Future-Proof Your Workforce: Behavioral Health Insights to Help Retain Employees
By Daniel N. Jolivet, PhD, Workplace Possibilities Practice Consultant, The Standard
Every company faces three challenges to remain in business, regardless of its products or services. The company must:
- retain sufficient employees to maintain output;
- replace workers who leave and recruit workers as the business expands; and
- develop organizational resilience to adapt and thrive in the face of accelerating change.
These challenges became more pressing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the onset of the pandemic, one of the emerging themes that will have a direct effect on future employment is the Great Resignation. Although U.S. resignation rates fell to a multi-year low in the first months of the pandemic, they quickly rebounded and increased to record levels that will likely continue in 2022.1
To retain workers, it’s crucial for employers to understand the varied factors that lead to resignations. The Great Resignation was prompted by multiple issues:
- For many workers, it is more accurately seen as the “Great Renegotiation” as they leave jobs for better opportunities, particularly better pay or benefits.2
- For others, it might be called the “Great Disengagement” with an increasing percentage of the workforce reporting they are not engaged or actively disengaged from their work and are feeling less connected and committed to their employers.3
- Some employees who were able to work remotely have relocated to areas that better meet their personal needs in what has been called a “Great Migration”. These workers are more likely to change jobs than move back and return to offices.
- Specific industries are experiencing the “Great Burnout” as workers in sectors including healthcare, law enforcement, and education leave careers because of chronic stress, overwork, and a perception they can no longer be effective.4
- A significant percentage of people who are not working stopped because of issues with their physical or mental health.5
Lost in the discussion is the fact that resignation rates have been steadily increasing since 2010,6 and the number of workers in the gig economy has risen. In fact, 35% of Americans now perform independent or freelance work.7 Gig workers benefit from greater flexibility and independence, but do not have the stability or work-related benefits of traditional employees.
Taken together, it might be more appropriate to call the current trend a Great Reprioritization, as societal changes are leading workers to reconsider work choices.
From this perspective, managers need to understand their employees’ evolving priorities, which should influence a retention plan designed to meet employee expectations and address underlying causes of resignations. Three interrelated strategies can guide these efforts:
- Prioritizing worker well-being to maintain health and mental wellness
- Focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to allow all people to contribute to the full extent of their abilities
- Building organizational resilience
Future-proofing — which entails designing your workforce strategy to anticipate changes to minimize their effect — is a natural outcome of those three actions. Employees who feel supported and validated can bring their full capacity to their jobs, which means they can anticipate barriers and cope effectively with change. Similarly, resilient organizations are better able to adapt and respond to market developments so they can capitalize on opportunities.
Fostering individual resilience among the workforce and organizational resilience across the enterprise creates a circle in which employees and employers mutually reinforce efforts that allow the company to thrive, even in the most difficult circumstances.
In this type of environment, people at every level can anticipate trends and help the organization ensure future success. Changes are viewed as opportunities, and workers have a chance to develop new skills, explore new career options, and thrive.8
Prioritizing Employee Well-Being
One strategy that may stem worker resignations is focusing on employee well-being. Increasing benefits for mental and emotional wellness can shift the conversation for individuals seeking better compensation (pay plus benefits) while increasing employee satisfaction and engagement.9 An emphasis on well-being requires companies to examine opportunities for flexibility, identify and correct toxic elements of their culture, mitigate burnout, and support workers’ physical and mental health.
This is particularly important since the pandemic has prompted unprecedented rates of mental health issues and substance use disorders among American workers.10
A second approach is to partner with benefit vendors to maximize available services. While we know that an employer-sponsored wellness program, employee assistance program, and health insurance plans can support employee well-being, don’t overlook other programs. For example, disability insurance companies frequently offer stay-at-work services that can help workers remain at jobs instead of taking disability leaves, while increasing employee morale, productivity, and retention.
These services are likely to be increasingly important as large numbers of American workers report difficulties related to long COVID, also known as post-acute sequelae of COVID-19 (PASC). These tactics must reflect the specific issues affecting a company’s workforce. An approach that merely checks the wellness box is unlikely to be effective.
Finding New Workers Through DEI Efforts
Recruitment practices have evolved during the pandemic because of challenges with hiring people remotely and an ongoing labor shortage but overall recruitment strategies remain largely unchanged from pre-pandemic norms.11
One way to increase the recruitment pipeline is to complete a diversity assessment of applicants, new hires, and employees. If your workforce doesn’t look like the population, it is possible viable candidates are being excluded. For example, an employer with few nonwhite workers may benefit from identifying avenues to reach applicants of other ethnicities and ensuring recruitment and hiring practices do not reflect unspoken biases. From this perspective, DEI efforts are a matter of maximizing opportunities for everyone to contribute to the economy to their greatest ability, not merely social justice.
Too often, disability status is an overlooked dimension in DEI programs, and people with disabilities have consistently higher rates of unemployment than the general population.12 This was exacerbated during the initial months of the pandemic when more than a million U.S. workers with disabilities lost their jobs.13 This disparity is particularly striking with respect to people with disabilities who are college-educated, of whom only about a quarter (26.7%) were employed in 2020.14
With respect to the most common and apparent disabilities, few companies reflect the rate those disabilities are present in the population15:
- Almost 14% of Americans have mobility impairments, including more than 17 million adults younger than 65 years of age.
- Almost 6% of Americans have hearing impairments.
- Almost 5% of Americans have vision impairments.
While people with specific disabilities are not able to perform every job, the likelihood of a persistent labor shortage makes it imperative that companies overcome all biases against people with disabilities that prevent them from identifying and hiring qualified candidates.
Research suggests that employers overestimate the cost of accommodating people with disabilities and have unjustified concerns about employing them. Hiring managers are not sure how to handle these workers’ needs, expect they will require additional supervision, and worry that disciplining or firing these employees will lead to legal liability. There is also evidence that ignorance and negative stereotypes related to people with disabilities contribute to low employment rates.
The reality is almost the exact opposite. More than half of workplace accommodations cost nothing, and the average cost for the rest is $500.16 People with disabilities have higher than average motivation to work, better work quality, more consistent performance, and greater loyalty to their employers.17 Further, companies that focus on disability inclusion have demonstrated improved business performance, greater levels of innovation, productivity, shareholder value, and market share.18
The exclusion of people with disabilities from the workplace makes less and less sense as a significant percentage of the workforce transitions to remote work, and technological advances make it possible to accommodate the limitations and restrictions of even severe disabilities.
Organizational Resilience Helps Employees Thrive
Organizational efforts to retain employees and recruit a diverse workforce can also increase organizational resilience. These three key components of a healthy workplace culture also foster employee well-being, which reinforces organizational resilience.
- Workplace civility. A culture of positive gestures of courtesy and kindness leads to improved communication and information sharing within organizations, fewer workplace conflicts, increased productivity, lower absenteeism, and lower turnover.
- DEI. Treating all employees with respect and dignity across intersecting identities related to age, culture, disabilities, gender, race, sexual orientation, and other factors allows employees to bring their whole selves to work in appropriate ways and has been shown to increase a team’s ability to identify trends, risks, and potential solutions.
- Psychological safety. Encouraging this teamwide feeling of belonging and a belief that others won’t punish or humiliate a team member for making a mistake or speaking up improves problem solving and decisions.
The use of trauma-informed management, which applies research into the effect of trauma on brain functioning to supervision within the workplace, can supplement these tools. It is reasonable to presume that most Americans have been traumatized by events during the last two years, which can lead some to perceive neutral situations as threatening and that can trigger an amygdala response for fight or flight.
Managers trained in this approach know how to remove individuals from environments that are perceived as threatening and intervene in ways that promote healing rather than inadvertently retraumatizing employees.19
The pandemic has challenged individual and organizational resilience, and it is reshaping the economy. By acknowledging this reality and focusing on employee well-being, employers can retain employees, recruit additional workers, and future-proof their operations.
As the world changes at an ever-increasing pace, companies must anticipate future needs and upskill workers to meet the challenges ahead. In doing so, they demonstrate their commitment to helping employees thrive.
- Interactive Chart: How Historic Has the Great Resignation Been? SHRM. Mar. 9, 2022. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3FOp8Sh
- Rosalsky G. The Great Resignation? More Like the Great Renegotiation. NPR, Jan. 25, 2022. Retrieved from https://n.pr/3LKX45O
- Gandhi V, JRobison. The ‘Great Resignation’ Is Really the ‘Great Discontent.’ Gallup, July 22, 2021. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3yXndIm
- Mayer K. What’s Behind the Great Resignation? Blame Burnout. Human Resource Executive. Sept. 30, 2021. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3inDsrV
- Bulcho N, A Dua, et al. America 2022 in Charts: An Economic Opportunity Snapshot. McKinsey & Company. Dec. 13, 2021. Retrieved from https://mck.co/35nVsPS
- Richter F. The Great Resignation. Statista. Jan. 11, 2022. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/35JsFVX
- Statista Research Department. Gig Economy in the U.S. — Statistics and Facts. Statista. Jan. 21, 2021. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3DHdRUu
- Shimkus D. 5 Ways to Future-Proof Your Workforce. Forbes. Dec. 2, 2019. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3Ji3t6x
- Hackbarth N, A Brown, et al. Workplace Well-Being. SHRM. Quantum Workplace. Undated. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2SQIRZO
- The Standard Insurance Company. COVID-19 Pandemic Impact on Behavioral Health in the Workplace. 2020. Retrieved from https://www.standard.com/eforms/21962.pdf
- Russell C. Viewpoint: 17 Creative Recruitment Strategies to Attract More Job Applicants. SHRM. Apr. 19, 2021. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3ucSjMe
- Persons With a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics Summary. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Feb. 24, 2022. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3r4FJwL
- Smith A. A Million People With Disabilities Have Lost Jobs During the Pandemic. SHRM. Aug. 28, 2020. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/34idrU3
- Statista Research Department. Employment Rate of Persons With a Disability in the United States in 2020, By Educational Attainment. Statista. March 4, 2021. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3uTYnZj
- CDC. Disability Impacts All of Us. Sept. 16, 2020. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2JI89FT
- Job Accommodation Network. Benefits and Costs of Accommodations. Oct. 21, 2020. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3u8oFHX
- Aichner T. The Economic Argument for Hiring People With Disabilities. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications. Jan. 22, 2021. Retrieved from www.nature.com/articles/s41599-021-00707-y#citeas
- American Association of People with Disabilities. Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage. Accenture. Retrieved from https://accntu.re/3hIOY13
- Doyle N. Trauma-Informed Management — Four Essential Skills for a Longer Term Crisis. Forbes. Oct. 30, 2020. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/35JFS0Z