Employees spooked by continuing high unemployment are holding on to the jobs they have at rates not seen in nearly a decade.
While typically a sign of employee loyalty, low turnover these days can also signal fear, hopelessness and stagnation. Employers can head off those negative feelings and maintain morale and energy in the workplace by communicating with empathy and giving employees more control over decisions, experts say.
"Feeling trapped in a job can create a lot of challenges, leading to employee disengagement and burnout," said Dennis Baltzley, global head of leadership development at organizational consultancy Korn Ferry. Channeling that angst into helping the company meet the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic can improve engagement and the bottom line, he said.
'Quits Rate' Plummets
According to the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary, a monthly report compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employees spent the past few years job hopping at historically high rates as the economy and their confidence in the future soared. Then in March 2020, the quits rate—which is the number of jobs quit that month divided by total employment—dipped below 2 for the first time in five years. It fell further to 1.4 in April, the lowest level since April 2011, when the job market was still recovering from the Great Recession.
Typically, quits outnumber layoffs by a wide margin, according to the federal data. But that trend reversed itself in a big way in March 2020, as states began issuing stay-at-home orders to counter the coronavirus pandemic. That month, 11.5 million employees were laid off while only 2.8 million quit their jobs.
In April 2020, another 7.7 million employees were laid off while just 1.8 million quit voluntarily. Meanwhile, only 3.5 million employees were hired into new jobs in April, a low for the 20-year series.
"Right now, most employees are just looking to hang on to the work they do have, rather than trying to find something better. This is particularly true of people in the retail and hospitality industries, areas that have been hit hardest by the coronavirus-led recession," according to an analysis of the data by Quartz. "The weak job market means more people are stuck in jobs that don't fully take advantage of their talents and are generally less satisfied."
Don't Assume Everyone Is Fine
Even if asked directly, employees afraid of losing their jobs aren't likely to express their unhappiness to supervisors. Baltzley recalled a chief executive who marveled at the high satisfaction scores from employees in a recent pulse survey. "I told him, 'They're not fine, they're just not telling you,' " he said. "People put on a brave face. They're going to be grateful to have a job. They will work hard to keep that job, sometimes in unhealthy ways."
To break through that fear and foster a healthier environment, Baltzley recommended that employers:
- Give employees choices when possible to restore some sense of control. This could include the question of working from home. Employees have a range of feelings about returning to the workplace, with some eager to rejoin colleagues while others dread the thought of increased exposure. "You don't want people to feel it's a requirement if it doesn't have to be. If you give people a choice, you relieve the pressure of feeling trapped."
- Listen and watch carefully to evaluate how employees are feeling, because they're not likely to tell you. "Are people short of patience, uncommunicative, not addressing the big picture? That could be a sign of being overwhelmed. If you're carefully listening, you can usually tell where people are."
- Don't double down on control by monitoring remote workers. "You have a bunch of leaders who never had to manage people remotely. They might instinctively want more meetings, more reports, to be sure employees are working, but that is exactly the opposite of what you should do. You want people trying to figure out how to make things happen without you. If they're problem solving, they're more engaged. Otherwise, you will create a workforce that's waiting for instruction."
- Project empathy, even if employees don't indicate they need it. Leaders can do this by describing what's been difficult or challenging for them during the pandemic. "During a crisis, communication is not about providing information. It's about connection."
- Work hard to maintain the new level of trust that may have developed during the past few months of shared hardship. "This experience has broken down a bunch of barriers. You don't want to lose that."
Many Still in Survival Mode
In normal times, the lack of potential for advancement or promotion could lead to employee resentment. But Kimberly Prescott, a human resources consultant in Columbia, Md., who works with a range of small and mid-sized employers, said it's too soon to worry about that.
Prescott noted that safety is one of the most basic needs in Maslow's five-tier hierarchy of motivation. Until a sense of security and safety is restored, most employees won't have the bandwidth to worry much about their status or feelings of accomplishment.
"I think people are happy to have a job right now, based on what I've been hearing," she said. "Job satisfaction at this point is secondary to survival. People are still kind of holding their breath. We're in survival mode: 'I'm alive. I have a job. I have food to eat.' "
To help restore a sense of security and alleviate stress on their workers, employers should go out of their way to communicate the status of the business and what they are doing to ensure the company's survival. This is especially true for employees who've been furloughed and are waiting to be called back.
"This is the time for overcommunicating," Prescott said. "People are hungry for meaningful communication, especially around next steps and business plans. You cannot communicate too much, even if you're saying the same thing week after week. Even if it's just a survey asking how you're feeling, are you able to come back to work?"