The Pandemic Changed Us. Now Companies Have to Change Too.

Published 12 July 2022 | 3 min read

It may sound obvious, but facing our collective mortality for the last two years changed us. Of course, many of us had confronted big challenges in our pre-pandemic lives, but this shared experience was uniquely difficult. One area of our lives that was dramatically altered was our collective perspective related to work.

Working under the weight of chronic stress, financial insecurity, and collective grief forced people to work harder and longer to get to the same goals. We became exhausted, self-efficacy decreased, and cynicism grew. It’s no wonder that people eventually hit the wall. But it was still shocking when nearly half of the global workforce said, almost simultaneously, “I quit!”


Why People Leave

The Microsoft 2022 Work Trend Index, a study of more than 31,000 people in 31 countries, discusses this extraordinary workforce disruption. The report found that 43% of the workforce is considering leaving their jobs in the coming year. One of the biggest reasons why people are leaving? It’s not pay, the study claims. It’s unsustainable workloads.

The most compelling data was the increase in time spent “collaborating.” For example, between February 2020 and February 2022:

  • Weekly Teams meetings increased by a whopping 252%!
  • 6 billion more emails were sent (2021 Trends Report);
  • We were chatting 32% more frequently;
  • And the average after-hours work increased by 28%.

During the pandemic, and especially during times of quarantine, our priority structures were ruthlessly simplified. Some days, our only focus was to stay alive and keep our loved ones safe. This rise in uncertainty caused an increase in mental illness. Last year, 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, up from 1 in 10 adults who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019.

Many organizations kept marching ahead. Stretch goals remained, despite employees being unable to meet the demand. According to a recent study by Ernst & Young (EY), 54% of workers left a previous job because their boss wasn’t empathetic to their struggles at work, and 49% said employers were unsympathetic to their personal lives. This “business as usual” mentality caused a ripple effect that some experts believe may have contributed to the Great Resignation.

A Pew Research study found similar trends. Fifty-seven-percent of workers who quit a job in 2021 said feeling disrespected at work was the reason they left, and 45% said lack of flexibility to choose when they put in their hours were reasons why they quit. Nearly half said child care issues were a reason they left a job (48% among those with a child younger than 18 in the household).

Today, employees are renegotiating their social contracts with work. What was once mostly transactional has changed. We’ve gone from demanding that work stay out of our personal lives to quitting if it won’t.

What Employees Want

Too many employees were pushed past their breaking points during the pandemic. Anja Bojić, communication author and researcher at software company COING, shared with me that she left her previous job because “settling for less than the bare minimum just to get paid is anyone’s death sentence, especially when there’s an ocean of opportunities to choose from.”

As more people hit their breaking points, what can leaders do? They can start by listening to what employees really want.

“I expect the psychological safety to have open discussions about mental health,” says Kate Toth, Director of Learning and Development at YMCA Workwell. “I expect empathy and support in recognizing that I am a whole person, and need authentic care as a human being. A manageable workload would be where I would start.”

Nathan Vatcher, employed at Queen’s University, echoes empathy as his number one need, with a four-day workweek being a close second.

David Ehrenthal, certified leadership coach, says that demonstrating change through action and behaviors, not just words, will be fundamental.

Data backs up these perspectives. Gallup recently asked 13,085 U.S. employees what was most important to them when deciding whether to accept a new job offered by a new employer. Sixty-one-percent cited greater work-life balance and better personal well-being, and 58% cited the ability to do what they do best. And with the shifting power dynamic that has resulted from this giant global resignation, employees can demand more.

In a recent HBR article, Don’t Force People to Come Back to the Office Full Time, authors Barrero, Bloom, and Davis found that 40% of U.S. employees would start looking for another job or quit immediately if ordered to return to the office full time. A 2021 McKinsey report of 5,770 employees surveyed also found that 40% of respondents who quit their jobs in the last six months left without having a new job.

This data indicates that what may look like a reshuffling is actually something much bigger. And, perhaps more concerning for businesses, it’s a bottom-line issue that must be addressed.

Fortunately, bright spots are emerging. Firms are signaling that they are (finally) ready to respond in kind.

Click here to read the full article by Havard Business Review.

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