Dissatisfaction with wages is likely a Trojan horse for a positive trend.

The Great Resignation presents as a negative. It implies a picture of a global workforce dismayed at its lot. It is in part a thematic framing of numerous reports revealing employees’ unhappiness with pay. Yet it is likely that employee responses to such surveys are a Trojan horse for something more complex, and more interesting.

Jamie Aten, founder of the Wheaton College Humanitarian Disaster Institute, has years of direct experience helping people through disasters – and is a survivor himself. “Dissatisfaction with wages is a tangible indicator of disruption – but not the actual driving force behind the resignation trend,” he told me. “The countless reports citing concerns over pay are more accurately understood as a warning light on a vehicle’s dashboard, letting us know something has changed.

“To really understand what’s going on you have to look under the hood. As we do, we see the real reason that employers are struggling to obtain and retain employees runs much deeper. I would argue that our psychology is the cause of the Great Resignation – and it’s a positive sign of employee psychological growth.”

This arresting insight – that expressions of dissatisfaction could be, paradoxically, hiding a positive trend – is born of Aten’s empirical work with disaster survivors. Across multiple studies, his team documented both negative and positive psychological changes in the lives of such survivors. They discovered that traumatic events like the pandemic can have a profound impact on five key areas: appreciation of life, social relationships, openness to possibilities, personal strength, and existential change.

Aten frames Covid-19 as a technical disaster, like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The spill’s impact became more intense over time. When a storm like Hurricane Katrina passes, community members become survivors. The difference with the pandemic is that the hurricane hovered over us for two years.

Studies conducted after disasters like Katrina in 2005 and the 2016 Baton Rouge flood not only demonstrated survivors’ resilience, but showed evidence of positive psychological growth. Aten’s study of people with chronic health issues before the pandemic revealed evidence of psychological growth during Covid-19.

Psychological growth amid adversity is possible, and it occurs when a positive change is experienced because of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event. It can be hard to spot – it’s common for signs of growth and struggle to co-exist – and typically emerges slowly, after re-evaluation of what truly matters.

Taking stock of one’s life is common during periods of hardship. Covid-19 has caused a global, prolonged period of collective reflection and re-examination of our priorities, work and careers. That is a sign of psychological growth – a sign that something is right. It just happened to upend the job market.

To curb the Great Resignation, the message is clear: employers must focus on more than wages. They must create better opportunities for employees to find dignity, growth, connectedness and meaning in their work. As people return to the workplace, leaders must lead by example: showing humility, making their mental health a priority, and talking about its importance, to encourage others to be open about their own wellbeing. Leaders should communicate about the challenges people will encounter, acknowledge that stress levels could be anomalously high and provide reassurance that this is normal after such a difficult period.

As Aten has learned through his work with disaster survivors, small actions can have big benefits. A small but effective action for leaders is to be present for other people. It’s a great time for leaders to pay more attention to their basic daily interactions: letting people know you care – you’re listening and understand – can really help stop things snowballing and prevent many problems.

Recovery is possible and psychological growth from adversity can be real. But leaders must see it as such and enable it to emerge.