Working Parents Are Demanding Empathy, but Companies Aren’t Delivering

We’ve all heard by now of the Great Resignation, a term that has been flooding inboxes, social media, and research reports since last spring. Coined by Anthony Klotz, a Texas A&M professor of organizational psychology, the Great Resignation predicted a mass exodus from the workforce.

Klotz was right—and what unfolded became larger than anyone could have imagined.

In the first year of the pandemic, the U.S. resignation rate fell to a 7-year low of 1.6%, but as the pandemic continued, workers began quitting their jobs in droves despite there already being massive labor shortages and high rates of unemployment—behavior akin to a widespread strike. Four million Americans quit their jobs in July 2021 alone, which resulted in a record-breaking 10.9 million open jobs.

Optimism Abounds for a Return to Normalcy in 2022

As the labor market enters a new year, hope abounds, with messages about 2022 being the year of the Great Return, the Great Renegotiation, or the Great Renewal, to name a few. While many employers long for the end of the pandemic and a return to normalcy, COVID-19 was merely the tipping point of decades-long brewing frustrations among workers, and employers are being forced to address the root causes of these frustrations head-on.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers survey from August 2021 reported that 88% of executives said their company was experiencing higher turnover than normal. While higher rates of turnover are expected among young employees, the majority who left the workforce in 2021 were between ages 30 and 45. It’s no coincidence that this is also the most common age range of parents with children under age 18.

Employees Wield the Power in the Post-Pandemic World

What’s happening? The pandemic has impacted parents of young and school-age children in unique ways. Between delayed vaccinations, unpredictability in school closures, and ever-changing protocols for COVID exposures, parents are facing massive employment and lifestyle disruptions. Each week is a gamble, with parents never knowing when their children will be in school and when the entire family will be in quarantine. This coupled with managing aging parents, many of whom have been negatively impacted by COVID-19, and delays in preventive care has resulted in a breaking point for many in the sandwich generation, who are continually forced to choose between working and being there for their families.

Because of the current market dynamics, we’ve entered into a first in the American labor market: Employees have the power. Plenty of jobs? Check. Flexibility to work in any geography? Check. Freedom to work the hours they want? Check. What we have is the Great Return—but not the return employers may be counting on. Instead, what we’re seeing is a return to simpler times, times when family came first and work second. American workers are tired of looking at friends and colleagues in other regions of the world and seeing a greater emphasis on work/life balance.

This is putting enormous pressures on businesses, which aren’t just losing workers to other opportunities; they are losing them to a restructuring of life priorities. While some organizations are getting creative in response to the caregiver crisis, like The New York Times’s primal scream hotline, which offers a safe space for mothers to scream, cry, laugh, or vent their current frustrations, many corporations have not been agile during the pandemic’s ebbs and flows. This is having a major impact on employee retention, especially in the industries that have experienced increased demands due to the pandemic, like health care and tech, sectors in which burnout has skyrocketed.

When employees across the United States were polled by LinkedIn, the number one reason for job dissatisfaction was a feeling that their employers don’t care about them. Empathy-driven policies, employee well-being, and work/life balance were the top three drivers of employee retention among Gen Z and millennials.

To Retain Talent, Employers Must Lead with Empathy

Some corporations are rising to the challenge with greater transparency thanks, in part, to the #ShowUsYourLeave hashtag that first went viral in early February 2022, but paid leave is only one fraction of the caring culture that midlevel employees so desperately seek. More than 50% of Gen Z and two-thirds of millennials want to see an increase in mental health and wellness support from their employers, yet a recent survey by Willis Towers Watson found that only 25% of U.S. employers have adopted a well-being strategy. Another Willis Towers Watson survey found that caregiving demands were the top driver of employee stress, yet only 20% of organizations have even asked their employees what they need most from caregiver support benefits.

Employers are falling behind the demands of the workforce. As parents continue to struggle with the impact of COVID-19 on their families, their careers, and themselves, Gen Z and millennials expect companies to provide an authentically caring culture, with an eye toward personal and family well-being.

And if they don’t? There are jobs, many of which are remote, and work flexibility that provide your employees with the options needed to return to a simpler life focused on family.

Adam Goldberg is CEO and Aimee Gindin is head of marketing and strategy at Torchlight, a LifeSpeak company.

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