The pandemic has produced its share of surprises, and recently the labor market has been behaving in unexpected ways. You might think that, as the economy continues to recover from a pandemic-induced recession, people would be thankful for their jobs and less likely to risk a career change. Instead of playing it safe, however, a growing number of employees are taking chances and leaving their jobs for something new. In March, the “quit rate” was 2.4%, the highest for that month in twenty years. And in April, it ticked up even higher to 2.7%, or a total of four million, the highest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began recording these numbers.
There are several factors behind what some are calling “The Great Resignation.” Although remote work was not easy for some during the pandemic, many are now reluctant to give up the increased flexibility they experienced. More significantly, the crisis seems to have prompted many to reflect on and rethink their relationship with their jobs. A growing number are concluding that life is too short to waste on a job that is not fulfilling, and that takes a toll on their health and well-being.
Quit rates have been highest in the retail sector, but turnover in professional and business services has been high as well. The phenomenon has caught the attention of big companies like Microsoft, which conducted a global survey of more than 30,000 employees and found that 41% were considering quitting or changing professions this year.
At the very opposite end of the spectrum are those progressive companies that are not only holding on to their people—they are growing their reputation as great places to work. The key to the good and the bad of the current labor market is employee well-being: the focus of my work as an executive coach and corporate wellness consultant. Employees who feel their current job forces them to sacrifice their well-being will continue to consider other options. Conversely, employees who feel their employer values and invests in their well-being will be more loyal than ever, and that deepened commitment will translate into a thriving win-win relationship for both parties.
A litmus test
The pandemic was a kind of litmus test during which companies revealed their true natures. Those companies genuinely committed to their employees’ well-being stepped up their efforts and dug deep, while companies with a toxic culture became even harder to work for. You might think that remote work would reduce the tensions of a dysfunctional workplace, but experts say the opposite is true. “Toxic cultures persist in remote settings,” observes a management professor at Villanova University. “Distance and anonymity can enhance negative behaviors.”
By contrast, Fortune Magazine’s annual 100 Best Companies to Work For list, released in April, showed a very different response to the crisis. These companies “managed not just to muddle through, but to become role models. The takeaway seems clear: Businesses that treat employees well during the toughest of times will attract talent, even when the war for talent heats up.” Companies on the Best Companies to Work For list went out of their way to demonstrate concern for the whole employee, not just the on-the-job employee. These companies realized as many employees have this past year, that it is impossible to be at your best professionally when other aspects of your life are stressed. The best companies responded to the pandemic by partnering with employees to address difficult challenges like caregiving and mental health.
How the best companies prioritize employee well-being
Last week, Fortune profiled another more recent Best Workplaces survey, this one focused on New York. With its fast-paced corporate culture, New York can be a difficult place to find balance and well-being, and those companies that successfully help employees along this path have valuable lessons to offer.
Some clear patterns emerge amongst the highest rated companies:
- They show tangible concern for the non-work aspects of employees’ lives
- Trust runs deep
- Feedback is a two-way street
- Flexibility and employee autonomy are valued
- Even during shelter at home, these companies made sure employees had sufficient paid time off
Companies pride themselves on the speed and agility with which they respond to changing customer needs. According to the senior director of talent strategy at Better.com, employers need to bring that same spirit of innovation to serving their employees. “We always speak about being first-to-market and being nimble in our delivery of our product to our customer. And I think [with] the people team, we want to meet that same model for our employees.”
Sisense, the biggest mover on the New York list, jumping up 21 spots, introduced “Coming Up for Air” days, giving employees two additional self-care days each quarter. Cisco, the number one company on the national survey, developed a digital care platform called Wellthy that helps employees manage the logistics (including financial, legal, and mental health) of their caregiving responsibilities.
“If it wasn’t clear before, the pandemic has exposed well-being, flexibility, and extra time to rest and refuel as essential building blocks for long-term employee happiness,” says Claire Hastwell of Great Place to Work. The best workplaces “met the crisis by listening to their people, reimagining what supportive benefits and perks could look like and rapidly pivoting to provide them.”
Fortune declares well-being “an essential benefit,” and they are half-right. Well-being is essential, but we must think of all the factors that contribute to employees thriving as more than a benefit. When we label well-being a benefit or a perk, we are thinking too small and relegating it to HR rather than placing it front-and-center in a company’s overall strategy. Thriving employees are not just happier—they are more creative and more committed. They bring their best selves to work, allowing you to get the most out of your most valuable asset, your top talent.
The Great Resignation signifies that employees have emerged from the pandemic with new insight into what truly matters. Employers must do the same and move forward with a strategy that sees employee well-being and the quality of work as inextricably linked. We now know that companies who make employee well-being a priority are going to be the ones with a competitive edge and best able to attract and retain top talent.