The “Labor Leftovers:” A Guide to Burnout After the Great Resignation

By Ashley Zlatopolsky

Published October 28, 2022

Ashley Zlatopolsky is a Detroit-based writer and editor. She covers health and wellness, culture, lifestyle and more. Previously, she worked as a branded content strategist for USA TODAY.

Four years before the Great Resignation began, I, along with one other employee, was the only one left working on a team that should have operated with at least six people. We were burnt out and exhausted, but the tasks continued to pile up, even when we worked at top speed. Both of us had a workload large enough for three people, and it was nearly impossible to take time off without sending the other employee into a near-nervous breakdown.

At the time, such a situation was an anomaly. Now, what felt like a one-off occurrence back in 2017 is a widespread issue in the global workforce. As the Great Resignation, or the Big Quit and Great Reshuffle continues, employees are still voluntarily resigning from their jobs en masse due to burnout and impossible workloads. 

While data from Indeed's Hiring Lab shows that quitting is cooling down in some sectors, like leisure and hospitality, there is still a surplus of work and not enough people to do the jobs. Those who stayed behind, however, have become the “labor leftovers,” and are stuck picking up extra work (and extra burnout) on top of their own duties for the positions that can’t be filled.

Burnout and the Great Resignation

According to a recent Gallup poll, job unhappiness is at an all-time high. A whopping 60% of people surveyed report being emotionally detached at work, while 19% report being completely miserable. A mere 33% of employees report feeling engaged. It’s a lower number than that reported in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its height. 

In the U.S. specifically, 50% of workers say they feel stressed at their jobs on a daily basis. 41% feel worried, while 22% feel sad and 18% feel angry. Yet why do these negative feelings persist?

Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2022 report discovered that while work-life balance and long hours were factors contributing to negative feelings at work, the situation was more dire than that. In fact, regardless of work location (at home or in an office) or work schedule (30 hours or 60 hours per week) people still feel burnt out. 

The number one reported cause of dissatisfaction in the workplace was due to “unfair treatment at work,” or lack of respect, poor compensation and mistreatment, which can contribute to burnout. Surveyed workers also cited unmanageable workloads, unclear communication, lack of manager support and unreasonable time pressure. All in all, the “labor leftovers” don’t have much left themselves.

However, even though there is a great need for more workers and significantly overworked employees, hiring remains an issue. Despite a hot job market, it’s still extraordinarily challenging to fill open roles. The reasons behind this phenomenon vary, although burnout from the Great Resignation is a major contributor. 

Related: Burnout: What It Is and How To Cope

Factors contributing to persisting job openings

As many businesses return to in-person work, skill gaps, a lack of qualified recruiters, low salary offers and reduced flexibility all contribute to tough-to-fill positions. Hiring Lab also found that pandemic factors, like health concerns, are holding jobseekers back. Fears of a recession have put many open roles on pause as well as employers wait to see how an unstable economy shakes out. In the meantime, the “labor leftovers” grow more and more burnt out, and 40% of workers are even ready to quit.

The dangers of overworking

The dangers of being overworked go beyond simply feeling tired. New research done during the COVID-19 pandemic found that people working more than 54 hours a week are at major risk of experiencing a work-related injury or disease, and an alarming 750,000 people have died each year from heart disease and stroke likely related to working long hours. 

As of 2019, a survey from The American Institute of Stress found that four out of five Americans who worked at least 50 hours a week felt that their workload wasn’t sustainable—out of that group, one in four people reported making a potentially hazardous mistake at work because of stress or fatigue. Burnout is not only real but could be extraordinarily dangerous as well potentially putting hundreds of thousands of lives at risk.

Are you a labor leftover?

At the end of the day, it’s not that people hate their jobs, it’s the environment they are struggling with. While the Great Resignation continues, many can’t leave their employers, despite the burnout, because they have families to support and bills to pay. In the meantime, employees grow less and less productive, and the cycle of burnout continues. 

So, how can the “labor leftovers” deal with burnout without quitting their jobs? The first step is to recognize the signs of burnout, which can help you understand when it’s time to take action. Keep an eye out for these symptoms and changes:

  • Unexplainable headaches and generalized aches

  • Withdrawing from responsibilities

  • Isolating yourself from loved ones

  • Feeling unable to cope with daily life

  • Feeling like you hate your job

  • Excessive ambition at work

  • Neglecting personal care and needs

  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns

  • Taking your frustrations out on others

Related: Preventing Burnout: How To Identify and Avoid It

How to cope if you’re a labor leftover

If burnout from the Great Resignation or living as a “labor leftover” is negatively impacting your life, it’s important to prioritize your physical and mental health. After all, if your health suffers, it won’t be possible to do your job. 

If you work for a business, it’s essential to speak to your employer as soon as possible. Express your concerns in a constructive way and explain how your work environment is impacting your wellbeing. If you have solutions for how to divide workload better, this conversation is a great time to share those thoughts. 

You can also turn to coworkers or loved ones for support if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Outside of work, anyone who considers themselves to be a “labor leftover” should aim to exercise, get enough sleep and try relaxing activities, like yoga or journaling. It’s also important to set work-life boundaries, especially if you work from home.

Still, while these action steps can be helpful to deal with burnout without quitting your job, sometimes they aren’t enough. Not all supervisors will listen to their employees, and those who do may be limited in the help they can provide due to business hierarchy or overhead structure. 

If you’re willing to try to love your job again despite burnout, you can take time off to recharge your “battery,” reorganize your desk or surroundings and even say no in a healthy way, such as expressing your concerns that you’re unable to finish a task or project to the best of your ability. Yet if these steps don’t make an impact, it may finally be time to consider a career change.

Putting yourself and/or your family first is important, especially if burnout from the Great Resignation is negatively impacting your health and wellbeing. There’s a famous quote by football coach Chuck Pagano: “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.” This saying rings true louder than ever in 2022, when burnout continues to impact millions of workers worldwide and hundreds of thousands die each year from being overworked. 

If you’re a “labor leftover,” or simply coping with a tough work environment, it’s essential to prioritize your needs regardless of whether you decide to tough it out at your current job, join the Great Resignation, or seek out a career change.

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