Financial Poise

No One Wants to Work Anymore… Not for You, At Least

When the unemployment data broke at the end of last week, we had front-row seats to a master class in spin. Those on the left side of the aisle claimed that the number of jobs added to the economy was a victory. Those on the right side of the aisle countered by saying that we now had more jobs than we had unemployed people, echoing a refrain that predictably pops up during every inflationary period:

People just don’t want to work anymore.

Is that really true, though? Or might it be time to reconsider our understanding of what good work looks like?

The State of American Labor

When most of us consider what makes a “job” – particularly when salaried – we think about the 40-hour work week. But as historian Benjamin Hunnicut explained on NPR’s Planet Money, this understanding of “work” is pretty new. As the episode explained:

The human history of work can be summed up very roughly, Hunnicutt says, in three big chapters, from hunting and gathering through early farming, when humans worked basically just as much as they needed to survive. Anthropologists estimate that was way less than 40 hours. Then skip to the Industrial Revolution. Factories spring up with machines whirring from dawn until dusk, often six days a week. 70 or more working hours would have been common, at least in the early 1800s in the U.S. We can call this second chapter peak work. And the response, from workers, anyway, was the labor movement – protests, strikes, lobbying employers and the government for shorter workdays, among many other demands.

Active participants in the workforce over the past couple of decades, however, will attest to the fact that the actual workweek looks a lot closer to 70 hours of work than it does that lauded 40-hour framework. The ubiquity of technology has created a world where you’re expected to be on-call at all times – a stress-inducing pace of life that becomes more pronounced among younger cohorts and part-time service employees. It’s no secret that this has been making us sick for some time now, and that impact has been exacerbated by COVID times.

None of this is to say that the labor market hasn’t rebounded from the unemployment heights seen during the initial lockdowns. The recent numbers are pretty plain on that front. It’s more complicated than that, though. For starters, the currently incalculable impact of long COVID has led to more people out sick for longer and longer. This heightens the observed imbalance in job market recovery for black workers versus white workers, where black workers are disproportionately represented in frontline positions without paid sick leave. All of this is taking place against a backdrop of surging inflation.

Choosers Don’t Have to Beg

A complex and uneven recovery is not the popular narrative, though. It’s not the easy one nor does it fit neatly in a soundbite. The popular narrative is that, somehow, the harrowing collective experience of COVID and the subsequent relief packages magically altered the DNA of the American population in such a way that they no longer want to work.

In their end-of-the-year breakdown in 2021, HR firm TINYPulse released a report that highlighted two important figures: 58% of business and HR leaders believe hiring has become more difficult, while 1 in 5 believe that people just don’t want to work anymore. This data point sounded off among countless memes and images posted on social media of businesses hedging against service complaints with employment laments. Some of it was indubitably parody, but that hasn’t stopped people on both sides of the conversation from fanning the fire without nuance.

This particular line of argument is nothing new, as was brilliantly illustrated in a lengthy Twitter thread from University of Calgary researcher Paul Fairie that pulled examples of the trope from media reports stretching back to 1894:

History shows this sentiment to be factually incorrect. And that same TINYPulse report? It also indicated that employees view the situation entirely differently, with almost 70% of respondents disagreeing with the idea that people don’t want to work.

There’s clearly a disconnect here, but the argument persists. That might have something to do with the truth being uncomfortable.

Why Talent Feels Scarce

It’s no secret or surprise that attracting and retaining top talent is a major concern for employers, with nearly 3 in 4 indicating they’re having difficulty accomplishing that goal. That difficulty is understandable in the face of employee uncertainty over the jobs in front of them. Global research group The Conference Board reports that more than 30% of workers are planning on leaving their jobs in the near future. Why?

Poor COVID Accommodation

It might be tempting, given the duration of the pandemic to date, to believe that the worst of COVID is over. Science says otherwise. Forget the fact that President Biden just tested positive; the Director General of the World Health Organization argues that continued strain mutations are proof that the nightmare is far from over. Oh, and now there’s Monkeypox, which – contrary to the rumor mill – is not an STD isolated within the LGBTQ+ community but a “global health emergency” that is spreading faster than we can collect information on it.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that a failure by employers to deal with this new public health reality has pushed valuable employees out the door or kept them away altogether. While 58% of workers today report working one day or more per week and upwards of 80% say they would take advantage of flexible working arrangements if offered, when employers like Elon Musk insist on their people working on-site instead of “pretending” to work and myths about remote work get perpetuated time and time again, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate. Employees want to protect themselves, and companies insisting they insert unnecessary risk into their lives is not a good look.

This is especially pronounced in service roles, where exposure to the public pairs with insufficient hours, no paid sick leave, and poor compensation against a backdrop of inflation to make the work a poor return on your potential employee’s time investment.

Wage Stagnation

One major issue for people on the hunt for work is how, exactly, they’ll be compensated. With inflation on the rise, each dollar they make gets them less and less, so it’s not exactly shocking that wages are the deciding factor for most job applicants today.

The problem for employers is that they can’t understand why their wages are insufficient. After all, weekly wages are up 5.1% year over year. But context matters. As Economic Policy Institute Director of Research Josh Bivens points out, that wage growth is being outpaced by inflation, and when held relative to inflation, wages are actually going down. 

When considering the so-called labor shortage, job seekers and employees are in a better position to negotiate higher pay than they have been in years. When employers complain about people not wanting the jobs being offered or not wanting money, they’re leaving out the ugly truth: people don’t want the jobs employers are offering at their stated rates. As political journalist John Micek argues:

It’s not that people don’t want to work, but rather it’s that, after an earth-shattering 16 months that have seen hundreds of thousands of our family members, friends, and neighbors die at the hands of an implacable and indiscriminate foe, there’s just a genuine question of whether grinding it out for 40 hours a week at a job with substandard pay, low benefits, and little work-home balance is really worth it.

Increasingly, the answer is a resounding “No.”

In other words, if you want to attract and keep talent, you better be ready to pay for it.

Poor Work/Life Balance

COVID wasn’t (isn’t) a health crisis measured only by a body count. It has also fostered a global mental health crisis spurred by compounding stressors. Employment stability, income security, and overall financial well-being mixed with social isolation and broad anxieties in a way that led to significant burnout. The American Psychological Association explains:

According to the World Health Organization, burnout is a syndrome resulting from workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It’s characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy (World Health Organization, 2019).

As in 2020, American workers across the board saw heightened rates of burnout in 2021, and according to APA’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey of 1,501 U.S. adult workers, 79% of employees had experienced work-related stress in the month before the survey. Nearly 3 in 5 employees reported negative impacts of work-related stress, including lack of interest, motivation, or energy (26%) and lack of effort at work (19%). Meanwhile, 36% reported cognitive weariness, 32% reported emotional exhaustion, and an astounding 44% reported physical fatigue—a 38% increase since 2019.

This is, in part, a manifestation of the remote work double-edged sword. Working from home can eliminate the physical separation between work and home that commuting to an office offers. It goes beyond that, though. Remote work was new for a large portion of the workforce as pandemic shutdowns went into effect, and as everyone scrambled to adapt, boundaries became blurry.

PoliteMail, a corporate communications platform, reports that the sheer volume of emails being sent is overwhelming, with the biggest increase being over-the-weekend communications:

Source: PoliteMail

This world of permeable boundaries makes it increasingly difficult to keep a semblance of work/life balance, and has led to an increase in weekly hours worked of 8.2%. Is it any wonder people are burning out? Employers who fail to make mental health a priority are going to have a tougher time getting people to apply or stay.

Wildly Inappropriate Job Postings

There have been countless words typed about completely and totally unhinged job posting trends. We won’t waste too many more by listing out a million examples (you can see a snapshot here or over here or here) but it’s definitely a problem for employers.

Sentiment following the unemployment surge at the height of the pandemic seems to have exacerbated the deluded belief that employers can be exceedingly “picky” with their applicant pool. The tables have turned in the midst of the purported employment crunch. Is it really any surprise that applicants are passing over an entry-level position that requires ten years of experience, a master’s degree, and five personality tests before paying out a pittance of a salary? Or worse – signing on for an unpaid internship?

Not only does this limit the number of applications you receive for a given position but the quality and diversity you’ll see in your applicant pool. People will look at experience requirements in a posting and assume they aren’t qualified, even if they possess more relevant and valuable requisite skills or talent. Recruiting women may become more difficult, too, as they are less likely to apply for jobs unless they meet 100 percent of the qualifications. Tech recruits may roll their eyes as ad posts demonstrate a lack of organizational understanding of the role for which they’re hiring.

In other words, the copy you’re leveraging to attract talent has to be informed, accurate, and, well, connected to reality. Employers who are neglecting their HR efforts in this capacity shouldn’t be surprised by a less than satisfactory applicant pool. It’s the applicant’s turn to be picky.

The Bottom Line

People want to work. People always want to work. Even in European nations with universal basic income (UBI), people still seek out work. Even in the U.S., in fact, we’ve seen small-scale success with a UBI approach. But that’s not really what anyone is talking about.

When employers say people don’t want to work, they’re telling on themselves. They’re saying they don’t listen to their employees, evolve with the times, or value the people on their team. It’s not that people don’t want to work. They don’t want to work for you.

It doesn’t have to be this way. What can you do to improve your chances of attracting and keeping the right people?

  1. Pay a living wage. No, this is not the same thing as minimum wage or industry averages. This means layering that data with an understanding of regional economic dynamics and inflation trends in order to make sure you’re offering employment people want to stick around for instead of using your company as a rest stop.
  2. Offer remote work with few exceptions. Odds are that your employees know their own health and work capabilities better than you do. If their job does not explicitly require their physical presence at a specific location, give them the option to work at home full-time. If that was a bad call, you’ll find out pretty quickly. If not, you’re likely to see enhanced productivity and company loyalty from that hire.
  3. Lead by example on boundaries. It’s one thing to say your company believes in a healthy work/life balance. It’s another thing entirely to walk the walk. Stop with the afterhours emails and make it clear it’s not expected of your team, either.
  4. Listen closely during interviews. Want to know what applicants think about you? Ask them. Directly. Pay attention to what job candidates are telling you about priorities so you can make sure you stay competitive in the space.
  5. Listen closely to your team. The workplace is evolving. There is, on some level, a baked-in expectation of growing pains, but working through that requires an openness to feedback. That project management software you invested in? It might have sounded like a great idea at the time you invested, but if it’s holding your team back, listening to what they have to say is the only way to protect the investment you’ve already made into your people.

The hunt for talent is on and the competition is fierce. But if you play your cards right, ending up on top might be far simpler than you anticipated.

[Editors’ Note: To learn more about this and related topics, you may want to attend the following on-demand webinars (which you can listen to at your leisure and each includes a comprehensive customer PowerPoint about the topic):

©2022. DailyDACTM, LLC d/b/a/ Financial PoiseTM. This article is subject to the disclaimers found here.

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Article Comments

  • Cody says:

    This article is so blind, I run a construction company. Not all jobs can be “done remotely.” You can’t make the world function from your couch drinking a Nespresso all day.

    Our superintendents are paid 30k a year more then my sister, a licensed MD in one of Americas fastest growing towns.

    If you listen really closely to your teams what really happens is they will create an environment where they work less and your business produces less. You need to lead your own ship.

    These aren’t complaints just comments as these conditions have also created an environment to make money in the trades that has not existed in our life time.

    • Lauren Nelson says:

      You are absolutely correct that not all jobs can’t be done from home. That is not our contention. Our argument is that IF they can be done from home but employers insist on an in-office presence, their ability to recruit and retain talent will be diminished. But even with jobs that must be done in-person, the significance of elements such as competitive pay and active listening are still important. We’re grateful for your contributions to the conversation though!

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