There’s something keeping people from clicking “Apply Now.”
The early May 2021 jobs report fell sharply below analyst expectations, with hundreds of thousands fewer new jobs filled than expected. At the same time, even a casual observer can find “Now Hiring” signs everywhere, a phenomenon that headlines have also captured. How can both be true? While explanations from experts may differ, the large gap between job openings and applications shows us that there’s a problem to solve.
What’s on the mind of workers?
Part of the answer rests in understanding the mindsets of workers at this stage of the pandemic’s influence. For those of us concerned with the nuts and bolts of hiring, it’s worth investigating what workers want, what they have experienced during this tumultuous period, and how the pandemic has scrambled the hiring manager’s playbook. The ways in which individuals approach the job search — and their beliefs about how they want to earn a paycheck — may have changed for good.
The Traitify Happiness Report provides us with a better understanding. Our investigation of over 1,000 people found that hourly workers cited job security and pay as top priorities mid-pandemic, exceeding relationships with supervisors or opportunities for advancement. In times of stress and change, workers focus on the here-and-now. Not surprisingly, they value being able to meet their material needs. Also important: confidence that a job won’t disappear or be diminished.
Gone missing: psychological safety for the hourly workforce
This brings us to reconsider a concept first discussed by Google in the mid-2010’s: “psychological safety.” Key elements: the free discussion of ideas, tolerance of questions, and space to admit making a mistake. Despite its clear value to enhance decision making and promote innovation, psychological safety is often not easy to achieve. This is true even under the most straightforward of circumstances. As analysts wrote this spring for Harvard Business Review, achieving psychological safety in pandemic-changed workplaces presents a new challenge. “The problem is, as the boundary between work and life becomes increasingly blurry, managers must make staffing, scheduling, and coordination decisions that take into account employees’ personal circumstances — a categorically different domain.”
But discussions like these tend to focus on office dynamics and the switch to remote work. That leaves an important gap: understanding what psychological safety means for the many individuals in the paid workforce who are hourly workers. These individuals have dealt with the same myriad challenges as the office-based workforce, some even more so. Those worries spill into the workday hours for preschool aides, baristas, and grounds maintenance workers as readily as they do for those who work in cubicles and conference rooms.
What does psychological safety look like across all industries and workplace settings, from warehouses to commercial kitchens to retail counters?
The fundamental issue therefore at hand: what does psychological safety look like across all industries and workplace settings, from warehouses to commercial kitchens to retail counters? Relatedly, how do business decisions — workplace regulations, staffing, wages, and employee evaluations — impact success in promoting inclusive psychological safety?
An uncomfortable truth: jobs aren’t making people happier
In our Happiness Report, we noted an interesting disconnect: while hourly workers generally felt their employers handled the acute months of the pandemic well, putting employer response at an average of 71 on a 100-point scale, they were unlikely to say they became happier during their on-the-job hours than when not working. Only 16.2% of workers in our survey claimed to be “somewhat” or “much” happier at work. Although workers welcome a regular paycheck, the benefit of work largely stopped there for many. So we must ask ourselves: why don’t people like going to work?
The answers are numerous. Poor matches likely play a role. An energetic, competitive person, for example, needs a job in which they can be active and strive to meet incentives. Another likely culprit: the lack of employee engagement initiatives to promote personal growth, instill loyalty, and develop long-term goals.
Another major route to happiness at work may be simpler than we think. While we have thoughtfully considered how to maximize performance for offices and today’s remote analogues, we haven’t done enough to apply these important concepts to hourly workers. Are workers comfortable asking questions? Do they understand their value in suggesting changes or pointing out concerns? Is it risky to make a special request, such as a change in hours or a break to tend to family needs?
As we discuss in the Happiness Report:
For many, "psychological safety’"may involve basic worker protections, but also environments in which workers receive logistical support amid a culture of being valued. Comfort with communicating shift preferences, flexible scheduling, willingness to report procedural breaches, access to sick days, and consistent, reliable income all constitute psychological safety for considerable numbers of workers.
As we recalibrate employment practices and adjust to a final stage of the pandemic, let’s take our “lessons learned” as innovations that will change workplaces for the better. Our new recognition of the importance of “essential” workers should mean that we bring their needs, from health to a fair wage to psychological safety, to the top of our priorities list.