seeing leaders like Satya Nadella of Microsoft, or leaders at Starbucks, and other people in front of my eyes realizing, “Wait, we’ve been profit-driven for so long and we haven’t been revisiting what it means to live the mission on our wall or the purpose statement we had.” Witnessing that in 2020 and beyond gave me a sense of strength that leaders are seeing if they don’t connect profits to what it means for the experience of people or what it means for our planet, that it’s not going to be sustainable.

These companies are seeing that the future of work is happening through our people. And they’re putting money where their mouth is. So that’s promising.

You write about Hsieh in several sections of book, addressing how personal trauma can inform people’s values and what they bring to their work. How has your grief process changed how you approach purpose and work?

As I was processing his passing, I was also processing: How am I going to finish this book? It really made me dig deep and reflect on, not just Tony’s passing, but everything we’ve been doing as an organization. Did I still believe all these things?

I came out of that knowing everything we’ve been doing and talking about — what scientific happiness is and how we can ground ourselves with a sense of purpose — still held true.

There’s a Rumi quote that I love, that [translates to] “the cure for pain is in the pain.” I take it as, you never really know your highs or happiness until you know your lows. The sequence of events, from the pandemic to Tony’s passing, really thrust me to a place where I really had to understand my lows, and understand the lows of everyone around me in an empathetic way.

It was a reminder that it’s not just our highs in life that we learn from, it’s also our lows. The way we think of happiness being such a universal term, at the same time, this loss and grief everyone experiences is also a very universal term that is not embraced and explored enough.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Check out:

These 10 companies have the happiest employees—here’s why

Alicia Guevara, first Black and Latina CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC, on being an ‘only’

‘Don’t hurry to grow up’: 9 older millennials share their best advice to recent grads

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