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IN FOCUS: When employees feel burned out and undervalued at work, how can they be persuaded to stay?

With more people thinking about making changes to their working lives after nearly two years of COVID-19, CNA looks at what employers can do to reverse what has been dubbed globally as the Great Resignation.

IN FOCUS: When employees feel burned out and undervalued at work, how can they be persuaded to stay?

Although employees leave for a multitude of reasons, some turnover issues are more difficult to resolve than others. (Illustration: Rafa Estrada)

SINGAPORE: There was nothing that Lina’s former employer could have done to persuade her to stay.

Feeling undervalued in her role as a pharmacist at a public healthcare institution and with COVID-19 making her reassess her life priorities, she decided it was time for a change.

“I mainly left because I’d been thinking for a while that because the work is not always easy, and people need to be valued for the work that they do. I felt that the appreciation for the work that we do is not really sufficient to deal with the stresses of daily work,” she told CNA. 

The COVID-19 pandemic made this situation worse, she added. While it was previously already difficult to take leave, it became “practically impossible” from the start of the “circuit breaker” period, said Lina, who asked for her real name not to be used. 

“Eventually the cons just started outweighing the pros.” 

Lina is part of a global trend dubbed the Great Resignation, which is seeing growing numbers of employees decide to move on to new jobs. This often follows a period of reflection about what they want out of life after nearly two years of living with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The trend overseas has been mostly attributed to employee burnout and wage freezes over the past two years. Many workers who delayed their resignations because of the pandemic are leaving their jobs now as the situation stabilises. 

While labour market numbers from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) do not show an increase in overall resignation rates, experts and recruiters confirmed that they are seeing signs that the trend is emerging in Singapore, with a spike across industries in people looking for something new.

The actual data will “lag” and probably only reflect the trend from the first quarter of 2022, said Mr Adrian Tan, HR expert and future of work strategist at the Institute for Human Resource Professionals (IHRP). 

Surveys also show that workers are likely to be seeking out a new opportunity soon. One by recruitment agency Robert Walters found that 52 per cent of respondents were looking to change jobs within the next six months. 

And there are pockets of data emerging that confirm the higher attrition rates. For example, about 1,500 healthcare workers resigned in the first half of 2021, compared to about 2,000 annually before the pandemic. 

HOW CAN EMPLOYERS HANG ON TO STAFF?

With working life poised to return to some kind of normality as Singapore inches towards pre-pandemic norms, what will convince employees like Lina to stay in their jobs? 

Although workers are leaving for the same reasons as before - better compensation, job prospects or work-life balance - the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated attrition for many firms as individuals take stock of their priorities, experts said. 

Many employees who leave during this period also cite that they feel undervalued or underappreciated, and resigned to find more meaningful and purposeful work, they added. How companies supported their workers throughout the pandemic will also influence whether employees choose to stay. 

“Companies need to determine who is leaving. Not all attrition is bad. There are functional turnovers and dysfunctional turnovers. If their poor-performing employees are leaving, then this type of turnover may be considered to be functional if companies are able to hire better-performing ones,” said Dr Sherwin Ignatius Chia, a senior lecturer with the S R Nathan School of Human Development at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS). 

“However, if your top performers are leaving, then this may be dysfunctional especially if you are losing your top talents to competitors and you are unable to get an equivalent or better replacement.” 

Lina, who is in her late 20s, stressed that she did not resign because of the stress from working as a healthcare worker during the pandemic. 

“It was just a build-up of feeling underappreciated for my work, not really related to the pandemic, like the amount of stress increased unimaginably. No, it’s more of a general sense of underappreciation for the work that we do,” she added. 

The slew of pay increases and bonuses for healthcare workers rolled out by the Government was not enough to make Lina stay. 

She first had thoughts of leaving the job almost a year ago, and spent months looking for a new opportunity that would allow her to have a “more sustainable” lifestyle. She said colleagues also resigned for similar reasons. 

Seeing her colleagues resign also prompted her to think about her next move, she said. Since healthcare workers work mostly in teams, every resignation means a hit in terms of workload and team morale. 

“When you see two or three of your friends leave, you suddenly re-evaluate the pros and cons of working there. Previously, you were staying on because your friends were here, but if you leave you will lose the camaraderie. But now they are gone … what do you have left?” 

Lina took a significant pay cut to move to her current job - a similar role in a private healthcare organisation. 

“I was looking for an environment that values mental health. I wouldn’t say prioritise, but rather (an environment that) looks after the mental health of its employees. One that gives more personal space and time, in the sense of not being always on, and giving me the environment to work in a sustainable way rather than burn yourself out from the job,” she added. 

Office workers wearing protective face masks at Raffles Place on Sep 6, 2021. (Photo: CNA/Gaya Chandramohan)

The reasons why employees leave vary by position level, noted Dr Wu Peichuan, deputy academic director of the Masters programme in human capital management and analytics at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School. 

“At the non-managerial level, employees are concerned about pay and benefits, growth opportunities, and underutilised skills,” she told CNA. 

“Middle management tend to focus on growth opportunities, pay and benefits, and wellbeing, while those at the director or VP level cite growth opportunities, change in leadership, and transparency in leadership communications.”

While these are normal reasons for employees to quit, the pandemic has exacerbated the speed of employees leaving, since many companies have frozen pay increases and bonuses, as well as cut base pay and promotion opportunities during this period, said Dr Wu. 

“So the only way to move up or earn more is to move out,” she added. 

SOME PROBLEMS EASIER TO FIX THAN OTHERS

It is never too late for companies to hold on to workers who may already be looking for their next role, experts said. 

While each employee is different, there are a few things most companies can do to retain workers, although some problems are more difficult to fix than others. 

If the key problems are compensation and benefits or career progression, companies can try to retain the employee by trying to match their expectations, especially if they are high performers, said Dr Chia. 

Counter offers are still “very common these days” for companies who want to try to retain people even after they resign, said senior partner at recruitment agency Page Executive Jessy Wong. 

With the cuts and reductions made in 2020, many companies recovered in 2021, and employers should be clear that workers would expect a salary review, said Randstad managing director for Singapore and Malaysia Jaya Dass. 

“Companies can also start to discuss with the employee on the future career plans and when the plan will be rolled out,” said Dr Chia. 

“Companies must ensure that this plan is executed, otherwise it will be a violation of a psychological contract.” 

LOOKING FOR A CAREER CHANGE

But not all employees leave for compensation or career growth-related reasons. 

For 26-year-old Gordon Chia, who resigned from his job in a public relations firm to pursue a career switch to software development, nothing could have made him stay in his previous role even though the culture at his firm was “pretty good”, he told CNA. 

“I decided that I did not like what I was doing. Basically, I lost the joy of doing PR, and I decided that I would rather do something closer to my hobbies and passions, which were tech-related,” said Mr Chia.  

After realising that he wanted to move on to something new, he took a few days of leave to consider his options. 

“I think one of the conclusions that I drew is that, realistically, I’m 20-something. I’m very likely going to live maybe 60 to 70 years more, and then that’s it. I thought to myself, do I want to pursue a job for money and just work a lot, not be very happy with it, and then get some money so I can spend some money at the end of my life? 

“Or do I want to find a job that actually fulfills me? It doesn’t need to pay that much, but if it fulfills me, won’t my life be a lot happier?” 

Mr Chia’s ex-bosses were very supportive when he shared his reasons for his departure, which shocked him. 

“When I told them I wanted to do something else, all of them were like, ‘Oh that’s a surprise, but we really appreciate you telling us and we’re very happy to see where you’re going next’,” he said, adding that he is still in contact with his former colleagues. 

After resigning, Mr Chia went on to enroll in a three-month intensive software engineering course while not drawing a salary, and found a job as a software developer in an AI startup soon after. 

Morning rush hour at Raffles Place MRT station. (PHOTO: Gaya Chandramohan)

Employees like Mr Chia and Lina, who resign in search of more purposeful work or better mental health and well-being are more difficult to retain, said SUSS' Dr Chia. 

“It will be difficult if these reasons exist due to a misfit between the employee and the company either in terms of values or these reasons result in a lack of trust in managers and leaders or both,” he added. 

“These problems will not be addressed overnight as they likely existed for a long period of time and have become deeply ingrained in the culture.” 

To address the possibility of staff turnover, leaders and managers must acknowledge these problems and be genuine in addressing them, said Dr Chia. 

“Plans for change must be communicated and results must be shared regularly so that employees can see that the culture is changing for the better. But this change is not easy and can take a while.” 

Is 2021 the year when employees take back control over work amid predictions of a great resignation wave? Listen to CNA's Heart of the Matter:

EMPLOYEES DON'T WANT TO 'GO BACKWARDS'

As Singapore emerges from the pandemic, people are not prepared to “go backwards” to a life that was more stressful, said Randstad’s Ms Dass. 

This includes pre-pandemic issues like commute times, a lack of work flexibility and options for staff to work remotely, as well as not having space for mental health, she added. 

“If their employer cannot demonstrate they have learned from the last two years and are prepared to make changes to work and expectations and also take into account employee feedback, they are going to lose good talent to other organisations who have a better EVP (employee value proposition) on their learning from COVID and how they have changed,” said Ms Dass. 

Experts urged companies to be empathetic and willing to listen to employees in finding out what they are expecting to see post-pandemic. 

“The level of empathy that we need to show our employees needs to be a lot higher because everyone is maybe going through different, unique situations during the pandemic or as we are coming out of pandemic,” said Page Executive’s Ms Wong. 

For example, US bank JP Morgan recently announced that it would provide US$5,000 of quarantine reimbursement for a single trip for Hong Kong staff to visit their loved ones within the next year. 

“That, to me, is showing the level of empathy for people that are away from their family, that want to go and see their family. Sure it’s a benefit but it is not so much of a compensation,” said Ms Wong. 

“If you're saying that I’m increasing US$5,000 to your pay, for some people it is insignificant. 

“However… if the company says that we’ll pay for your quarantine, even though it's the same amount, the meaning behind this gesture, the meaning behind this benefit will be perceived very differently because the company is understanding the hardship or difficulties of somebody who’s away from their family.”

People wearing face masks are seen at the Raffles Place financial business district in Singapore on Sep 14, 2021. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

Companies should be proactive to check in with employees regularly, and have transparent discussions about areas like progression and job satisfaction, said Mr Monty Sujanani, country manager for Robert Walters Singapore

“Companies can also deep-dive into what their talent value most, and focus on addressing them and communicating them more clearly,” he added. 

Feedback surveys can help companies ensure that they are in touch with what their staff needs with the “ebb and flow” of the pandemic, said Ms Dass. 

“Companies need to take authentic actions to address employee experience-related challenges, with the leaders leading the way. The most pressing issue encountered by companies is whether their employees should return to the office to work when they can resume their tasks in the office setting,” said NUS’ Dr Wu. 

“When the time comes, would companies provide chances or options for their employees? Who should be consulted regarding flexibility in work-life decisions? Another pressing issue is how to continue to support employees in the areas of well-being in a fair and respectable manner.” 

As companies move to stem the possible outflow of employees, experts were split on whether attrition rates would continue to climb after this surge passes, cementing the trend of lower job loyalty. 

The trend will cease depending on how companies address existing turnover issues, said Dr Wu. 

“I think this is a circumstantial trend. It's this release from the tension of the last two years that many feel they need to do something significant to shake off that feeling of loss of freedom and also the need to shake off the stress of this pandemic,” said Ms Dass. 

However, if the pandemic is here to stay and a sense of normalcy and control is still out of reach for the next few years, this will be a persistent trend as more people will make changes in their lives to continue to cope, she added. 

Similarly, IHRP’s Mr Tan expects the surge in resignations to subside when things have “somewhat normalised”. 

When travelling returns to normal, workers will spend more of their savings on that, limiting their ability to tender their resignation at short notice, he added. 

Beyond resignations triggered by the pandemic, Assoc Prof Trevor Yu of the Nanyang Business School at Nanyang Technological University expects the general trend of reduced commitment and job loyalty to continue. 

“Societal attitudes towards job-hopping and loyalty have been on the decline for decades. There are also more alternative forms of employment outside of the usual full-time employment model which tends to be more long-term,” he added. 

This gives people the autonomy and flexibility to move freely between jobs based more on their personal interests, values and ambition, said Assoc Prof Yu. 

For workers who find themselves increasingly compelled to look for other opportunities that better suit them, Mr Chia urged those who no longer find fulfillment in their current jobs to take the leap. 

“Just move. If you really find a job that you like, just take it. I believe that if you are passionate enough for that role, you will automatically just propel yourself into the role. You’ll grow into it a lot better than you are at your current job.” 

Source: CNA

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