As if Australia’s dire skills shortage wasn’t enough. Now, it’s ‘The Great Resignation’ as touted and trending in the US, with staff from all types of industries leaving their jobs, and the prediction is for ‘exhausted’ Aussies to follow.
Burnout, long hours of work, fatigue, and the inability to cope under pressure are all legitimate. For some, the conditions are paralysing. Concerns for our workforce’s mental health is much needed, but the remedy is not easy to prescribe.
The tendency to believe those in charge should be positive and resilient, setting an example of never-ending enthusiasm and not be vulnerable can be overwhelmingly contra-productive. Not surprisingly, four in five leaders see themselves at risk of burnout, and 60% feel stressed and anxious at work. These are real conditions affecting our current workforce.
In our recent survey of 350 business owners and candidates exploring the impact of the Delta lockdowns, 69.7% of respondents found the most recent lockdowns more stressful than in 2020, and over 50% felt their mental health was adversely affected due to working from home (WFH), alarming statistics when considering 94.6% of those surveyed are employed. The workforce seems to be reaching its limitations with the lockdowns and COVID-19 and the accumulation of stress.
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For the same respondents, 75.7% are happier with their current job, versus our last survey in April 2021; 42% feel COVID-19 has changed their working life habits for the better; 53.2% had integrated a healthier lifestyle when WFH, and almost half said their financial situation has improved. A challenging predicament for Australian businesses: how to manage mental health as indicated above when other indicators such as happiness at work have improved?
WFH and employee ‘rights’
Unsurprisingly, WFH was a hot topic in our survey. 94.3% of respondents believe businesses should allow WFH moving forward, with 48.1% stating it for mental health and 42.7% saying it was ‘their right to choose’. 80.5% of respondents prefer a hybrid working model, and yet if presented with a better paying, strictly office-based job, nearly half would consider it.
To continue WFH, office, or hybrid is not an easy decision. Communication, teamwork, connectedness, engagement and productivity are just some business considerations. Employee retention is key but cannot be at the expense of overall business strategy. The successful strategy lies in both employees and employers understanding each other’s changing needs and priorities.
Our survey also revealed 55.1% of respondents did not learn any new significant skills since WFH. The lack of everyday interaction and visibility must have influenced this perception. Or maybe it’s a reality? With the fast rate of change occurring, this must be a concern for businesses and individuals. 30.4% felt their work communication was worse, and 76.6% thought they were meeting work expectations. In addition, only 43% felt they were more productive WFH versus 76.1% from our previous lockdowns in 2020.
The sharp decline in how participants saw their productivity this time signals potential psychological factors affecting the perception of performance and thus job satisfaction, essential for ongoing engagement.
Blurred lines, boundaries and a shift in values
Despite 42.3% of people stating their working habits have changed for the better, only 20.7% of respondents don’t work additional hours. 48.6% spend more time now than before working outside ‘normal’ hours, confirming applying better boundaries remain a challenge. 36.9% of respondents say trust and loyalty have increased towards their employers. We assume employers have put more effort into improving the feeling of security and safety.
Pre-COVID, work-life balance (WLB), salary and company culture were the top three most important values for people. Now, WLB, job security and salary are rated as the top three. With ‘company culture’ no longer prioritised as important as before, what effect will that have for future employee engagement and thus retention?
Navigating the transition back to the ‘norm’ will be an ongoing challenge. The most significant part of our ‘new world’ is our new workforce. Our lockdowns were ongoing and relentless, and our workforce had to find a way to make it work. New habits, values and standards were formed, some for the better and some not. Deciphering, understanding, and breaking of the ‘not so good’ is needed. Our views on every component of our careers/jobs have shifted too — the way we see our bosses, co-workers, place of work, company values, and finally, our identity within.
Is this going to be the renaissance of our new working era? It is quite possible, as every crisis in history brought something innovative and unique. Patience, guidance, open-mindedness, self-awareness and good decision making will be required and in abundance.