Employees Aren’t Returning to the Job Market: Here are Some of the Reasons Why

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The pandemic has reshaped many aspects of life, including returning to work. Workers who were furloughed, laid off, or quit their jobs during the pandemic are not reentering the job market in droves.

Reasons why many people have not yet returned to work range from rethinking their careers, to dealing with childcare issues, to struggling with the emotional trauma of job loss, to experiencing concerns for their health and safety.

The most recent Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary (JOLTS) report from the Department of Laborrevealedthat open jobs had increased 62% in the past year. But despite these job gains, overall hiring declined slightly during that time. One of the contributing factors is that quit rates are increasing. JOLTS data revealed that quits increased 3% in December. 

These quit rates, coupled with workers choosing not to reenter the workforce, create a worker shortage. Employers are scrambling to fill jobs and asking when this worker shortage will end.

Pandemic-driven side effects that are sidelining workers will linger until people can work through the psychological and logistical issues that may be blocking their return to work. Employers who want their colleagues to return to work or increase their staffing must prioritize workplace culture.

While many choose not to return to the workforce, organizations that create effective workplace cultures will have the most success attracting their employees back to the office.

Rethinking Careers

COVID-19 caused many people to reevaluate how they think about life and their career. Unemployed workers use job loss as an opportunity for self-reflection, taking a renewed look at their priorities, work/life balance, and what makes them happy.

Employees who have jobs and deal with the health crisis’s psychological effects are also reassessing job options, fueling what the Harvard Business Review dubbed theGreat Resignation.

Many employees don’t want to go back to do work they did before the pandemic and are giving serious consideration to switching professions. A Pew Research surveyfound that 66% of unemployed people have seriously considered changing occupations. The survey also found that a third of unemployed adults have already taken steps to retool their skills by pursuing job retraining programs or educational opportunities.

When employers show a consistent interest in developing their people and a willingness to problem-solve creatively when an employee becomes dissatisfied, then employees are more likely to find a way to pivot their careers while staying with an employer, rather than resorting to abandoning the organization.

Consider implementing or expanding a job rotation program. I was working for NASA Kennedy Space Center at the time of the Shuttle program’s retirement and helping people hold pivot their identities and ensuring NASA felt like home. We developed a multi-day workshop designed to help people get rooted in their career interests and future at the Agency. This showed how dedicated NASA was to help people feel fulfilled and valued.


For employees who are quitting or considering quitting, burnout and lack of workplace support are driving their job exodus as they prioritize their personal and family life and mental and physical health.  

To prevent employee burnout, workplace leaders must learn to prioritize and strategize effectively. Organizations attempting to accomplish too much at once will likely cause their employees to feel burnt out. Leaders who include employees in planning and strategizing will focus their efforts appropriately and minimize the effects of burnout.

Childcare Responsibilities

Childcare responsibilities are a significant factor in keeping employees from returning to the workforce. Up to75% of working parents have children under six years old staying at home, and only 10% are using childcare centers.

Many parents want to return to work but can’t because they do not offer flexible options or pay enough to cover childcare costs. Women have been significantly impacted by daycare closures, lack of childcare, and increased childcare needs.

Census Bureau data found that approximately 10 million U.S. mothers living with their school-age children were not actively working in January — 1.4 million more than during the same month last year. The 10 million not working accounted for over one-third of all mothers living with school-age children in the United States.

A spike in cases of a new COVID-19 variant and the uncertainty of school and daycare closures as the health crisis continues is a roadblock for parents who otherwise want to go back to work. Asurvey by TopResume found that 69% of working women respondents said they planned to remain at home as full-time caregivers for the time being.

Employers must consider offering childcare benefits and flexible working options to attract working parents back into the workforce, including flexible work schedules and remote work.

Flexible working is a crucial factor for getting parents to return to the workforce and retaining these employees once they come back. A FlexJobs survey found that 52% of working moms said their ideal post-pandemic work arrangement would be to work remotely full-time.

While working remotely full-time isn’t possible for all organizations, companies must consider flexible work schedules to accommodate parents struggling to manage childcare.

Effective cultures have a high-trust environment, which is especially essential for remote or hybrid organizations. Leaders make a common mistake thinking their ability to trust their employees is somehow linked to their ability to see them. As long as lines of communication remain open and both leaders and employees are self-accountable, leaders can build a high-trust organization virtually. 

Emotional Trauma of Job Loss

The emotional trauma of job loss is another factor that might be keeping some workers from returning to the workforce. This trauma can erode confidence and self-esteem, which surfaces doubt in skills and abilities.

The previously cited Pew Research survey also examined the psychological toll of job loss, finding that seven-in-ten unemployed adults say they have felt more stressed than usual, and 56% say they have experienced more emotional or mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression. These feelings and emotions can coalesce to derail job searches, keeping workers out of the job market.

Additionally, people often link their sense of identity and self-worth to their job and, in the absence of having a job, question whether they are competent enough, qualified enough, or good enough to get another job. Negative thoughts and emotions like this directly impact the job search, sapping motivation to continue looking for opportunities. 

Organizations that want to attract employees back into the workforce (and keep them!) must create an attractive culture. And we’re not talking about ping pong tables and potluck lunches – we’re talking about creating an environment where people have experiences that help them feel good about who they are, inspire productivity, and foster collaboration.

When people love what they do and feel they are serving their purpose, they will achieve more personal satisfaction. Having a culture where employees can learn and grow is key. When goals are set too high or the organization lacks a clear priority, employees feel demoralized and exhausted.

Achieving alignment on strategy and priorities goes a long way to creating positive experiences that benefit both employees and organizations. 

Safety and Health Concerns 

The COVID-19 health and safety concerns are also blocking some employees from returning to jobs. An August survey by the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that more than3.2 million people said they aren’t working because they are worried about getting or spreading the virus. Even with high vaccination rates, people are not comfortable taking jobs in public-facing industries such as hospitality, retail, and restaurant. 

While we are not experts in safety and health amidst a pandemic, we know that fear is a multiplier and often creates a smokescreen for what the real issues are. It can be helpful for employers to hold space and listen to the concerns and fears of their employees and job candidates.

It can be difficult for employers to genuinely listen when they feel stressed out or pressed for time. This multiplies when employers are handling their fears around the scarcity of resources or feeling impatient with having the same conversations repeatedly.

However, most people want an employer who they feel genuinely cares for them, so making time to hear out their concerns truly will demonstrate that you don’t want to put them at risk and that you will honor their fears as they arise. When people can truly shine a light on their fears, they can see how they are magnified, which helps them reduce their fear and make more rational decisions.

The fallout from the pandemic is reshaping the employment landscape, keeping some workers on the sidelines while they cope with lingering psychological side effects and logistical challenges resulting from the health crisis.

As a leader, sometimes it can feel difficult to understand and navigate what your employees want, or need, to feel engaged and productive at work – or to understand the needs of potential new employees.

When you apply the science of human behavior, you can discover how to tap into the fundamental human drivers of growth, belonging, connection, and identity, motivate and excite them, and fulfill their wants and needs.

Dr. Laura Gallaher is the founder and CEO ofGallaher Edge.


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By Dr. Laura Gallaher