On My Mind: Pandemic-Related Workforce Trends

Fall 2021

By Donna Orem

shutterstock_1741303064-(1).jpgThe U.S. economy is in recovery, but the overall shape of our post-pandemic landscape is just beginning to take form. What will stick and become our new normal is anyone’s guess. Forecasters suggest that the greatest impacts may play out in the workforce. From a desire for continued remote work to an epidemic of quitting, we are experiencing a rollercoaster of workforce wants and needs. If you’ve been following the trends this past year, no doubt your head is spinning.
Although businesses are open and many new jobs are being created, workers are not stepping up to take them. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were a record 9.3 million job openings in April 2021, yet by May 2021, 9.3 million Americans remained unemployed. There are many theories about this mismatch between jobs and workers, such as the lure of unemployment benefits, parents still needed at home, fear of illness, pursuit of new careers, or disinterest in low-paying jobs. Time will tell how this plays out, but these statistics may signal a coming labor market that could be one of the tightest on record, with employees increasingly calling the shots. 
“Workers are quitting their jobs at the highest rate ever recorded, and many Americans are launching start-ups they’ve wanted to do for years,” according to economic correspondent Heather Long in a June 20, 2021 Washington Post article. “New business applications jumped 24 percent in 2020, the biggest surge in history, and they remain at a much higher level than precrisis. These are signs that workers feel they have more power, a shift likely to endure.”

A Rough Road for Recruitment and Retention?

How are workforce trends playing out in education? Although most current research focuses on the public-school sector, that data provides insight into future pressure points for independent schools. Going into the pandemic there were teacher shortages in special education, math and science, and world languages, and those continue today. Despite the dire headlines about teacher turnover during the pandemic, the overall teacher workforce is still relatively stable, but that could change quickly. In an April 2021 Chalkbeat article by Matt Barnum, Dan Goldhaber, a researcher on teacher quality issues at the University of Washington, says that economic downturns tend to keep teachers in jobs, but economic improvement encourages them to seek other opportunities. He also notes that an improved economy could deter people from entering the teaching field.
Considering the number of new job opportunities being created today, school leaders may find a much more competitive market ahead. In an NAIS survey conducted in late spring 2021, among 100 school leaders, 44% reported seeing more teacher attrition for the 2021–2022 school year than they saw in the previous year, while slightly less (38%) reported about the same level.
Will the prospect of a stressful year ahead drive teachers away? The state of mental health and how workplaces choose to support well-being initiatives in the year ahead could further influence employees' career choices. In its State of the Global Workplace: 2021 report, Gallup reported that workers in the U.S. and Canada experienced the highest rate of daily stress in the world during 2020. In particular, 62% of female workers and 64% of workers under 40 reported significant stress.
In some of its recent research, Authentic Connections, a group specializing in increasing well-being in schools through research and strategy, notes rising stress and burnout in adults working in school settings through winter 2020, with some leveling off in the spring. NAIS research conducted in late 2020 confirmed similar findings in independent schools and found that only 19% of teachers overall felt that the mental health supports offered to them by their schools were very or extremely effective.

Enhancing Well-Being and Motivation Amid Uncertainty

In a recent special report, the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI), an organization that works to create more human organizations through science, suggests that the current situation is concerning because when people feel heightened anxiety, they exhibit behaviors such as thinking and acting more in their own self-interest and discounting other points of view. In addition, physical isolation from others threatens a person’s basic needs for belonging and companionship. NLI recommends that as schools open in the fall, leaders concentrate on creating certainty by having clear rules and order at work, relatedness by ensuring that everyone is connected to a group or team, and fairness by providing sufficient explanations regarding decisions being made.
In their book Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices, Harvard Business School professors Paul R. Lawrence and Nitin Nohria delve further into how human behavior shapes workplace decisions. They suggest that “people are guided by four basic emotional needs or drives: the drives to acquire (obtain scarce goods, including intangibles such as social status); bond (form connections with individuals and groups); comprehend (satisfy our curiosity and master the world around us); and defend (protect against external threats and promote justice) and they underlie everything we do.” Building on that original work in a July-August 2008 Harvard Business Review article, Nohria and coauthors Boris Groysberg and Linda Eling-Lee, suggest a model for sustaining employee motivation through uncertain times by focusing on all four elements. 
The drive to acquire is most easily satisfied by an organization’s reward system. To be most effective, schools should create systems that discriminate between top and average performers, tie rewards to performance, and offer top performers opportunities for advancement. 
The drive to bond can be fulfilled by engendering a strong sense of camaraderie. Schools can be successful in this arena by creating cultures that promote teamwork, collaboration, openness, and friendship. 
The drive to comprehend is best addressed through job design. Schools should audit current jobs to ensure they are constructed in a way in which employees can see meaning and purpose and feel challenged. 
The drive to defend is best achieved through fair, trustworthy, and transparent processes. Schools can excel here by taking a deep dive into their processes and identifying areas for improvement, looking specifically for processes that may be perceived as unfair or designed to advantage some employees over others.
The year ahead will no doubt contain a fair amount of uncertainty. How we plan and execute to create stability amid these rough waters could make or break our efforts in an ever-evolving job market.


What I’m Reading

As the pandemic kept us shuttered physically, it also has drawn us inward emotionally. Research through previous crises has shown that grief, stress, and uncertainty push the body into survival mode, affecting our emotional radar and making it harder to feel for others. In short, empathy is in short supply when we need it most. Stanford professor Jamil Zaki has devoted his career to studying the cognitive and neural bases of social behavior, and, in particular, how people respond to each other’s emotions (empathy). His most recent book, The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, explores the science behind empathy and provides case studies of systems, such as schools, that use empathy-based techniques to enhance well-being for children and adults. It is a must-read for our time.
Zaki explains that, “Empathy is a kind of untethering. When you imagine what your mom thought of the last email you sent her, or what victims of a recent mass shooting might be feeling, you take a mental trip into their world.” The more we engage in this kind of activity, the better we can understand another’s perspective. Empathy is not an inherent trait; rather, like a muscle it is something we can develop.
Our schools must restore empathy if we are to thrive in this complex landscape. As Zaki reminds us, “In five years, or one, the world could be a meaner place or a kinder one. Our social fabric could further tear or start to mend. We don’t owe others empathy, especially if they meet us with cruelty or indifference. But if we succumb to our lazier emotional instincts, we will all suffer more. The direction we take—and our collective fate—depends, in a real way, on what each of us decides to feel.”
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.