“We think, mistakenly, that success is the result of the amount of time we put in at work, instead of the quality of time we put in. ~ Arianna Huffington
“Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” ~ Albert Einstein
Welcome back to my series on Pandemic Lessons Learned. If you missed any of the previous Parts, you can access them here: Part Four: The Economic Impact Of Covid, Part Three: Working / Schooling From Home, Part Two: The Lifesaving Brilliance of WWW-IQ, Part One: Vaccines, Testing and Treatments
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed some things that we did not know about ourselves, and that we might not have learned in ordinary times. Extraordinary events, however, often reveal underlying natures, hidden strengths or surprising weaknesses. For example, are we able to work from home (WFH) effectively? Do we enjoy WFH as much as or more than working in the office? Does WFH at least part-time help us to be more efficient and balanced in our work and home lives? Did WFH during the pandemic prompt revelations about how we feel about our jobs and managers — and even our industries and careers — and how we related to them during an emergency? Were relationships with family members — spouses, SOs, children, roommates, elderly parents — improved or worsened? Did loneliness result in a pet adoption, and how did that work out? Finally, how did we cope with illness and death under already trying conditions?
Such watershed moments can provoke ah-ha! moments and prompt courageous and life-changing decisions. That is exactly what happened to millions of Americans, as well as workers worldwide, who walked out of their jobs during the pandemic. What sparked this worldwide worker walkout (WWW)? (Note: not to be confused with my other WWW acronym: wearing masks, washing hands and withdrawing to six feet of separation 🙂 )
In the 20 years that the U.S. Department of Labor has tracked “quit rates”, the percentage of workers voluntarily leaving their jobs has never exceeded 2%; during the pandemic, it reached nearly 3%. Translated, by November 2021 a peak number of 4.5 million workers across multiple sectors decided to leave their jobs, out of slightly more than 127 million total employed Americans. That might not seem like a lot, but it was unprecedented and enough to disrupt industries and impact millions of other Americans who have experienced a dearth of products and services ranging from delayed medical and dental appointments and procedures and travel delays to empty store shelves (due in part to retail, factory and truck driver shortages), teacher and bus driver shortages and reduced customer service across the board. And the list goes on.
That’s the reason this phenomenon has been coined and predicted “the Great Resignation” by Texas A&M Professor Anthony C. Klotz in May 2020.
But the pandemic did not create this situation it was just the spark. Workers have been quitting their jobs in increasing numbers over the past decade. Although boomer retirements have been a big reason, millions of workers across generations had already been questioning why they were staying in jobs where they were not valued, respected, professionally developed, compensated fairly, provided with the necessary tools and a safety net for times when disaster recovery and crisis management remedies were needed.
Throughout my own now-long-behind-me 40-year corporate career that spanned four industries, I managed to advance from secretary to sales assistant to PR staff associate to executive assistant to vice president. But along the way, I was sexually harassed, bullied by toxic managers and others with power over my position, held back from advancing and underpaid. In some cases, I took action; in others, I flat-out quit. And, of course there were the times that I was laid off due to downsizing (but I also survived some). Of course, there were many, many high points in my career that I will always cherish. Corporate life can be a thrilling roller coast ride; you just have to know when to get off before it goes off the rails.
For millions of American workers, the time to make a change — sometimes a monumental one — was when the pandemic sparked the fire that sent them vacating their present situations and running to different jobs, careers and lifestyles. The reasons varied; some were extreme cases, others were in the enough-is-blankety-blank-enough category. Here are some examples:
- Job burnout – In some cases, particularly among frontline workers — and especially healthcare workers and teachers — the burnout has been extreme, as reported in The Atlantic and Brookings. What is notable about these two industries is (a) burnout was a problem prior to the pandemic and (2) women were over-represented in both professions. More than three-quarters of K-12 teachers are women and three-quarters of healthcare workers are women. Globally, women make up roughly 70% of the healthcare workforce and most, including women of color, are in frontline caregiving roles. These professions are challenging for women in the best of times, as women still bear the brunt of child-rearing and homemaking, not to mention pregnancy and breastfeeding. For them, the pandemic was a particular hell as they cared for the sick and dying while managing on-line learning for their children and care for their family members until they were bent or broken. These experiences often resulted in mental health issues.
- Layoffs – Millions of Americans lost their jobs due to employers closing offices or entire businesses, or cutting back due to loss of business and inability to meet expenses. And, again, more women than men tended to suffer this fate, many of whom were single parents. Many of those who were laid off lost their healthcare coverage, which placed an additional burden on individuals as well as on a nation already in the throes of a life and death struggle.
- Retirement – More millions took early retirement, many reluctantly. In addition to cutting careers shorter than otherwise would have occurred was the number of lower income Americans forced into retirement. However, in a storybook twist, some of those retirees are now “unretiring,” to fill jobs that are open due to the current lack of workers.
- Reluctance to Return to the Workplace – Many workers have been reluctant to return to the workplace for two main reasons: (1) they preferred WFH at least part time, and (2) they were afraid of exposure to COVID-19.
- Lack of Child Care – Women walked out of their jobs at a greater rate than men because…oh, c’mon! You know. It’s the same old story: again, women continue to take on professional work along with housework and child care. When workers started to return to their workplaces, Cinderella could not because she had to take care of the kids, whether married or single. As daycare centers closed because of COVID-19 and a lack of trained staff, women without WFH jobs were out of luck and out of work.
- Job Search Obstacles – Job hunting during the pandemic, with little hiring or in-person interviews going on, has been difficult. Even before the pandemic complicated our lives, applying for jobs on-line presented challenges due to applicant tracking systems (ATF) that unintentionally eliminated candidates whose resumes were formatted in ways that the on-line system did not recognize. According to an HBS study, automation that is used to select candidates has not improved, using very narrow parameters to select candidates and, thereby, overlooking talented applicants that number in the millions. Then, there is the video interview, which was becoming increasingly popular prior to and essential during the pandemic; and it continues as a common practice. There are techniques to know and practice in the video interview, which I discuss in Part Three.
Many who lost or left their jobs during the pandemic, as well as many who wound up working from home, an epiphany dawned: why am I working for a manager / company / industry that does not value me or my talents and contributions? In too many instances, when the pandemic version of the Titanic hit, many employers grabbed the lifeboats for themselves and threw their employees overboard. And not just in the U.S.; the Great Resignation became a global event, the WWW.
Fanning the Flames
Whether people had devoted their lives to their jobs for decades or just landed a job for which they had spent months searching, the insult of being laid off or furloughed in the middle of a worldwide disaster made workers think. And for those who were able to hold on to their jobs by working from home, many came to realize that their companies or managers did not trust them to do their jobs from home (again, see Part Three).
When employers treated their WFH employees like liabilities instead of professionals, they fanned the flames and drove them to breaking points. They caused additional strains on people who were trying to do their jobs under extraordinary circumstances while holding everything and everyone together, including themselves. So, like the Howard Beale character (played by the brilliant Peter Finch) in the 1976 movie, Network, millions of workers in the U.S. and around the world decided they weren’t going to take this anymore! They Quit. Resigned. Walked Out.
Many have moved on to new, better paying jobs for employers who value them and where they are doing what makes them happy. Others have started their own businesses. And still others are staying out of the workforce for as long as they can afford to do so. Those who want to return to work struggle with lack of child care, long COVID or mental health issues. The federal government, the public sector, provided short-term help to those struggling the most with direct payments, child care credits and extended unemployment payments. But now employers, the private sector, must figure out long-term solutions for healthy workplaces to attract a disillusioned and injured workforce to return.
Sifting Through the Ashes For Answers
As life begins to settle down and the pandemic winds down, many managers have learned some hard lessons, as they now try to fill jobs among a dearth of candidates. Many have not. But because a major portion of the workforce has gained clarity about what they want in a job or career, as well as what they want out of life, employers must also expand their thinking and take important steps to play fairball instead of hardball.
Workplace expert, trainer and author Bonnie Low-Kramen described in her recent TEDx Talk the top four things, in order, that workers want from their employers and jobs to stay rather than quit: respect, belonging, money and career growth. She also identifies the top reasons for leaving a job: bullying and sexual harassment. Take a look at Bonnie’s TEDx Talk to learn the details of her workplace wisdom.
That top employee requirement, respect, is the bedrock of human relationships. And respect and empathy are bedrocks of both business and personal etiquette. I recall a story told to me by a senior executive of my former company who had been a commander in the British Army. This gentleman was describing his management style and comparing it to the way he ran his military section. He said that it was very important that those under his command respected him as they follow his orders, and the way that occurred is if they knew that he respected and cared about them. Perhaps corporate managers could take a tip from this man, because the fact is the WWW rages on.
Employers can sift through ashes for answers on how to retain employees, but solutions have been there for decades — it’s simply time to implement them. One major pandemic lesson learned by employers should be that establishing polices and training that prevent sexual harassment and bullying and incorporate DEI are not enough. Policies must be enforced and training must be ongoing. Managers throughout an organization, from the top of the house on down, must themselves embrace and then demonstrate visibly, consistently and constantly inclusive and ethical behavior as well as the consequences for toxic behavior. As well, managers must be taught how to manage people, and companies must create open, welcoming, inclusive, productive and non-toxic workplaces that promote corporate cultures that fully engage their employees.
Many Americans are returning to the workplace, but not enough. At the end of 2021, employers were left with nearly 11 million unfilled jobs, equating to roughly two openings for every one unemployed worker. But prior to the pandemic, there were job openings but a dearth of qualified candidates among the many unemployed and looking for jobs. This situation worsened during the pandemic. What is needed is comprehensive job skills training, career and job search counseling. In addition, let’s hope that lessons learned by both employees and employers result in better workplaces and improved employee-employer relations.
Until next time
Additional related past posts: