28th October 2022
Despite the gloomy economic predictions pointing us towards a recession, you might have noticed that ‘We’re hiring!” signs seem to be everywhere at the moment. One of the key signs of recession is usually skyrocketing unemployment rates - yet we seem to be in the opposite position.
In Q2 of 2022, New Zealand saw record lows in unemployment rates. Labour retention is becoming increasingly difficult, and companies, all the way from your local cafe to the sought-after tech giant, are desperate for skilled workers.
What’s going on?
To put it succinctly, we’re in the midst of the Great Resignation. Coined by Professor of Management at Texas A&M, Dr. Anthony Klotz, this term is used to illustrate the acceleration of the trend of people leaving their jobs as well as the fierce war for talent that’s gripping organisations as a result.
Being in another “Great” trend is enough to put alarm bells in our heads - because, let’s face it, other “Great’ trends haven’t been so kind to us before (Great Depression, Great Recession…). The title aptly indicates how far-reaching the impact will be.
For health and safety leaders, this phenomenon is both a blessing and a curse. High turnover rates are typically not a great thing for organisations, and points to underlying issues that might be sending people out of the door.
A poor safety culture, for example, makes the workplace unnecessarily difficult to thrive in, causing people to leave. However, this isn't reason to fret - not yet, anyway. High turnover brings some surprising benefits for safety leaders that we tend to gloss over, helping us to reframe this difficult situation as an opportunity for growth.
Before we go there, let’s first understand the circumstances and psychology that underpin the Great Resignation.
Why are people quitting?
The pandemic has contributed massively to the Great Resignation; however, contrary to popular belief, the pandemic was not the sole catalyst for the trend. Prior to 2020, quitting rates were already on the rise. The sudden shift to living in those unprecedented times accelerated what was already starting to move.
Thanks to lockdowns and subsequent remote work, we’ve seen an explosion in resignations and cultural changes in how we approach work - what’s considered acceptable (hybrid workplaces, for example) and what’s no longer cutting the mustard (strict 9-5, in-office schedules). While most of the world has tentatively returned to relative normal with pandemic restrictions lifted, the trend of labour shortage has not slowed down since its conception in 2020.
The pandemic transforming our mindset:
Severe social distancing restrictions saw organisations scramble to move appropriate roles to remote working, while also introducing measures to limit face-to-face contact for those continuing to work onsite. Some organisations rose to the challenge, but others did not - and their workers were left feeling unsafe, undersupported and ready to quit.
Other people, once freed from the burden of a lengthy commute, suddenly found themselves slowing down, with more time to focus on family or dedicating themselves to their old hobby. The consequence of this is hardly surprising - once again, faced with a better work-life balance and possibility of something else, people chose to quit.
Once the prestige of working at a famed corporation, or for a brilliant brand wore off in the haze of masks, vaccinations, and being told to stay home, there was time for workers to step back and ask the big questions - what do I want out of life? Does my job align with my values and who I am? Is prestige necessarily conducive to a happier life?
One article interviewed people who chose to leave prestigious, well-paid jobs in favour of cleaning jobs, or simpler shift work, because the work-life balance at the top was horrendous. With immense pressure mounting, these people realised that their mental and physical health was at stake, and knew they’d rather take a pay cut with an improved lifestyle, than continue as they were.
This cultural context has resulted in the Great Resignation. Organisations across the board are struggling to find talent and the demand from organisations outweighs the supply of workers.
If everyone’s quitting, what are they doing then?
A reasonable question that we naturally begin to ask, wondering how, if everyone’s quitting, there’s still a shortage of workers. People need to earn a living somehow.
The other effect of the pandemic is that it highlighted just how simple remote work can be. Working from home did not herald the dawn of the dark ages, where businesses would grind to a halt. With a stable internet connection, relatively high resolution webcams and perhaps a cup of coffee, lots of office work can be done from anywhere.
While some organisations have implemented a work from home policy, some that have not, have lost their people to freelancing. From tech workers, to marketers and all kinds of jobs in between, freelancing has increased as an option that continues to facilitate a work-life balance that we became accustomed to with remote work.
Even though job ads are still being posted, organisations are able to at least fill their labour gap by outsourcing some of the work to these freelancers. Freelancers might not know all the ins and outs of your workplace, but they do offer a fresh perspective and some potentially out-of-the-box ways of doing things that can challenge stale thinking. In a way, freelance work offers solutions for both the understaffed organisation and the disgruntled employee alike.
How is this hurting health and safety leaders?
It certainly doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone involved in leading organisations that the Great Resignation poses difficulties. With the power in the hands of individual workers, employees will vote with their resignation emails - and if organisations are not providing positive working conditions where people can flourish, then the effects of the Great Resignation will hit them harder.
In 2022, people are more likely to apply for jobs that offer flexibility and formally integrate work-life balance into the role. With a smorgasbord of opportunities at their fingertips, people are going to turn to the jobs that advertise their support and offer better working conditions than their counterparts.
For health and safety, this means working conditions need to be healthy (mentally and physically) and safe (there’s a surprise). With greater turnover, there’s an emphasis on making sure the workplace conditions exceed expectations and bolster their people.
Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Workers spoiled for choice will be after jobs that might meet their highest need - self-actualisation and fulfilment. However, for this need to be met, the needs for physical safety and mental safety need to be met first as they are lower down in the scale. If a worker doesn’t feel safe in their workplace, they’ll leave quickly.
The pressure to improve working conditions has led many organisations to shift their focus beyond providing basic health and safety, to include proactive wellbeing initiatives, so they can attract top talent. While the focus is a great step forward for a stronger safety culture, ultimately health and safety leaders have more work in place for them.
Another pressing issue is that safety leaders have to train more people, more frequently. With time pressure to get people trained, some knowledge might slip through the cracks posing risks further down the line. It also might be difficult for new employees to feel comfortable speaking out about hazards - and this is contingent on your safety culture, or your induction processes being up to scratch. Being new, they could take some time to adapt to their new culture and engage fully with the health and safety expectations.
If your health and safety systems are not documented well, or you’re yet to be using a technology solution, you might struggle with the nuts and bolts of high turnover. Say for example, a key training manager leaves. Without a robust system that’s got a record of what training needs to be done, you’ll be scrambling to fill the gaps.
Furthermore, a paper-based system that is not user-friendly or accessible, will not bode well for positive workplace conditions. If people feel constantly frustrated with the bureaucracy or lack of transparency in the safety systems, they might be more inclined to leave.
This is not all bad:
On a wider level, high turnover can be an excellent way to draw fresh talent into your organisation. Hiring people with varied experience helps to bring a plethora of backgrounds, opportunities, and perspectives to learn from. Bringing in excellent people will raise the bar and produce excellent work.
Furthermore, turnover creates opportunities for existing employees, and gives people room for growth. With promotions up for grabs, organisations that play their cards right, can facilitate the career development of their existing employees, and focus heavily on upskilling their people to meet their needs, and creating incentives for great work.
Indeed, one of the many reasons people are quitting in the first place is the lack of career progression that people feel was in their existing role. Addressing this by creating better opportunities for existing employees might nip the turnover rate in the bud, and create a more agile, upskilled organisation.
Zooming in on health and safety, turnover isn’t always the chaos and headache that we might expect. One of the greatest barriers to health and safety is resistance to change. Often, the more tenured employees are the most difficult employees to get fully engaged and part of the safety culture.
Bringing in new people provides a great excuse to get your induction processes in tip-top shape! That way you can get them up-to-speed with your health and safety program fast and onboard them to a technological safety system with ease. Starting from a clean slate, they'll likely be far more open to learning about the company's safety culture too.
If you’ve tried to implement a new system or continue to struggle to get buy-in from staff - especially if there’s a prevalent “This is how we’ve always done things” attitude, then turnover might just be a golden opportunity.
Safety culture is notoriously difficult to develop and a strong safety culture is the ultimate goal of any safety leader. Getting full engagement from employees is the only way to change people’s perception of health and safety as tedious and bureaucratic - and the way to get people engaged is to have systems that they believe in.
A blessing - or a curse?
While the Great Resignation is in full force, we can reframe this event as a potential opportunity to strengthen existing safety cultures and implement better systems that help achieve safety goals.
The Great Resignation is an intimidating trend to be up against, but it’s one that’s highlighted just how important high quality working conditions that foster physical safety, mental wellbeing, autonomy and role fulfilment are in retaining people.
Safety leaders, high turnover doesn’t have to be a headache! New people coming in can help create momentum for your safety culture initiatives, and bring in outside perspectives that benefit the workplace. It may just need a shift in frame of mind.