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Why we’re quitting: Inside Australia’s Great Resignation

·9-min read
Australian workers are on the hunt for new jobs. Here's what's happening. (Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)
Australian workers are on the hunt for new jobs, en masse. Here's what's happening. (Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)

Like millions of other Australians, Ana* is on the hunt for a new job.

A 26-year-old solicitor based in locked-down Sydney, Ana is looking for ways to leave the state government legal agency she’s worked for since early 2018.

After doing years of work she didn’t really enjoy and having to fight repeatedly to get her contract renewed, Ana wanted to start her job search early last year. Then the pandemic struck.

With the job market drying up virtually overnight and most advertised jobs in the legal sector for temporary gigs during 2020, Ana had to put her hunt on hold. As the economy recovered in early 2021, Ana began applying for new jobs in earnest.

“There’s a whole number of reasons [why],” she told Yahoo Finance. “One of them is culture; the culture in my [workplace] isn’t very supportive for junior solicitors.

“I wasn’t getting a lot of support whether it be my mental health or the workload. And there just wasn’t a lot of consideration for how I wanted to develop.”

Career progression in the government agency is “particularly slow”, she added. A previous supervisor was so difficult to work with, Ana had to switch teams.

The new team is much better, but hasn’t solved the issue of career progression – or lack thereof. “I’m still not able to have much say in the kinds of work I want to do, how I want to develop. That’s more of an organisation-wide issue.”

Also read:

2021: The year to quit?

Ana isn’t unique.

In fact, her story is becoming increasingly common with several signs pointing to a massive movement in the employment market. About one in four Aussies are job hunting, according to a Gartner survey of more than 1,500 Australians. Hays’ 2021 salary guide puts this number even higher: nearly 40 per cent of Australians are seeking a different job this financial year.

The top reason for the shift is due to lack of promotion opportunities, followed by non competitive salaries, and poor management style or workplace culture.

This ‘mass exodus’ of workers is a trend happening everywhere around the world, says Gartner research & advisory vice president Aaron McEwan.

“It’s an issue occurring across the globe,” McEwan told Yahoo Finance. The research firm found a whopping 83 per cent of organisations are detecting signs of higher turnover.

Image of resignation letter in envelope
Australians are handing in their resignation letters and looking for new jobs. (Source: Getty)

And Down Under, discretionary effort – the willingness of Aussies to go ‘above and beyond’ for their employers – is sliding. So are intentions to stay in their current roles, he said.

“There are signs that there could be a ‘Great Resignation’ in Australia soon, too.”

The pandemic has been a rude interruption to many Australians’ career plans, according to Hays Australia managing director Nick Deligiannis.

“They put their career plans on hold to help their organisation through the crisis and recover. Now, they are focused on their career again and are prioritising advancement,” he told Yahoo Finance.

“But while career progression is valued … just 16 per cent of employees expect to receive a promotion in the next 12 months.”

Mental health: More important than everything

Not only are promotions harder to come by, but we don’t necessarily want them, even if they’re offered.

That’s right; new Atlassian research found that 69 per cent of us would actually turn down a promotion if it meant compromising their mental health.

With the pandemic putting social, emotional, financial and even physical stressors on our lives, mental health has now become the top concern for employees, even ahead of access to healthcare or cost of living.

“Australian workers have spent the last 12 to 18 months reflecting on what is important to them, and considering fundamental changes to both their personal and professional lives,” McEwan said.

“This radical reset has created an issue for organisations as employees demand change from their employer, or seek that change elsewhere.”

“Workers [are] reaching a tipping point facing burnout and confessing feelings of exhaustion and stress as they struggle to actively carry out their job effectively after such a high-intensity year.”

Tired frustrated exhausted businessman working from home online sitting at home office with laptop during quarantine and self isolation period at pandemic. Crisis management. Despair of market falling down.
Workers are prioritising mental wellbeing and flexibility in their personal and professional lives. (Source: Getty)

As a result, employers that don’t make a point to care for employees’ mental health shouldn’t expect loyalty.

This is the case for Ana, who is looking for a new job that will ideally offer more than just career opportunities. “Mental health is an industry-wide issue,” she told Yahoo Finance. “The legal industry is not known for providing mental health support.

“I would ideally like a workplace with a better culture, but that’s hard to know until you get in.”

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 28: Pedestrians are seen outside the Westfield Shopping Centre in the usually bustling shopping district of Parramatta on July 28, 2021 in Sydney, Australia. Lockdown restrictions for Greater Sydney have been extended by four weeks, to August 28th as the city struggles to contain the highly contagious Covid-19 delta variant. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)
The power dynamic in the jobs market is tipping: workers are firmly in the driver's seat. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

War for talent: Competition between employers heats up

The closed borders as a result of Australia’s international travel ban have meant many employers are now selecting from a smaller, local, pool of applicants.

What we’re seeing now is a war for talent, indicated recruitment firm Robert Half director Nicole Gorton.

“Candidate shortages are rising in many industries as the economy expands – most notably in fast growing sectors such as tech and finance. With unprecedented talent shortages, the balance has tipped heavily towards a candidate market,” she told Yahoo Finance.

“Many candidates with the most in-demand skills are being headhunted by companies looking to fill critical skills gaps.”

In other words, workers in certain sectors have found themselves in much more demand – and they’re starting to get a sense of what they’re worth. For example, tech workers are being offered salary premiums of 10 per cent, with some rival organisations offering as much as double pay.

At the same time, workers are using extra time in lockdown to upskill, further increasing their value and their pay packet. Hays research found nearly half of Aussie workers have spent time developing both soft and technical skills in the past year, and one in five have actually gained higher qualifications.

“This upskilling has put professionals in a strong position to jump ship if their career goals can’t be achieved in their current workplace.”

It's not just professionals in the tech sectors who are in demand, either. According to Seek's employment report, released today, the top industries with the most job ads include the trades and services and healthcare/medical sectors.

"Tradies are in high-demand because of the increase in renovations and home-building," said independent employment expert Conrad Liveris.

"For workers in admin, office and hospitality jobs, the world is their oyster. There is a high-demand for those skills and this is a good time to negotiate on pay and conditions."

Flexibility no longer a privilege, but an expectation

These days, you’ll find next to no office-based workers who will say they genuinely want to work from the office for all five days of the week.

The normalisation of remote work has been COVID-19’s greatest legacy. The convenience and choice of working from home, which was once a privilege, is now expected by most office-based employees.

“Australian workers have had cause to reflect on their current careers, particularly around issues such as whether their employer can offer the flexibility or other benefits they’re looking for,” Gorton said.

“Now, there are alternatives.”

Recruitment managers have been making small, but noteworthy changes in job advertisements to reflect the new shift.

“I’m starting to see flexibility being mentioned in job ads now,” said Ana. “That never used to be there.”

Warning to bosses: Workers are in charge

All the employment experts Yahoo Finance spoke to had one dominant message.

“Firmly in the driver’s seat, candidates are asserting their demands,” Gorton said.

And if they don’t get what they want, they’ll go walking. “Companies must start preparing to mitigate the risks of ‘The Great Resignation’ by prioritising staff retention and building talent pipelines.”

It’s not enough anymore for employers to simply extend a counter-offer, she added. “Companies need to be proactive in their retention strategies.”

According to Liveris, we’re looking at the “tightest job market” Australia’s ever seen.

“The game has changed,” he told Yahoo Finance. “Workers are more open to opportunities – but on their terms. Employers should be worried about their staff resigning, because the opportunities are out there.”

After the horror year of 2020 and the spate of recent lockdowns, the top business priority in 2022 is growth, Gartner research shows.

But this growth won’t be possible amid the ‘mass exodus’ of workers, McEwan said. “Organisations need to change the way they design work. Flexibility and empathy are now key drivers for employees.

“Adopting a ‘human centric’ approach with flexible work experiences, intentional collaboration opportunities and empathetic management not only increases retention, but also tends to bring an increase in productivity.”

The good news is, HR departments are responding to the growing demand for mental wellbeing and flexibility.

“Organisations who take note of this are likely to not only retain staff, but have a more productive and happier workforce too,” said McEwan.

The contrarian view: Resigning is a luxury many Aussies can’t afford

According to Australia Institute Centre for Future work director and economist Jim Stanford, anecdotes of mass resignations are overstated.

“The reality of how the labour market works, means workers rarely have the power to make big unilateral changes in their lives, in the manner that this ‘Great Resignation’ narrative suggests,” he told Yahoo Finance.

“Most workers don’t have the luxury of just quitting a job and trying something totally new.”

The reality for many Aussie workers is that their options are limited, they face fierce competition for good jobs, and feel too insecure to make a change.

Insecure work has now become “endemic” in the nation, Stanford said, adding that around half of Australians don’t have a full-time salaried job with regular entitlements.

“In that environment, not that many people feel empowered to quit and look for something better – whether that’s a different job, or starting a business, or leaving the labour market altogether.”

There are many Australians in insecure work working long hours who would like to ‘reboot’ their careers, Stanford said.

“But we will need to have a much stronger labour market before many of them feel confident enough to do so.”

*Note: Names have been changed for privacy.

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