The staff-retention pandemic

From the February 2023 print edition

The COVID-19 pandemic may have started more than three years ago, but just like ‘Long COVID’, it’s side-affects are still being felt on a global scale today.

Employers have not only been challenged by COVID-19 itself, but also by the many aftershocks triggered from continued employee isolation. Companies initially were forced to pivot and adapt to overwhelming changes in the way they do business; but now, they’re also dealing with the added mental, physical, and technological stressors on their isolated employees.

The mental trauma of surviving a lengthy lockdown has taken a toll, creating a pent-up desire in some staff to interact and live life to the fullest outside of a job that is still, years later, being conducted remotely.

We survived the pandemic only to struggle again by conducting online business at all hours. Smartphones, project management apps, and social media have evolved with everyone checking their devices nonstop and managers and clients expecting rapid replies. COVID-19 and online video conferencing platforms have contributed to an expectation that workers be constantly online and reachable, causing additional mental trauma and burnout while eroding any sense of work-life balance.

At the pandemic’s start, record numbers of workers voluntarily quit their jobs and the ‘Great Resignation’ took hold. In March and April 2020, Canada lost more jobs than it had in the past three recessions combined. We have since recovered the majority of them, but the rate of employment gains has slowed.

The remaining employees struggle with shouldering an added workload covering for staff no longer there, reduced support, and ongoing employment volatility, among other reasons.

There’s a new pandemic coming, caused by employers that ignored the needs of remaining staff. Employee retention is spiralling downward, with dissatisfied workers looking to change jobs for a better work-life balance with firms possessing an improved company culture. The “come-on-back” proclamation from some employers is being met with a “we-don’t-necessarily-want-to-return” reply from some staff.

More and more employees are setting stricter boundaries, and only doing the bare minimum of what has been previously expected of them. This phenomenon, called quiet quitting, sees workers keeping their jobs but not volunteering for anything extra, unavailable outside of normal work hours and typically not participating in other workplace activities. In the US, Gallup estimates that at least 50 per cent of the US workforce is quiet quitting, and that number could get worse. Quiet quitting is having a dramatically negative affect on company culture, causing not only problems with productivity, but the retention of existing staff as well.

Today, employees are dealing with additional stressors such as inflation, increasing prices, a fluctuating economy, and myriad political and social issues affecting supply and value chains. As a result, according to a recent Robert Half survey, 61 per cent of workers are now looking for a higher salary, 37 per cent better benefits and perks, and 36 per cent want greater flexibility to choose when, where and if they wish to work. Retaining staff continues to get much harder.

What can employers do to increase employee satisfaction and keep staff retention high?

Competitive compensation
Evaluate and adjust salaries regularly. If you can’t increase pay right now, consider providing other forms of compensation, such as bonuses, improved healthcare benefits, and appropriate retirement plans.

Perks and appreciation
Perks can make your workplace stand out to newcomers, revitalize current staff, and boost employee morale and retention. Flexible work schedules and remote work options are perks that many professionals value. However, employers should also develop improved wellness offerings to help employees feel supported and motivate them to prioritize their health and well-being. Counselling and stress management programs, reimbursement for fitness classes, elevated trust, empathy, and recognition by company leaders are examples of what firms should do to acknowledge employees’ efforts post-pandemic.

Work-Life balance
Since the pandemic, people are more passive and value work-life balance, even more than a higher salary. A work-life balance is essential to job satisfaction and employee retention. People must know their managers understand they have lives outside of work and recognize that a healthy balance can be more challenging working from home.

Managers should encourage employees to be proactive and set working boundaries themselves and take their requisite vacation and related “me time” to destress. Workaholism from people who toil for extended periods (50 hours a week or more) can lead to increased mental and physical health consequences.

Isolation adds to this. Employers must recognize that creativity, productivity, efficiency, and retention are all in jeopardy when staff don’t function effectively because they neglect to include non-work balance in their lives.

Staff are struggling with the demands of prolonged isolation and working at home. It’s the chronic strain that staff experience when they don’t feel their contributions are fully recognized and compensated that’s causing them to leave. Employers that overlook compensation adjustments, flexible work schedules, and remote options feed a staff retention pandemic.

It’s a candidate-driven market. Employers must show they care through diligence in reviewing and improving staff communications, constantly evaluating, and providing superior staff benefits, while being mindful of and encouraging a healthy company culture now, to lessen and possibly of a staff retention pandemic later.