Today’s post comes to us from UKG Workforce Institute advisory board member Sarah Morgan, director of equity and inclusion at Humareso.
At the start of 2023, my colleagues and I from the UKG Workforce Institute team made some predictions about what the challenges and triumphs would be in the coming year. Just a few weeks ago, we did a mid-year review to analyze how our predictions did or did not measure up, as part of The Workforce Institute Weigh-In series.
One area where our prediction is not holding is with workers who hold on to service-oriented, essential roles — such as HR practitioners, healthcare workers, retail associates, and teachers — being rewarded for their loyalty, in the form of promotions and wage increases. Our thought was those workers who continued to show up during the height of the pandemic and remained with their organizations as we rebound and recover would be given more kudos, opportunity, and support.
Instead, we are seeing those who risked their own health to keep our businesses afloat, and those who took on additional responsibilities during the times when labor and talent shortages were abounding, feeling less appreciated than ever. These employees are also experiencing significant burnout and weariness in their work that has many considering career changes.
According to a February 2023 study by Lighthouse Research, 82% of workers in the U.S. and 2.7 billion people worldwide hold job roles that are considered “essential” and “frontline.” These are roles that typically cannot be performed remotely or hybrid for any lengthy period of time, if at all. For example, a delivery driver cannot bring packages to you if they never leave their home, and most agree that remote learning was not an acceptable long-term solution for the educational needs of child-age students. Therefore, people who work in these roles have to leave their homes for work.
And a large part of the reason their roles have to be performed outside of their homes is so the rest of us don’t become overly burdened or inconvenienced in our own homes. Grocery and food delivery services were invaluable during the height of the pandemic — and many of us cannot imagine living without that option now. Every year, there are commercials, social reels, and memes about parents being excited to send their children back to school while teachers weep with dread for the start of another year. Knowing this should make us more empathetic to their sacrifice and more supportive of improvements to their workplaces.
Instead, there is an entire television show about customers berating and mocking the people who serve us through their frontline job roles. There is also regular, heated public debate about whether people working in these roles are deserving of living wages and comprehensive benefits. Despite how much these roles contribute to the comfort and ease of our lives, we remain unwilling to stand in solidarity with them for better conditions and quality in their lives.
Why is that?
There are three negative beliefs contributing to this.
1. We do not believe this population desires stability. People in frontline and essential roles are stereotyped as changing jobs often and being motivated by their hourly wage only. This is not an accurate representation at all. In a study published by Harvard Business Review this year about essential and frontline workers, 51% of the workers surveyed had been at their jobs for more than four years. The group cited poor management, inconsistent/unaccommodating scheduling, and lack of advancement opportunity as their main reasons for leaving jobs. Wages wasn’t even in the top five! So, what we perpetuate about the motivation of essential workers does not hold true with the data and feedback they are providing about themselves. Our frontline/essential workers want the same things that those of us in administrative and executive jobs want — it will just manifest differently for their workplace.
2. We do not understand the barriers faced by this population. Almost 20% of essential/frontline workers face housing and food insecurity, and an inability to pay all of their monthly bills in full, according to the HBR study. Over 40% report having to resign from a job due to transportation and/or childcare needs. It would be impossible for anyone to stay focused and productive in a job with these kinds of worries weighing on them daily. Employers in frontline/essential industries have to be mindful of this and seek innovative ways to help their employees overcome these hurdles.
3. We do not honor the importance of this population. Whether a frontline/essential role is entry level or grey collar, their presence and ability to do their job well makes a difference. Talent is the competitive edge for every business — and the essential/frontline industries are no different! Think about how you felt when your favorite cashier or driver or service technician exited a place that you frequent. Usually, you will worry that your experience will not be as pleasant, and that the quality of the product may suffer. One person makes that much of a difference! Yet, we speak about these roles as disposable and interchangeable. It is disrespectful to the individuals who sacrifice their comfort for our convenience.
Work is honorable — no matter when, where, or by whom it is performed. Without the talented individuals who hold essential and frontline roles, life as we know and love it would grind to a screeching halt. The future of work demands that we admit this truth and shift our approach, in order for us to have the retention, wellness, and innovation we desire in workplaces.
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