The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the labour market in drastic, unanticipated ways. With one in five global workers expected to quit their job in 2022, pandemic volatility shows no signs of abating. How can companies attract and retain talent in the changing employment landscape? Fiona Zerbst explores this trend.
The Covid-19 pandemic has created one of the biggest job crises since the Great Depression, with approximately
225 million people losing full-time employment in 2020 alone, according to the International Labor Organization
(ILO). This catastrophe has been accompanied by a major health crisis, with companies trying to maintain economic activity in the face of lost productivity.
To compound the crisis, both white-collar and bluecollar employees began a mass exodus from the global workforce, citing wage stagnation, insufficient benefits, the rising cost of living, and inflexible working
McKinsey research conducted in 2021 indicates that one quarter of white-collar workers in America left their jobs
without having alternative employment, citing burnout, toxic work environments and inflexible workplaces as
reasons for quitting. Blue-collar workers made a transition from jobs in construction and mining to office-based
fields, seeking more flexible hours and better benefits. (See sidebar ‘The Great Resignation in South Africa’ on
A 2022 Pew Research Center survey indicates that most American workers who resigned in 2021 walked away
from their jobs due to low pay (63%), no opportunities for advancement (63%) and feeling disrespected at
Most who left their jobs were between 30 and 45 years of age – the backbone of the workforce. At the International Labour Conference held in June 2021, a Global Call to Action for a Human-centred Recovery was unanimously adopted. This calls for policies that prioritise the creation of decent work for all, promotes worker protections, and addresses inequalities.
The Great Resignation as a long-term trend
Although Covid-19 has become endemic, and many workplaces are operating much as they did before the
pandemic, the so-called Great Resignation seems likely to continue. Willis Towers Watson’s 2022 Global Benefits
Attitudes Survey shows that 44% of employees are active job seekers. One in five global workers intends leaving
their job in 2022, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC) Global Workforce Hopes and Fears survey, which
canvassed more than 52 000 workers in 44 countries and territories. For 71% of respondents, poor pay is the main
reason for looking for alternative employment.
Better remuneration is not the full picture, however. Employees have experienced an existential crisis during the pandemic, largely due to the pervasiveness of death, isolation and loneliness. Many have experienced a shift in values – for example, a 2021 Forrester survey commissioned by LogMeIn indicates that 60% of employees would be prepared to accept lower pay in exchange for more flexible work conditions, which would allow them to spend more time with family and other loved ones.
McKinsey research indicates that almost two-thirds of US-based employees have been led to reflect on their purpose in life during the pandemic, with almost half reconsidering the kind of work they do.
The Harvard Business Review has found that employees cannot imagine working as they did prior to the pandemic. A survey of more than 10 000 Americans conducted by the publication in 2021 revealed that 36% of workers would look for alternative employment if their companies did not offer a hybrid or remote working option, which has as much to do with their desire for a ‘better normal’ as it does with their anxiety about catching
Covid-19 at work.
Becoming an employer of choice
The Great Resignation is not wholly about employee dissatisfaction – it is also about companies that have failed to take one of their most important stakeholders into account.
Companies that have come to view their employees as valued stakeholders instead of expendable workers have fared best during the Great Resignation, particularly those that have been transparent about fair pay, and those that value diversity, equity and inclusion, according to Josh Brenner, CEO of Hired. The highest-performing companies in the US make consistent salary offers to people in much the same position, and work hard
to hire minorities in the workplace, suggesting they act on an intention to be a force for good in society.
These companies are clearly thinking about their purpose – one of the ways in which they can increase employee engagement. Employees want to work for companies that put purpose before profit and actively set out to make a difference in their communities and the world. This is borne out by EY’s 2022 Work Reimagined Survey, which indicates that the Great Resignation, rising inflation, and calls for commitment and action on ESG issues are currently reshaping the work environment.
Aaron Hurst, CEO of Imperative and founder of the Taproot Foundation, has described the transition from an information to a purpose economy, in which purpose is the primary driver of economic output. In his book The Purpose Economy, Hurst suggests that only companies with a clearly articulated purpose will thrive in the future. “If your business doesn’t create positive value to all stakeholders, it won’t survive. There’s a rising need and requirement for businesses to lead the way and show how to not only create a win-win solution but to thrive because of it,” he writes.
Companies that provide employees with meaningful work, opportunities for personal growth and an ability to connect to their sense of purpose, will continue to attract and retain talent in a disrupted labour market. In part, this means providing employees with greater flexibility to work in ways that make sense to them, from accessing mental health support to being able to spend more time with their families. LinkedIn’s 2022 global Talent Trends report indicates that 63% of job seekers have identified work-life balance as the top priority when picking a new job.
Workplace trends in Africa
The ILO has highlighted ten trends that are shaping workplaces in Africa and constituting the ‘next normal’.
1. Remote work has grown dramatically – but unevenly – during the pandemic
2. Most future workplaces in Africa will be in-person or hybrid, not fully remote
3. Remote work is changing how some enterprises hire
4. Health and safety measures were widely adopted and beneficial for workplaces
5. Flexibility and adaptability have helped enterprises navigate the pandemic
6. Digital, communication, innovation and teamwork skills are now top priorities for enterprises
7. Productivity has improved or remained constant at most enterprises
8. The pandemic has deepened gender inequality at work
9. Social dialogue has been reinvigorated during the pandemic
10. Labour laws have struggled to keep pace with rapid workplace changes
Source: The Next Normal: The Changing Workplace in Africa, 2022.
Burnout – a consequence of long-term stress – was a significant problem among workers even before the pandemic. In 2019, the World Health Organization declared it to be an occupational disease and indicated that around 53% of the workforce was burnt out. A 2021 Global Workplace Burnout study found that employee
burnout had increased by more than 5% during 2021, with around 40% of more than 3 000 survey respondents in 30 countries experiencing burnout, significantly up from 29% in 2020. Lockdowns, blurred boundaries between work and home life, and heavier workloads to fill in for sick, quarantined or laid off workers have all contributed to burnout during the pandemic. This, in turn, has led to increased absenteeism and reduced productivity.
Justin Fiddes, a wellness specialist at Telesure Holdings, has pointed out that wellbeing can be a stronger lure than remuneration and benefits in terms of attracting talented employees. “People want a better quality of life, and wellness can be a competitive advantage,” he said during a Life Health Solutions webinar held in July 2022.
Myrna Sachs, head of health management solutions at AlexForbes, says companies need to prioritise employee wellbeing by having a wellness strategy in place to support those workers suffering from burnout and other mental health issues. She reports seeing an increase in incapacity and fitness for work requests, with 40–60% of cases resulting from mental and behavioural conditions. This is reflected in disability claims received by large
“As many as one in six South Africans present with anxiety, depression or substance abuse, according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), but fewer than 16% of those receive treatment, which has an impact on the workforce,” says Sachs. “Work stress is often a precipitating or perpetuating factor for many employees referred for incapacity management.”
Unilever’s Healthier U programme
Unilever is one of the founding partners of the Global Business Collaboration (GBC) for Better Workplace
Mental Health (along with Salesforce, HSBC, Deloitte, Clifford Chance and BHP). This is a business-led initiative that advocates for positive change for mental health in the workplace. Unilever’s Healthier U programme sets out to improve the physical and mental health of employees. Its global Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) delivers 24-hour support 365 days a year via telephone, text or web chat. Unilever trained 3 000 Mental Health Champions in 2021. These employees support their peers by looking for signs of people struggling with mental health and connecting them to services that can help them.
In 2016, Unilever became the founding corporate partner of Heads Together, an initiative campaigning to tackle the stigma around mental health and fundraising to support mental health services. It also runs a Lamplighter programme, which delivers preventative physical and mental health screening to identify early signs of poor mental health before employees become ill. Alongside this, the company runs Thrive Workshops that focus on sustainable wellbeing.
The wellbeing economy
The Great Resignation is not an anomaly. Rather, it is an indicator of the Great Reset – an opportunity to rethink how companies should operate with all stakeholders in mind. There have been calls to integrate a health component into ESG reporting, which would bring it much closer to the wellbeing economy and allow organisations to understand their impact on employees, communities and societies overall, according to Garen Staglin, co-founder and chairman of One Mind at Work.
Broadening the mandate of ESG to include public health would emphasise the health impacts of a business, which includes mental health. More than 3 000 signatories to the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) have indicated that mental health is an important social issue.
The Covid-19 pandemic gave companies a reason to make changes to protect their stakeholders. They should use this impetus to reflect on how the changing world of work can potentially shift what business should look like. To do this, however, they will need to reflect on their purpose, and what the ‘better normal’ ought to look like, particularly for employees.
Sachs says a hybrid approach appears to be the future of work and only a minority of companies are demanding a full return to the office. The flexible approach allows employees to fetch children, watch school events, or even work from another location,” she says. “This does play a role in managing mental health and burnout, if boundaries are respected and employees take time out during the day.” Sachs says many companies have put workplace wellness programmes in place, running webinars on resilience and burnout as well as ergonomics in the workplace to empower staff to know how to look after themselves.
The Great Resignation in South Africa
South Africa has not experienced the Great Resignation in the same way as our global counterparts, but the October 2021 Salary and Wage Movement survey, conducted by Old Mutual’s reward management platform Remchannel, indicates that is has not bypassed the country by any means.
The survey showed that employee turnover increased by 16% across all sectors in 2021, with the leading reason for leaving employment given as resignation (60%). White-collar workers have been driven to seek greater independence, with many choosing to consult for their previous employers or become contingent workers.
While this should theoretically lead to growth in the small business sector, the weak economic environment suggests that entrepreneurs may operate with a ‘survivalist’ mentality, rather than aiming to expand their small enterprises. Business Partners Limited’s fourth quarter 2021 SME Index indicated that small and medium enterprise (SME) owners were constrained by cash flow problems and limited access to funding – two factors working against new businesses during the pandemic.
In addition, skilled workers have moved to countries experiencing skills shortages, or become digital nomads, working for global companies while remaining in South Africa. This has led to a skills exodus that may have worrying consequences for the economy.
Blue-collar workers had fewer opportunities to resign during the pandemic, particularly with the dearth of jobs as unemployment reached 35.3% towards the end of 2021. The range of employment opportunities is not nearly as great for South African blue-collar workers as it is for those in the United States, and it is anticipated that automation may reduce opportunities still further.
These trends highlight the inequality that exists in the labour market, with white-collar workers readily able to work from home and blue-collar workers rendered more vulnerable during the height of the pandemic because they could rarely work off-site, if at all.