I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was talking to a Jackson, a manager at a manufacturing facility. He had just received senior leadership’s expectations for his department for 2022. Company ownership expected a steady increase in output, quarter-by-quarter for the entire year. Jackson looked at me and said, “Are they crazy? We are so short-staffed that I can hardly keep two shifts running as it is. The way things are with the labor shortage, I will be lucky if I can even get back to pre-pandemic levels next year, let alone see any growth.” When I asked him if he voiced his concerns to his superiors he said, “I would, if I ever saw them outside of the quarterly huddles. Whenever I mention a problem—a labor shortage, supply chain issue, or shipping delays—all I hear is ‘You have to work smarter, not harder.’” Jackson finished by saying the phrase that strikes fear in every employer’s heart, “I’m sick of this sh*t. First chance I get, I’m out of here.”
Everyone has their own theories as to why the current economic recovery is accompanied by a near-catastrophic labor shortage. Those surveyed report avoiding the workforce because of unemployment benefits, stimulus payments, or fear of COVID-19. It is easy to close our eyes and hope that employment applications will start rolling in as soon as unemployment benefits cease or the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, but many experts warn that we may not see pre-pandemic labor levels for a long time.
As accurate as surveys try to be about why people avoid the workforce, the truth is that the real answer is too complicated to capture in a three-question survey. The core of the problem is the issue that should concern business leaders most, is chronic stress. Acute stress is situational. Something unpleasant happens, we get upset, and then we get over it. Chronic stress wears at your staff day after day. If there is no light at the end of the tunnel, employees will eventually look for a different tunnel. They may claim all manner of reasons for staying away from work, but at the end of the day, the reason doesn’t matter, they’re gone. You don’t cure chronic stress by heaping unattainable goals on top of employees that are already stretched too thin. Imagine a ship springing a leak at sea. No sane captain would yell at the crew that is bailing water that they also have to make it to port on schedule.
Years ago, I had the opportunity to hear the founder of a national electronics chain speak at a business conference. He shared his Ten Rules of Success. None of his rules were particularly surprising, Focus on your strengths, Ignore the nay-sayers, and the like. But Rule Seven surprised me, Sometimes Survival is Enough. He said, “My company has weathered a lot of storms over the years—recessions, new competitors, and unpredictable consumers. Sometimes, you have to count just keeping the doors open as success. Expecting continued growth every single year is not only illogical, it drives your best team members away. Too many people at the top forget that the dividends they enjoy are built on the backs of the front-line staff.”
Battling chronic stress calls for setting reasonable goals, not ever-increasing challenges. Employees stay in jobs where they can do their best work every day, not where they are constantly reminded that they aren’t measuring up. It might sound simplistic, but the most successful organizations are ones that find ways to celebrate daily wins. No one ever tires of hearing that they did something right. But the recognition needs to be authentic. If we have seen too much of one thing during this crisis, it is the disingenuous you are all heros message, followed by now here is more work to do. During times of chronic stress, leadership also needs to be more visible to employees than ever. E-mail or text messages of encouragement can never measure up to face-to-face contact.
An all-hands-on-deck approach to crisis management does work. People gain focus during a disaster, but only in the short-term. After a while, focus is replaced by fatigue. And if their efforts don’t seem to be appreciated in a meaninful way, and goals are kept reasonable, employees will jump ship, leaving the captain to bail out the ship alone.
Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.