Can there be harmony at work? After COVID-19 millions want nothing less

SOCIAL AFFAIRS: Millions of people worldwide have left their jobs over COVID-19 in what has been called the ‘Great Resignation.’

PATRONS OF A Jerusalem cafe. The pandemic gave people a chance to take stock of and reimagine their lives, said Dr. Talya Miron-Shatz, founding director of the Center for Medical Decision Making at Ono Academic College. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PATRONS OF A Jerusalem cafe. The pandemic gave people a chance to take stock of and reimagine their lives, said Dr. Talya Miron-Shatz, founding director of the Center for Medical Decision Making at Ono Academic College.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Naava Shafner took a big leap six months into the COVID-19 pandemic and left the top job she had been working at for five years to dive into something she was passionate about – despite a significant pay cut.

Then, nine months later, the Jerusalemite mother of three did it again, this time scoring a part-time consulting job for the same money she made in her previous, full-time position.

“Once I made the first leap, it was much easier to transition again,” she said. “I am happy where I am, but I am always open to new opportunities.”

Shafner said she is “chasing after harmony,” and what the pandemic has taught her is that transition is OK. Everything was so upended with COVID, she said, that her perspective shifted from believing she needed to stay on a certain path to “life is a journey, and when life gives you lemons, you should try to make orange juice.”

Shafner is one of millions of individuals who have reevaluated their job situations during the pandemic, becoming part of a movement that was coined by Prof. Anthony Klotz of Texas A&M University as the “Great Resignation.”

 Israeli self-employed protest the lack of financial support from the Israeli government in times of Corona, when many find themselves unemployed, on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, July 7, 2020.  (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90) Israeli self-employed protest the lack of financial support from the Israeli government in times of Corona, when many find themselves unemployed, on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, July 7, 2020. (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

He said that the pandemic led to a fundamental change in how people experience and value work.

How many people does this affect?

Well, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of quits increased in August to 4.3 million, bringing the quit rate to 2.9% – an all-time high.

One in five workers changed their line of work entirely over the past year, according to a survey conducted by Morning Consult in March 2021 for Prudential Financial, Inc. The top reasons for these changes were work-life balance, better compensation and trying something new.

That same survey also showed that this trend is likely still not over; more than a quarter of workers (26%) said they plan to look for a job with a different employer, once the threat of the pandemic has decreased.

The same statistics are not yet available in Israel, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, but a similar trend seems to be happening here.

In the second quarter of 2021, the number of job vacancies increased from 89,100 in the first quarter to 136,100 – the highest level in the measurement period and approximately three times higher than the number of job vacancies in the second quarter of 2020.

The sharp increase was seen in all occupations and was accompanied by a decrease in the supply to demand ratio, a change described by Prof. Ori Heffetz as “quite dramatic.”

Heffetz, an associate professor of economics at Cornell University and a member of the faculty at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, explained that “demand” is how many vacancies exist and “supply” is how many people are looking to fill them.

“Before COVID-19, we were looking at a ratio of around 3.7, meaning for every open position there were something like three or four people looking to fill the job,” Heffetz said. “During the course of early 2020, this ratio jumped – roughly doubled itself. So for every open position, there were seven or eight people looking for it.”

Businesses were not hiring or closed down, so positions were redacted. But when Israel started opening up, so did employment opportunities. In the first quarter of the year, the ratio was 4.4. But in this last quarter, it hit only three – even lower than before the crisis, and the slope was pretty sharp from the first quarter of 2020.

“If this trend continues, we will see a labor market where for every open position there are fewer people looking for it than we had before the pandemic,” he said.

If looked at sector by sector, in some professions the ratio is less than one, meaning there are more open positions than people looking for them.

It has become especially acute in two quite different sectors: hi-tech and the restaurant and hospitality industries.

The deficit in software developers is expected, Heffetz said, because the pandemic did not hurt Israel’s hi-tech sector but accelerated it. The country didn’t have enough engineers and developers before the crisis, and now the situation is more severe.

On the other hand, explaining the decline in available hospitality workers is more complicated, Heffetz said. There are no research studies yet available, so only anecdotal evidence can help explain it.

For starters, the people who fill these roles tend to be between 20 and 30 years old, according to the career website Zippia.

“Young people with relatively menial part-time positions have their whole lives ahead of them,” explained Prof. Dan Ben-David, founder and head of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research. “The option that many of them have to turn their lives around tends to recede with age, when additional considerations such as families, debts and shorter work horizons ahead come into play.

“Thus, it is no coincidence that Israeli restaurants – for example – are finding it so difficult to re-attract young people to wait on tables,” he said. “Recessions, particularly serious ones, tend to be a time for reevaluating work options, with some taking the opportunity to return to school and get a degree, or upgrade a previous one. That is true not just in Israel but also elsewhere in the developed world. As such, when an economy improves, not everyone has completed the process and is ready to return.”

When a person is younger, Heffetz said, it is easier to make changes. As such, many of these young people have realized while they sat home on furlough that it was too early to commit themselves to a job they were unhappy in.

Even before the pandemic, millennials were not feeling comfortable with their work-life balance. A 2019 Gallup poll found that nearly three in 10 millennials were very often or always burned-out at work, and about seven in 10 experienced at least some burnout – that was compared to 21% of workers in older generations.

THE PANDEMIC gave people a chance to take stock of and reimagine their lives, said Dr. Talya Miron-Shatz, founding director of the Center for Medical Decision Making at Ono Academic College.

“We find it hard to make changes because of what is known in behavioral economics as the status quo bias: we value whatever we have,” she said. “And since losses loom larger than gains for us emotionally, we hesitate before giving up on what we have. Therefore, an alternative needs to be really good to tempt us.

But, since “what we have” has massively shifted with COVID – for example, office atmosphere, a certain environment, or simply our habits – we’re now in a position to reconsider and aim to savor and keep the new normal benefits, such as working from home and no commute.”

Some people are taking a career break, burned out by the crisis. Others want more meaningful jobs. Some individuals say they want a higher paycheck or better and more flexible benefits. And others have decided to start their own businesses and pave their own path.

“Let’s say you work in a dead-end job, and you are not happy, but you are not going to quit, because how are you going to pay your rent next month?” Heffetz posed. “You could be stuck like that for years.”

Then, unexpectedly, the country shuts down. The individual is sitting at home on furlough and can afford the time to think, and in the course of that thinking decides that he or she is not going back.

There are also stories of employees who worked through the worst of the pandemic, putting themselves at risk to provide essential services. Now, they are looking at their situations and realizing that while the businesses they worked for profited, they received little in return. No one thanked them or gave them a bonus for their sacrifices.

“It is possible that personal cost-benefit aspects play a role as well,” Ben-David said. “In other words, is the job that I had and can return to, worth the risks involved in doing so? The lower end a position, the more dead-end a job is, the greater the cost-benefit ratio that may lead people to reconsider their options.”

And to reconsider what they are looking for in a job.

“With COVID, everything was in transit, things shifted, and job security evaporated,” Miron-Shatz said, explaining that no longer could people believe that they would have job security. So, instead, they started looking for other values in the positions they would take, such as self-fulfillment.

The result is that the power is shifting, and it is becoming an employees’ market.

“Employers are becoming more desperate and therefore they will try harder” to win over potential staffers. “We are seeing an increase in wages – something that is good for workers, but also leads to rising prices, which leads to inflation.”

But it is still too early to be sure, Ben-David said.

The ability to understand how significant this quitting phenomenon really is in Israel is muddied by the not insignificant government financial benefits that were extended well into this year, ending only a few months ago for young people and even more recently for older persons.

“The urgency to return to work is still not as high as it was during normal periods,” he said. “It is quite possible that as the distance from the most recent paying job increases and savings dwindle, we may see a relapse of sorts to past labor markets.”

But in the meantime, people like Shafner say they will continue to “think outside the box.”

“Just because you have a trajectory you think you are going on or want to be on, does not always mean it works out that way, and that’s OK,” she said. “Other cool opportunities can open up.”•