Left Behind: What To Do When Everyone's Quitting but You

As many people continue to quit their jobs, what happens to those who choose to stay behind? Modern Mentor shares her actionable advice for those who are staying in place and are left to pick up the slack.

Rachel Cooke
4-minute read
Episode #672
The Quick And Dirty

If you're one of the people who chooses to stick with your job in the face of so many resignations, here are the key actions you can take to maintain a great experience for yourself:

  1. Give space to your feelings
  2. Be the stability hero
  3. Reassess priorities
  4. Find your development gold
  5. Renegotiate something
As the Great Resignation—this mass departure of people from their jobs—continues to hold the spotlight, you might be asking yourself: What happens to me if I don't quit?
I’ve had countless conversations recently with people who are suddenly feeling lonely, uncertain, and overwhelmed as they watch colleagues depart. They’re questioning their own decision to stay. They’re missing colleagues and friends as they go. And they’re afraid of being overwhelmed by the work that’s falling off those departing plates.
So, if you’re one of the many being left behind, let’s talk about how you can take care of yourself and use this moment to your strategic advantage.

Give space to your feelings

I started my last full-time Human Resources job at the beginning of 2008…with a financial services company…as the market was crashing and burning. 
Suffice it to say, by the end of my first year, 15% of my colleagues had been let go. And while layoffs are very different in nature from voluntary resignations, the experience for those left behind can be extremely similar. 
The sudden loneliness—the loss of trusted friends, mentors, thought partners, and collaborators—really changed the whole tone and climate of work. Things got a little mopey around the office. But we were indeed in an office. So, for those of us left behind, leaning on each other as a community and processing our feelings together was reasonably easy to do.
Today’s world is different. So many of us continue to work largely or exclusively virtually, which makes those natural points of human connection rarer. You need to find the moments for yourself.
What are you feeling as you watch colleagues leave? Lonely? Anxious? Self-doubting? The key is to share those feelings with someone or ones that you trust. Check in with a remaining colleague, share your experience, and ask how they’re doing. Find support in those who are hanging back with you. And know that whatever you’re feeling is totally valid.

Be the stability hero

The thing about people leaving is that while the number of people doing the work has changed, often the expectations and workload for the remaining team members have not.
If your boss is anything like mine was, they’re panicking. They’re watching institutional knowledge, experience, and sets of hands walk out the door. And with all of the balls in the air, they’re terrified one will drop.
This is your moment to step in and be a hero. How can you show up as a point of stability for your boss, ensuring them that something critical is not going to fall through the cracks?
This is not about picking up all the slack your exiting colleagues have left behind. It’s about being a point of continuity.
During my moment in 2008, my team had been managing several training programs being delivered by outside vendors. As my colleagues began departing, I knew my boss was anxious about the stability of these programs. So, I offered to step in and become the single point of contact for all the vendors—the one-stop shop for any questions, concerns, or challenges that might arise.
I watched the color return to my boss’s cheeks when I tossed this idea out there. Notice, I wasn’t offering to take on a volume of work but was just offering to step in and keep the train on the tracks. And in a moment of departures, this offers a value that’s hard to measure. And of course, it earns you points for the future.
So, where’s your boss’s highest anxiety, and how might you offer to play a supporting role without adding volumes to your plate?

Reassess priorities

Question everything—every hour spent in a meeting, on a dashboard, revising slides, etc. Every hour of expenditure counts here. 
Please do not mistake taking on everyone’s left-behind work as an act of heroics. It’s frankly the least strategic move you can make. Instead, demonstrate your commitment to impact and your critical thinking skills to your boss by identifying the most critical priorities and putting those above the rest.
Share a plan—just some ideas. And invite your boss to weigh in. Where can you win time back by opting out, by postponing a deliverable, by collaborating or repurposing something? 

Find your development gold

When people start leaving, projects and opportunities get left behind. And while you do need to protect yourself from mindlessly taking on extra work, you’re welcome to seek out a hot opportunity and make a land grab. 
What have you been wanting or needing for your own professional development? Did someone leave behind a hole you’d like to fill?
Have you been wanting to grow your project or people leadership skills? Have you wanted to get a little closer to a particular client? Have you been seeking an opportunity to present to an executive?
Scan the left-behind projects and commitments, and cherry-pick something that serves your own development. You deserve an opportunity to grow from this!

Renegotiate something

To be blunt, you have leverage here. Your boss can’t afford to lose you right now. I’m not suggesting you do or say anything untoward (like “give me a 20% raise or I’m leaving”), but I am suggesting this is a prime moment in which to ask for something.
In 2008, there was a particular training I wanted to attend. In a respectful way, I broached it with my boss, like this:  
“Now that our team is smaller and mightier than before, I believe that by attending this training and building the skill it’s teaching, I’ll be in a much stronger position to ensure our impact stays high!”
It was my subtle attempt to say (without actually saying), “hey—my success matters more to you now than ever… so here’s something you can do to ensure that I’m able to keep you in a winning zone.”
So now it’s your turn. What’s something you can negotiate out of this situation?

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.