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The Surprising Impact of COVID-19 on Employees Around the World

Most of the world’s population is still reeling from the impact of the pandemic nearly two years in. It’s safe to say we all still feel varying degrees of anxiety, and even depression, in our personal and professional lives as a result of this public health crisis.

Most of the world’s population is still reeling from the impact of the pandemic nearly two years in. It’s safe to say we all still feel varying degrees of anxiety, and even depression, in our personal and professional lives as a result of this public health crisis.

Surprisingly, many people view 2021 as even worse than 2020, when COVID-19 shut down businesses and travel and impacted nearly everyone around the world. Sixty-one percent of more than 14,600 full-time employees across 13 countries characterised 2021 as their most stressful year ever at work, according to our 2021 AI@Work study. And 52% reported struggling more with mental health issues this year than last.

This global study* also found that 80% of people said they were negatively impacted this past year, with 29% struggling financially; 28% reporting a decline in mental health; and 25% citing a lack of career motivation.

This may be because while 2020 hit like a gale-force wind, the fact that the Delta variant and other factors have prolonged the pandemic makes it clear that this is not a one-and-done event, but more of an endless slog. No wonder people feel deflated.

What shocked me from the study was that despite these negative feelings—or ironically maybe because of them—employees seem more motivated than ever to improve their career opportunities. A whopping 93% of respondents said they used the past year to reflect on their lives and 75% said they felt “stuck” professionally. Frustration plus reflection can be a potent combination resulting in resolve, as we saw with 83% percent of respondents saying they are now ready to make a change.

Also striking is that this desire for a better professional life has made many people willing to give up other hard-won perks. For example, in return for better career opportunities, 52% of those surveyed said they would give up vacation time; 51% would forego bonuses; and 43% would even sacrifice some salary.

People have a strong desire and eagerness to grow their professional careers – this is a key point and is also the most encouraging news coming out of the research.

The less good news for employers is that employees want career opportunities to open up—and fast. For example, 87% believe their companies should listen more to their needs and they want technology to help; 85% of respondents said they want technology to help define their future career path; 36% want tech to identify the skills they should work on; and 32% want tech to recommend next steps in pursuing their career goals. 

Management should listen and learn
Employers need to heed these signals. It is not enough to survey employees on their wants and needs. Management has to communicate how it plans to respond to the results.

Failure to do so could cause ”The Great Resignation,“ which has afflicted all companies in some form, to strike even harder at organisations that don’t act on this information. Since skills training benefits both employees and management, it seems like a no-brainer to offer it. I would recommend that companies—to the extent possible—get creative in training-and-education perks to retain personnel. After all, it is far more expensive to recruit new talent than to retain existing employees.

Some companies offer sabbaticals that include free mid-career coursework to those who’ve been with the company five, six, or seven years. Others might encourage long-time employees to pursue bachelor’s or graduate degrees, even in fields that may not seem directly related to their day jobs.

Change has to happen. When the pandemic hit, companies asked employees who were not already furloughed or laid off to turn on a dime and work remotely. That meant turning parts of their homes into workspaces; even absorbing the cost of internet access, mobile phone bills, and the like. Adding insult to injury, many home workers had to weather social isolation while also serving double- or triple-duty as teachers to home-bound children or care-givers to elderly relatives.

These pandemic-mandated changes erased whatever line was left between people’s work and home lives. That is a big price to pay.

Now, employees want recognition of their sacrifices and expect management to hold up its part of the bargain by offering the best possible career opportunities. Employers that do not respond well—including those that are not flexible going forward about remote work, and do not attempt to build an empathetic culture—will pay a steep price as employees vote with their feet and leave.

*Oracle and Workplace Intelligence

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