Commentary: This Great Resignation Wave is painful and frustrating for employers
The string of resignations are straining employers who have had to keep firms afloat, NUS Business School’s Wu Pei Chuan says.
SINGAPORE: Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, employees are getting more frustrated at work, fuelling the great resignation wave.
But so are employers.
Besides managing costs and profits, some have gone beyond what’s asked of them to demonstrate care for their employees during this difficult period, but still see a flurry of resignations.
MANY EMPLOYERS ARE STILL IN SURVIVAL MODE
A major challenge for employers during the pandemic was to keep jobs intact even as they struggled to keep their firms afloat.
Take the badly hit aviation industry as an example. Singapore Airlines had axed 4,300 positions about a year ago to survive, and redeployed some remaining staff as care ambassadors in hospitals and contact tracers to supplement their lost earnings.
As air travel reopened in September, the airline stated that 92 per cent of pilots and 86 per cent of cabin crew were back in service.
Still, it faces the huge challenge of motivating existing employees. These are employees who experienced a prolonged period of devastation and anxiety. It would take time for them to transition to a new stage.
But time might not be on the side of some employers if rules don’t change. Cathay Pacific has to take care of burnt-out aircrew, some claiming they spent about 150 days in a vicious cycle of quarantine that kept them separated from their families and society.
While the airline provided support such as “electrical appliances, amenities, support groups, financial incentives, and additional food supplies”, many aircrew still thought support wasn’t forthcoming.
Some told the BBC their “perpetual state of quarantine” was killing their mental health and morale. “80 per cent of those I fly with are actively looking for work elsewhere … it’s all we talk about,” one pilot said.
Indeed, employers are walking on a tightrope as they balance safety guidelines with what employees want.
EMPLOYERS HAVE MADE BIG STRIDES TOWARDS IMPROVING EMPLOYEE WELFARE
Some companies have managed better. Stories like these during the last two years have sparked a swing towards better employee welfare.
In Oracle’s recent study, 77 per cent of Singapore respondents said their employers were more concerned about their mental health now compared to two years ago.
Medical technology firm Medtronic Asia Pacific initiated virtual family reunion programmes to support foreign employees. They also introduced upskilling programmes and special bonus incentives to recognise employees’ efforts all of which culminated in a 14-point increase in employee engagement according to their latest internal survey.
AstraZeneca Singapore launched initiatives such as “fuel up” days, recovery time, and AxerciseZ to free employees from meetings and encourage physical exercise. They also set up platforms to identify signs of mental health issues and created an employee assistance programme to help workers take better care of their mental well-being.
At specialty chemicals company Infineum, a global network of 30 volunteer wellbeing champions was set up in April 2020 to raise awareness about mental health and wellbeing at work.
Workers are also encouraged to exercise in small groups (when rules allow) and take stretches while working at home. They were also given access to an online Global Wellbeing Hub that offer tips on maintaining wellbeing.
Naomi Chua, a human resource partner at Infineum Singapore, said: “Leaders are empowered to discuss with their team members about hybrid work arrangement and decide what works best for their team.”
This bottom-up approach seems to have worked, as the global annual Engagement Survey showed the wellbeing element remaining largely similar for Infineum Singapore employees – 75 per cent rated positively in 2020 versus 74 per cent rated positively in 2021.
MEETING EMPLOYEE EXPECTATIONS IS HARD
With so many stories of companies supporting their employees during difficult times, employee commitment levels should be surging upwards.
However, the record is patchy. According to Ceridian’s 2022 study, only one third of Singapore respondents said their employers provide them with flexible schedules (33 per cent) and employee assistance programmes (30 per cent), while 23 per cent felt nothing was being provided to them to ease mental health and wellness problems, a figure higher than the global level of 19 per cent.
The study also found significant gaps between what employees want and what employers offer. Customising a holistic yet flexible workstreams that balance both employers and employees’ needs can be hard.
Many employers have initiated pulse surveys to understand the needs and satisfaction levels of their people. But what’s needed now is to figure out the best way of showing that employers do care.
In other words, employers must get cracking on translating the organisation’s values and culture into real action.
Perhaps, similar to year-end performance review, supervisors and leaders should also have a key performance indicator tracking what they have achieved to enhance the welfare of their employees.
AN EMPHASIS ON WELFARE MUST START AT THE TOP
At the top level, some leaders have shared their own well-being struggles. When leaders walk the talk, it signals to employees that “it’s okay to not be okay”. This creates trust between leaders and employees.
When Nomura Singapore’s CEO Kelvin Ho openly shared his stress and anxiety regarding work-from-home (WFH) during the circuit breaker in Singapore, his team opened up with their personal frustrations.
When a leader like 3M Southeast Asia managing director Kevin McGuigan removed four hours (5pm to 9pm) from his daily working schedule (originally 8am to midnight), the company’s employees received the signal they too should look after their work-life balance.
Listen to HR experts explain what’s behind worker unhappiness despite greater attention on workplace well-being and what managers should do on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:
Showing vulnerability can make leaders appear more authentic and relatable, and helps them connect better with frontline employees.
However, a recent Adecco study across 25 countries showed that leaders find it challenging and exhausting to do regular well-being check-ins. Some simply do not have the skills to do so.
Over the past 12 months, nearly half of company leaders worldwide found it difficult to manage people in general (46 per cent) and to support team members’ issues related to career development (48 per cent).
They also found it challenging to onboard new team members (55 per cent), and did not find it easy to notify others about their team’s problems in mental wellbeing (53 per cent) and burnout (51 per cent).
Clearly, leaders are not equipped with the skills or savviness to handle work-life balance challenges and speak frankly about such issues. As a result, only one in two workers gave a “meeting expectation” performance rating for their leaders.
It is thus not surprising that the global Qualtrics 2022 Employee Experience Trends predicts a rise in leaders’ resignations, with a possible exodus next year. How to support exhaustive leaders with the right tools to handle well-being issues is a top concern for companies.
2022 MAY SEE MORE RESIGNATIONS
Much as employers have had a tough time figuring out WFH and supporting employees, 2022 could be a tougher year in the war for talent.
A September Korn Ferry study shows most professionals believe even more will resign in 2022, citing reasons such as re-evaluation of priorities (30 per cent), a lack of a clear career advancement path (24 per cent), and pay and benefits (23 per cent).
Some attrition is usually a sign of healthy churn, where organisations are refreshed with new ideas and ways of working. But too much turnover can result in a loss of institutional knowledge and be destabilising.
It’s therefore little surprise that many employers plan to adjust salary for employees in 2022. Singapore workers are expecting to see a 3.5 per cent salary increase according to ECA International’s Salary Trends report. And in this arms race, three out of four Singapore firms reportedly introduced mid-year pay adjustments in 2021 to retain targeted employees.
But will pay raises this late be enough to keep the best when employee expectations have changed? Oracle’s global study showed 92 per cent of respondents had redefined success since the start of the pandemic, prioritising work-life balance, flexibility and mental health.
In the meantime, 90 per cent of employees are ready to make a career move and many consider professional development as their top consideration.
Adjusting pay merely meets the baseline of talent retention. What’s more pertinent are career progression-related issues, as employees from the frontline to senior leaders are moving across organisations.
PRIORITISING PROFESSIONAL GROWTH
The great resignation wave also revealed a critical need to provide opportunities for career growth.
Speaking at the Human Resources Online HR Distinction Awards earlier this month, DBS Hong Kong HR head Sharon Cheang said she reckons the biggest challenge for the bank is to upskill their entire workforce to be future-ready.
DBS knows that the tight labour market here, coupled with the continued need for transformation means greater demands on the human capital they have.
Employees are often assumed to be change resistant but that is far from the truth. Many want to change but have no direction or assurances.
Oracle’s global study even showed 90 per cent of Singapore respondents are open to leveraging technology to support their career development needs and identify needed skillsets.
Indeed, one of employers’ biggest challenges is to demonstrate to employees the utility of learning new skills. They could better map out how such skills can be put to support new career pathways and growth.
If only employers can now focus on showing how talent here will be supported in the years ahead in their career growth and work-life balance aspirations, that might hold the key to retaining top performers.
They should prioritise the internal mobility of employees keen to learn new skills and stay on longer at the company.
In the wake of the pandemic, organisations need to discover new ways of thinking and working. It’s like rowing a boat against the current. If you aren’t moving forward, you will be forced to retreat.
Dr Wu Pei Chuan is a lecturer in the Department of Management & Organisation at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School. She is also the the Deputy Academic Director for the MSc in Human Capital Management and Analytics programme. The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not represent the views and opinions of NUS.