If we believed every headline written about the number of people who’ve quit their jobs since the pandemic, it would seem like there’s not much of a global labor force left - that every workplace, from supermarket to hospital, is being held together by a skeleton team of staff.
The recent shifts in the job market are much more complex. The New York Times recently reported a well-above-average 40 million US workers left their jobs in 2021. However, the real story was that the spike in resignations was mostly seen in the leisure, hospitality and retail sectors — while staff turnover in industries such as finance and media remained stable.
This pattern is mirrored in other markets. For example, while the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found late last year that the rate of job moves in the UK was at a record high, the research also revealed that the rate of employees actively seeking different types of work was not.
This doesn’t mean leaders can breathe a sigh of relief and dismiss an increase in workforce walk—outs as insubstantial hype, however. One thing everyone seems to agree on — including the US chair of PwC, quoted in the aforementioned New York Times article — is that workers are much more focused on improving their quality of life than they were before the pandemic and they know that, if necessary, they can switch jobs quickly and easily — a truth they’re willing to leverage. In other words, leaders in every sector — regardless of their business’s staff turnover rates — look likely at some point to feel the pinch of these new work realities.
The fact that staff shortages are playing out in different ways in different countries, different sectors, and even different otherwise-similar organizations means that there is no single fail-proof step that can be taken in response. Instead, business leaders need to take a considered and holistic approach to the issue. Effective action should be specific to each organization and broad enough to encompass an employee’s various workplace challenges.
It's likely that this will also mean going beyond a surface-level look at how the pandemic changed day-to-day life, and thinking about the deeper driving factors that might make colleagues reconsider how and where they want to work.
In the recent Workforce Attitudes Toward Mental Health report, Headspace Health surveyed over 5,000 employees — and over 500 business leaders — to explore how attitudes have changed as the pandemic’s worst disruptions have faded. We found that burnout due to increased workload is now the second biggest factor in workplace stress after COVID-19, and the main factor amongst female respondents.
At the same time, workplace provision of emotional and mental health support has slid back to pre-pandemic levels: during the pandemic, almost three-quarters (71%) of respondents said their company increased its focus on mental health support; post-pandemic, just 25% of respondents said this support was still available to them. By comparison, 41% of business leaders believe that their organization has both increased and maintained mental health focus, indicating a real perception gap.
When asked which workplace-specific factors are important to employees’ emotional and mental well-being, 52% of respondents said work-life balance, while only 33% of respondents said having the option to work remotely.
Overall, these findings suggest that, while the pandemic may have been the spark for many people to leave their jobs, the real fuel was workers feeling dissatisfied in their own specific workplaces. For leaders, then, building engagement and loyalty will necessitate policy decisions that empower employees to shape their working lives into something that works better for them.
The Workplace Attitudes Toward Mental Health report also revealed inspiring shifts in the direction of more open, empowered work environments. The rate of CEOs who said that nothing holds them back from discussing their own mental health, for example, has risen from 8% to 30% over the course of a year. Over the same period, the rate of employees taking advantage of emotional and mental health benefits rose by 14%.
While an increase in resignations places real pressure on businesses to maintain a consistent and unified workforce, while bearing the cost of replacing employees who leave their jobs, it is also an opportunity to communicate with employees and support them to make the workplace a better place to be. With real demand for businesses to put well-being at the heart of what they do for employees, and real motivation to make that happen, the current situation could turn out to be a transformative moment for businesses.
To learn more about the new reality of employee well-being, and to start thinking about your own workplace change, you can read the Workplace Attitudes Toward Mental Health report here.