: Why have so many people soured on work? COVID-19 unleashed long-simmering employee dissatisfaction

United States

People’s relationships with their jobs are complicated.

COVID-19 has likely “permanently changed” attitudes toward work, with people seeking out a change of hours, career and benefits, a new paper concludes. “Some individuals may have become accustomed to a greater degree of work flexibility, including working from home, while others may now prefer a greater degree of work-life balance,” the research says.

The pandemic was a catalyst, according to the paper distributed Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a Cambridge, Mass., nonprofit research organization.

For those who can work from home, not everyone is eager to get back to the office — and the office politics, Tessa West, New York University social psychology professor, told MarketWatch. She said it’s important to speak up and change the culture of your company from within, but also look at yourself.

It’s routine to give companies comments when they leave a company, but West said it’s also important to invite feedback at your current company. “There is a norm against giving unsolicited negative feedback, especially someone who is at the same level as you. You really have to learn how to ask for it in a way that de-fangs it and won’t be super painful, and you won’t be threatened by.”

Workers with ‘high social proximity’ — the degree of interpersonal contact and ability to work from home — show a willingness to work fewer hours.

Workers with “high social proximity” show a willingness to work fewer hours, echoing previous research and highlighting the gap between people who are able to work from home without occupational exposure to COVID-19 and those who can’t. Social proximity, for these purposes, is defined by the degree of interpersonal contact and the ability to work from home for a person’s current or most recent job. 

The occupations with the highest “effective social proximity” include healthcare professionals, food-preparation workers, and people working in production, construction, transportation and personal-care services, they said. The jobs with the lowest effective social proximity include managers, technical professionals and legal professionals.

The paper was written by economist R. Jason Faberman at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, and Ay?egül ?ahin and Andreas I. Mueller, both from the Department of Economics at the University of Texas at Austin. 

A recent report by management consulting company McKinsey on the future of work also found that the pandemic “most severely disturbed arenas with the highest overall physical proximity scores: medical care, personal care, on-site customer service, and leisure and travel.” Looking ahead, those areas are also likely to be more unsettled, as workplaces continue to adapt to this new normal, the report added.

“Considering only remote work that can be done without a loss of productivity, we find that about 20% to 25% of the workforces in advanced economies could work from home between three and five days a week,” McKinsey said. “This represents four to five times more remote work than before the pandemic and could prompt a large change in the geography of work.”

But remote work isn’t always good for companies. “We found that some work that technically can be done remotely is best done in person,” McKinsey added. “Negotiations, critical business decisions, brainstorming sessions, providing sensitive feedback, and onboarding new employees are examples of activities that may lose some effectiveness when done remotely.”

Reasons why people switch jobs

The U.S. labor-force participation rate held steady at 62.2% in January, and the employment-population ratio was little changed at 59.7%, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Both of those measures were up over the past year, but remained below their February 2020 levels (63.4% and 61.2%, respectively).

But pressures have intensified in recent months for people to work more hours and/or for better wages with inflation now at a 40-year high, the winding down of pandemic-related stimulus programs, credit-card debt and interest rates on the rise, and the toll that two years of an uncertain and unsteady work environment has taken on people’s savings. 

Pressures have intensified in recent months for people to work more hours and/or for better wages with inflation, especially with inflation reaching a 40-year high.

Gallup asked over 13,000 U.S. employees what was most important to them when deciding whether to accept a new job offered by a new employer.

They listed six factors, according to a report released Monday: a significant increase in income or benefits, greater work-life balance and better personal wellbeing, the ability to do what they do best, greater stability and job security, COVID-19 vaccination policies that align with their beliefs, and the organization is diverse and inclusive of all types of people.

“As our findings suggest, pay is top of mind for people, but they’re not just focused on pay vs. everything else,” according to Ben Wigert, director of research and strategy, workplace management, at Gallup. “Compensation is naturally intertwined with development, growth, reward and recognition. And we have all had a crash course in the importance of wellbeing in our work and home lives.”

Another lesser talked about reason for quitting: A large majority (82%) of American workers said they might quit their job because of a bad manager, a recent poll by Goodhire, an employment screening company, found.

Moving because of a bad boss or co-worker can be a mistake, because you’re assuming that the other employees at your new job will welcome you with open arms without a hint of competition or long-simmering resentments with their own corporate culture.

“People assume everything is going to be newer, and shinier, but it’s not,” said West, who is also the author of Jerks at Work. “If you stay in companies for a long time, you get into a situation where people are fighting over the dishes, but they’re not fighting over the dishes, they’re fighting over something that happened 10 years ago. We’re dealing with institutional memory loss when we move workplaces. It’s going to result in a lot of horizontal moves over 5 or 6 years because we have that bias.”

‘I’m skeptical of wellness experts at work and attempts to address micro-aggression in the workplace. They often don’t get at the real root of the issues, and tend to slap a Band-Aid on the problem.’

— Tessa West, NYU social psychology professor and author of ‘Jerks at Work’

There has been a reckoning in recent years with a push for more diversity, inclusivity and cultural awareness at U.S. companies eager to hire high-quality workers, but West does not always believe these efforts are substantial.

“There’s a feverish push to throw everything against the wall and see what sticks. I’m skeptical of wellness experts at work and attempts to address micro-aggression in the workplace,” she said. “They often don’t get at the real root of the issues, and tend to slap a Band-Aid on the problem. It solves who we hire, it doesn’t set up people for success. It will lead to more revolving doors of talent. You’ve got to kill the ‘hidden curriculum’ where people with a higher social class succeed.”

Bottom line: The COVID-19 pandemic has increased people’s desire to work in a healthy environment — whether they spend their time with members of the public or with other co-workers — and also achieve a better work-life balance.

That, in turn, has impacted the number of hours that people wished to work, Faberman, ?ahin and Mueller added in their NBER report. “The labor market is tighter than suggested by the unemployment rate and the adverse labor supply effect of the pandemic is more pronounced than implied by the labor force participation rate,” they said.

Child-care needs play only one part, the study suggested. “Our evidence does not support the notion that the contraction in labor supply is driven mostly by women responding to child-care demands,” the researchers added. “Instead, the drop in desired hours is pervasive across most demographic groups, with somewhat larger declines among those with less than a college degree.”

“The decline is also concentrated among what we refer to as the intensive margin of labor force participation. This margin represents individuals who prefer to work infrequently, and when they do, they generally prefer part-time work hours,” they wrote. “This decline contributed to the rapid tightening of the labor market following the onset of the pandemic.”