Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

BusinessJune 28, 2022

In a labour market this tight, why are so many of us scared for our jobs?

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

There’s rarely been a better time to look for a new job, yet employees everywhere are racked with anxiety about low pay, work stress and the threat of redundancy. What’s going on?

This is an edited version of an article first published on Bernard Hickey’s newsletter The Kākā.

Our jobs market has never been tighter and half of workers are thinking of quitting for better pay and conditions. So why are so few asking their current bosses for a better deal? It turns out Covid has heightened our anxieties, including about losing our jobs, despite employers reporting the worst skill shortages ever.

In the latest episode of When the Facts Change, I speak to Jarrod Haar (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Mahuta), AUT professor of human resource management, about what’s going on. Haar has been conducting regular surveys of workers since the onset of Covid and is seeing increasing levels of anxiety. Almost half of workers looking to change jobs, yet few are approaching their employers for a better deal. Meanwhile many are still worried they’re about to be made redundant.

Listen to Bernard’s Hickey conversation with Professor Jarrod Haar above, and follow When the Facts Change on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

More in demand, more willing to jump – and more anxious

It’s been the best of times. And the worst of times.

After more than two years of lockdowns, working from home, hybrid working, burning out, quitting, hiring, emigrating and way-too-many Zoom calls, how are workers and bosses in Aotearoa adjusting to the new world of work in a state of perma-Covid?

To put it simply: we want out. The percentage of respondents to Haar’s Wellbeing@Work rolling survey who are thinking of jumping ship has risen dramatically.

Immediately prior to the pandemic, around a third were considering leaving their jobs. By the same time last year, those “most likely to consider leaving” was at 46%. “So, we’re getting close to half the workforce seriously considering changing job,” Haar told RNZ.

“It’s definitely on the way up, and maybe most telling is those who didn’t have any thoughts of leaving their job was 19% in May last year, now that’s down to 9%,” he continued.

“So, 90% of the workforce are at least kind of rubbing the chin going yeah, maybe, I’ll think and have a look around.”

So why aren’t workers more confident?

Pre-Covid, an unemployment rate of close to 3% and reported skill shortages at their worst-ever levels would have made workers slightly more relaxed about their job security and, you’d think, more willing to ask their boss for better pay and conditions. (That’s assuming, of course, that the main reason they want to switch is the boss’s management style, rather than pay and conditions, reflecting the adage about employees leaving managers, not companies.)

Yet Haar reports just over 10% of workers have recently asked their boss for better pay and conditions. That’s at the same time that almost half are seriously looking to switch jobs. I remember a management colleague in London once remarking to me that Kiwis tended not to want to confront their colleagues or bosses. Instead, they passive-aggressively stew.

While employers are right to feel extra nervous these days that an email from their apparently happiest employee will land in their inbox with the subject line ‘Resignation’, there’s also something more substantial going on. This time is different.

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We’re stressed and anxious to the max

Instead of demanding pay hikes and expecting a surge in inflation-related wages (as many economists and central bankers are saying is inevitable), workers are actually more worried about being sacked and less confident about higher wages.

It’s as if these last two years of intense work and home-life stress, and the more recent economic and societal upheavals, have left the workforce with a collective case of PTSD. We’re all jumping at shadows and nervously waiting for the axe to fall, even though in most cases nothing could be further from the truth (perhaps with the exception of the crypto industry).

Haar has found that workers and managers are increasingly stressed out, with the proportion of those surveyed deemed to be at high risk of burnout rising from 11.3% just before the first Covid lockdown to 35.2% in November 2021. Māori men, women with family and other responsibilities, and those using digital devices the most reported having the highest risk of burnout.

“Māori were overrepresented in this study at 23.9% of the sample. They were well represented in management positions, but much were more likely to be male and have dependents, and they were slightly more likely to report higher work demands and face higher levels of bureaucracy in their workplace – a perfect storm of burn out,” Haar wrote when the survey noted the trend towards higher burnout rates.

“Workers are genuinely tired. Organisations may want to go the extra distance and see if they can do a bit more to acknowledge their employees’ dedication and fatigue.”

Churn is much more expensive than retention

Haar says the best organisations are those able to preempt employee burnout and unprompted resignations well ahead of time. He notes replacing an experienced employee can cost tens of thousands of dollars in lost working hours, delayed projects, recruitment costs and the spillover stress for colleagues.

In an attempt to preemptively address workplace dissatisfaction among white-collar workers, an increasing number of employers are offering staff the opportunity to work from home, including hybrid options. Nearly half of employees are still in hybrid working from home environments, up from 42% in the first year of Covid and just 2.8% pre-Covid. That is helping to reduce stress for some workers.

Most depressed, even with record low unemployment

This overall cognitive dissonance – employee anxiety along with massive skill shortages and rising wages – is evident in other employee surveys.

Westpac’s quarterly McDermott Miller Employment Confidence Survey reported on Friday a fall in overall employee confidence, including falls in perceptions of job security and earnings prospects to near record lows, even though household incomes (as opposed to like-for-like hourly wages) are still rising faster than CPI inflation.

This chart shows the net percentage of workers expecting to be earning more in a year down to near record-lows.

This shows how insecure they feel, despite the record-low 3.2% unemployment rate.

And this chart shows just how nervous workers are about the wider economy in the long run.

Follow Bernard Hickey’s When the Facts Change on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

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