Perspectives: Why people leave their jobs
We don't talk about resignations enough.
This week's Perspectives is an interview with Brian Aquart, host of the Why I Left podcast. He has a background as an employment attorney, consultant, and healthcare executive. His podcast began with curiosity: why do people quit their jobs? The result is a show that resonates with anyone yearning for a change or in the midst of navigating their own career journey.
I was a guest on Brian's show in December 2023: he's an amazing host. You can check out the episode here.
Below is my interview with Brian about his show and the workplace changes he's seen over the past few years. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Anna Burgess Yang: Your podcast interviews people who have quit their jobs, for various reasons. Why did you decide to create a podcast around these stories?
Brian Aquart: My initial premise is that we don't talk about resignations enough. There's a stigma around the decision-making process. I want to hear from people who have done it and some of the lessons they learned throughout the process.
My goal is that I want people to know that if you're going through a period like this, whether it's not only just shifting your job, but maybe you want something different out of your current working environment, I want the audience to know that they're not alone. I want to destigmatize the conversation about resignations.
ABY: You've now had a few seasons of the show. How was the idea born?
BA: I am an employment attorney by trade. I've done investigations in a lot of different spaces relating to employment or employment law. Then I was in the HR space and I've been involved in navigating difficult conversations. Unfortunately, I've had to have termination discussions or reduction-in-force discussions with folks. So I'm very much into things that happen at work.
I'd had podcast ideas swirling through my head for some time. But I was sleeping one night, and at 3:00 a.m., the idea hit me. The news was swirling around all these folks who were leaving and so many things were happening. I went down this rabbit hole, wondering "Why are these folks leaving?" I wondered if people wanted to know why other people left.
We were in a moment, in 2020, where the world was shut down and we didn't know what was going on. For people who hadn't lost their jobs [due to the pandemic], there's a sense of stability that work provided that the world wasn't providing. I was seeing people make, what I would consider, a drastic turn. I was very curious because that takes a lot of guts.
So at 3:00 am, I bring out the Notes on my phone and I type the intro for "Why I Left: Stories from The Great Resignation.” I still have the note too. Because it's a nice reminder: here's what I want to know and here's what I think people could share.
ABY: What are some of the more surprising things people shared in those early episodes about why they left? Or were they confirming what you thought?
BA: What's interesting is I didn't think about the "why." During the pandemic, I didn't give myself enough time to really sit back and process. I work in healthcare day-to-day so I wasn't thinking, "Oh, the pandemic has given me so much time" because I wasn't in that boat. What I didn't appreciate was folks who did have the time. March 16th, 2020 was a Monday, and now people were working remotely and had more time to themselves.
People asked themselves, “What am I going to do with this extra time? Oh you know what, I've always wanted to do...” fill in the blank. It's been very inspirational for me because it tapped into things that people didn't give themselves enough time for in the first place. They had things swirling in the backs of their minds but didn't do them for whatever reason.
As Season One progressed, you start hearing some of the themes around why they didn't move forward with these thing before the pandemic. Fear plays a large part in it. One of the themes I frequently discuss is the thought process of overcoming fear. Once you do that, it's like "Here's what I can do. And now I'm able to make more money than I was making at that job." Or they're making less, but they've given themselves freedom. Sometimes you can't put a price on that.
ABY: Do you think fear has anything to do with this stigma around why people don't talk about resignations?
BA: You know, that's what I've wanted to dig into more. I don't know why people don't mention it. They say, "Hey I got this new job." But no one shares why they left the old one. Maybe they don't want to burn bridges. Maybe they left under circumstances that they don't want to discuss, which is fair. But I want to get beyond that. In the show, it's not about bashing employers. It's about individual stories, so unless guests bring it up, I don't talk about employer names.
The important piece is what you were experiencing on the job. What leadership or lack thereof you were experiencing, and why you decided to move on from that. And the timeline, once you had that conversation with yourself saying, "Hey, I'm going to do this." There are folks who took one to two years to make the jump. Those are the things we dig into.
ABY: Maybe this was born from the pandemic or born from more free time, but do you think there's more emphasis on finding something that makes you happy? Or maybe we were burned out and doing things that didn't make us happy?
BA: Absolutely. I call it multi-dimensional, others call it multi-potential — but basically a word for someone who's interested in a lot of different things — it allowed people the freedom to explore those things.
I'm very interested in: what was it about the work you did that didn't allow you to explore some of these other avenues? Or what aspects of your life prevented you from doing this? That gets into this really human experience that we're all living. These types of conversations and these types of threads really bring light to that. We're all going through the same stuff.
ABY: What are some of the biggest changes you've seen, from your early interviews to why people are leaving now?
BA: Season One was really fresh. I was doing those interviews in 2021. I interviewed a nurse over in England who really went into the burnout he was experiencing because of the pandemic and how it led to mental breakdowns. He said, "I was a leader, and I was afraid to speak up. And if I had spoken up sooner, I would probably still be a nurse." And that touched me so much. I've done content in both seasons around issues of mental health.
What I've noticed, as the show has gone on is truthfully just the passage of time. Post-pandemic, a bit more time for folks to reflect on things that are important to them. And now, Season Three comes up in February 2024. It's not so much pandemic talk, but people are still moving on. Folks are coming back to their office and things are now hitting people, where they're like, "You know what? I don't know if this is for me." It takes time to process some of this stuff we've been going through the past few years. Now you're seeing it come to a head. Even CEOs are quitting, because the stress isn’t worth it.
So that's what I've seen as the show evolves. The folks I'm interviewing now, they've had a little more time to reflect.
ABY: From the people you've spoken to that have found their dream jobs, what are they doing that's helping them find good opportunities, versus ending up in the same thing they were trying to escape?
BA: The first article that I wrote for 2024 was about navigating your career and strategies to navigate your vision. The first strategy I put on there was around self-reflection. This happened to me, way before the show and my current job: I had to sit back and think about what I wanted. What am I trying to do? What am I trying to accomplish? Sometimes, we don't take enough time for ourselves to reflect on the impact we're trying to make.
My current job is an offshoot of me having those conversations with myself. I was chasing prestige — general counsel, Chief HR officer, all these things. And I really had to sit back and ask myself, "Why am I doing that? What is this going to mean? To me?" I didn't have a good answer. It wasn't about the money. It wasn't about having "made it." I had to change my mindset.
During Covid, working in healthcare, I worked on something that saved a few lives. That touched me in a way I'd never experienced. I'll never be in direct patient care, but I could work on something that's impacting lives. And that's what I started chasing: that purpose, and that vision of what I'd like to do. I think people really need to start with self-reflection, and be honest with themselves.
ABY: What do you hope your audience gets out of your show?
BA: I'm dead-set on changing the narrative around resignations. If people listen to the show, they hear a variety of stories. They're your neighbors and your co-workers. People are going through the same things and don't ever talk about it.
Don't be afraid to talk about these types of decisions. Don't be afraid to make that change or take that leap. And it may take some time. But we get one life to live (as far as I know, right?). Let's try to make it worthwhile. And that's what I hope people get out of the show.
We're all in this together. This human experience is a thread that connects us all. The show is one aspect of how we're all connected, doing something we all do, which is work. And eventually, some of us leave those jobs.
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