When the history of the COVID-19 pandemic is written, the disease’s economic and cultural impact will surely include the Great Resignation. An unprecedented 45 million Americans voluntarily left their jobs in 2021. In January 2022 alone, 4.3 million workers quit their jobs according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures.
IMany employees quit for what they believed were greener pastures. Others sought a sabbatical from “9 to 5” employment, while still others entered a period of “perpetual retirement” where they exited the workforce but, for a variety of reasons, are anticipated to return, perhaps cyclically.
Behind the exodus is a more profound transformation: U.S. workers are demanding a reevaluation of the contractual nature of work—and the power is in their hands.
The relationship between employer and employee is changing, and employers are no longer in the driver’s seat. To cope, U.S. companies need to not only embrace these new attitudes, but also use them as a catalyst for change.
The Great Resignation is also a “Great Reckoning” that demands organizations take concrete steps to improve the entire employee experience. Before the pandemic, a positive experience relied heavily on perks such as free lunches, gym memberships and in-person events. The radical shifts brought on by the pandemic, however, have forced a reconsideration of the very nature of work.
Today, employees are doing a lot of soul searching about what is most important to them. How, when, and where work gets done has changed; this has caused people to rethink their jobs, personal pursuits, and larger life goals. Their decisions will have a far-reaching impact on the employment landscape.
To attract and retain talent in this new era, employers have to confront the fact that one-size-fits-all no longer suffices. The time has come to engage employees in meaningful conversations, to listen, and to take action.
Fostering Cultural Change
The first step is to accurately identify employees’ needs and concerns—a process that will require intentional outreach and the willingness to hear what’s being said. In our new hybrid reality, managers don’t have the opportunities or means to engage their teams in the ways that they did just a few years ago. Face-to-face interaction is not as frequent, which means that discovering what employees truly care about will require proactive, intentional and continual pursuit of the diverse, hidden and, most of all, holistic needs of individuals.
Holistic well-being is a concept most employers haven’t had to confront in the past. This new era of work requires meeting the needs of the whole person, including their physical, mental, financial and social health.
Clearly grasping such a profound range of imperatives is not easy. It requires trust and a sense of safety and belonging from employees; employers, for their part, will be able to foster these traits only through engagement and a culture of care. Every employee, from every employee population, must be made to feel not only safe and welcome at work, but also empowered to discuss their individual needs and concerns.
The second step is to take action. This will require both leadership and empathy, as the lens on wellness has shifted. Stress and burnout is rampant among the global workforce. Shifts to a more blended work and home life as well as caregiving, organizational changes, unfamiliar workflows and new forms of team communication erupted virtually overnight. Each new day during the pandemic has brought about a new challenge, leading to increased anxiety.
As wellness has broad implications, it’s critical to address the needs of the whole person, not just job-specific factors such as autonomy and career growth. Financial wellness, for example, is one of these unrevealed needs. For some people, the pandemic has actually been beneficial, as they were able to focus on their expenses and increase savings. Many others, however, are under considerable financial stress. Family members may have lost jobs or been prompted to leave the workforce to care for their children or aging parents, causing sizable hits to financial reserves.
Make no mistake – when personal finances are at risk, the whole workplace is impacted. BrightPlan’s 2021 Wellness Barometer Survey found that financially stressed employees lost over 15 hours of productivity a week, which translated to a $244 billion impact to U.S. employers each year. Supporting workers through financial hard times, and offering them the tools and resources to achieve their financial and life goals, is beneficial to both employers and employees alike.
Professional wellness also requires a new definition. Employers need to be thoughtful about how they provide opportunities for career growth and development, as well as how to increase retention through greater career mobility. Traditional conferences and technical training, for example, are undergoing permanent transformation through virtual options. Definitions of success are changing as well. Managers, HR leaders and the C-Suite will need to assess their approach to help employees expand and deepen their skills.
An organization that fosters a culture of care, empathy and inclusion will provide the well-being employees seek. People are more likely to stay at a workplace that truly cares, understands and supports them on multiple levels, from physical, financial and professional wellness to relational and even generational concerns.
The Great Reckoning is the result of trends that most employers have likely missed, ranging from burnout to demands originating outside of work. If identified and addressed, the exodus for greener pastures, sabbaticals and retirement could be lessened. Organizations must begin to look to total rewards as their strategy for employee retention.
We are in an era where employees expect a total rewards package tailored to their specific needs. Different employee populations care about different things. Some benefits will be standard – but others need to be flexible and customized, even by the employees themselves. Family leave, flex time, gym memberships, paid time off, even pet insurance all have their place in a robust reserve of rewards alternatives.
Keeping valued employees on the job is rarely all about pay and bonuses. Creating a culture of care is essential. Employers need to ensure workers have a clear picture of what their employment represents and provides. Mental health services, childcare, eldercare, financial planning and other forms of support are very meaningful and persuasive forms of compensation.
A phenomenon as far-reaching as this reckoning demands attention from more than just the HR team. Everyone from C-level executives to middle managers and even the board of directors need to be involved in finding solutions.
For innovation and productivity to thrive, every organization must create a culture that treats all employees with the care and respect they deserve. The Great Resignation has been a wakeup call for employers of every size, in every industry. How intensely they listen, how much they care, and how compassionately they act, will determine how well they succeed in the years ahead.