While the economic recovery has been anything but straightforward over the last few months, overall outlooks for 2021 remain relatively optimistic. One projection foresees 73 million hires taking place by the end of the year.
But there’s a complication. As the economy opens up, many employees are considering changing jobs. Why? Because they’ve lost faith in their bosses. A recent Buck study on vaccine hesitancy in the workforce found that 42 percent of employees across the board don’t trust their employers to understand what workers have experienced during the pandemic. A majority (58 percent) don’t trust senior management to look out for their best interests, and 45 percent feel that leadership’s commitment to social justice is insincere.
Employers can’t afford to ignore this issue. Building and promoting a workplace culture that is fair, equitable, and honest is crucial to attracting and keeping skilled talent. It can’t be done by executive order; it requires managers and senior leaders to engage employees and candidates with more flexible workplace policies, better health and safety measures, and support for mental and emotional well-being.
Promoting Holistic Well-Being in a Pandemic
Given the fear and isolation brought on by the pandemic, it’s little wonder that worker stress has spiraled. According to the American Mental Health Counselors Association, 8 percent of Americans reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety and 6 percent reported symptoms of depression in 2019. By fall 2020, over 40 percent reported symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Organizations need to go beyond words of comfort. They must take real action to show workers they are committed to their total well-being. After all, the health of the organization depends on the health of the workforce. The pandemic will have a lasting impact on physical, emotional, and mental health as Americans postpone preventive healthcare measures (like screenings), choose not to seek medical help, suffer depression, and avoid taking sick days. In the current environment, employees are working, struggling, and rarely making their own well-being a priority.
Employers need to step up and provide clear and visible support for employees. Organizations can achieve this in a few ways. For example, they can promote solid information about vaccines, implement strong safety and prevention protocols for on-site workers, and offer more options for virtual healthcare delivery. Employers should also acknowledge employee stress, reduce the stigma surrounding mental health challenges in the workplace, and close gaps in benefit offerings by providing adequate resources and support structures.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Monthly Labor Review for April 2021, “25 percent of all private industry establishments created or modified paid sick leave or paid-time-off plans because of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Many companies plan to extend these protections to employees not previously covered, including service workers, gig workers, and part-time workers.
The Necessity of Flexibility
The pandemic has upended how Americans work. A survey of HR and finance leaders conducted by Paycor during the summer of 2020 found 47 percent of businesses surveyed had reconfigured their workforces for remote work. Forty-eight percent of respondents said they anticipated switching to hybrid workplace models that prioritize flexibility over mandatory attendance in the office. Companies that don’t continue offering flexible work options going forward may risk losing valuable employees.
Such work arrangements can succeed if human concerns are addressed in concert with institutional ones, according to Linda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School. That means accommodating the drivers of engaged productivity: the nature of the work to be done, the preferences of individual employees, and the coordination of teams and projects.
Flexible working is agile working, adapting to personal needs no matter the type of job or industry. Employers should take a look at traditionally inflexible jobs — like shift work, retail, fieldwork, and call center — to see how they, too, can be made more flexible. Due to the inflexible schedules and punitive attendance policies associated with these types of jobs, employees often invoke job-protected leave, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act, when a personal matter requires flexibility. Employers could reduce incidental absence by collaborating with employees to create flexible work teams and change the current workplace dynamic.
What Do You Have to Offer?
Consumers are emerging from economic lethargy, kicking off what the New York Times calls the “fastest economic growth in decades.” GDP growth reached 1.6 percent in the first quarter of 2021, indicating that total economic output could return to pre-pandemic levels by this summer.
But as the economy regains its strength, managers will have a harder time keeping valuable employees in the workplace unless they create more caring cultures. Offering the right type of flexible work arrangements and solid support for physical, emotional, and mental well-being will be key to retaining employees as more open jobs at competitor firms begin opening up.
It has been a rough year for everyone, but things are improving. Organizational leaders — executives, managers, and recruiters — now have a lot of work ahead of them as they try to rebuild a work environment founded on trust. The reset has started.
Leah Reynolds is a principal in the Engagement practice at Buck.