Resentful, financially stressed workers are dreaming of quitting their jobs

Canadian employees say they’re more unhappy at work this year than last

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Workers experiencing a wave of malaise following a spate of layoffs and continued financial uncertainty are secretly eyeing the exits, which could spell trouble for employers down the line.

Canadian employees say they’re more unhappy at work this year than last, and 71 per cent are dreaming about quitting their jobs, according to the latest research by Hays Specialist Recruitment Canada Inc. Those numbers are even higher than in 2022, when 61 per cent said they were considering a new job at a time when skilled labour shortages and record vacancies led to what the recruiter called a “great resignation.”

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Now, a perfect storm created by the high cost of living, corporate cutbacks and a return to the office seem to be driving people’s desire to start fresh elsewhere. Inflation and elevated interest rates pushing up the prices of food and mortgage payments, respectively, are making workers even more unhappy about the size of their paycheques, not to mention their benefits packages. Work-life balance is also taking a hit as companies that made layoffs last year pile extra work onto those remaining, leading to more dissatisfaction with their roles. At the same time, more bosses are ordering employees back to the office, decreasing flexibility and adding commuting costs.

Pay hikes might stem the tide of misery, but many companies have put raises on hold as they contend with the same economic pressures squeezing employees. That goes for promotions, too, creating more misery for workers who feel undervalued but crave recognition.

Travis O’Rourke, president of Hays Canada, said people are feeling resentful and stressed, but many aren’t speaking up about the reasons behind their malaise for fear they’ll be targeted if more cost cuts come down the line. “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down or sometimes pulled out,” he said. “And so you’ve got a lot of situations where employees are not voicing their concerns as loudly as they could.”

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The dour mood is also creating a chill in offices and affecting company culture. Managers are noticing an eerie quiet descend upon their workplaces as unhappy employees quit laughing and talking, and start whispering instead. “You can spot it. You can feel it,” O’Rourke said. “In a lot of places right now, it’s not a great place to be.”

And it could get worse. Many workers are biding their time for the economy to improve before they attempt an exit. The percentage of potential job quitters rises to 78 if the unemployment rate and economy steady, according to Hays Canada’s research.

The economic clouds could start parting as soon as this summer. Many economists expect the Bank of Canada to begin cutting interest rates in June, though some think it could be as late as September. Whenever they occur, rate cuts are expected to add some juice to the economy and could light a match under the labour market, at least in certain industries. For example, many developers in the construction sector that have put projects on hold could start building again once rates come down, creating extra demand for skilled workers, shortages of which persist despite a flood of newcomers into Canada, O’Rourke said.

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Fortunately for employers, there’s still time to prepare for the expected rise in vacancies and job switching. “My counsel is to worry today, but don’t expect the turnover tomorrow,” O’Rourke said. “It’s going to likely be summer or fall when we start to see this dam of talent turn into a flood of candidates on the market. The thing you can do now is start having the conversations.”

Pay increases are the No. 1 reason people leave for a new job, but companies can deploy less expensive tools to keep workers on board if a wage hike isn’t in the budget. Employees in the Hays Canada survey said they’d also consider staying for more recognition, training, extra responsibilities/promotion or even a few extra vacation days. Employers may want to try other incentives, too, such as allowing people to go home early on Fridays, he said. “There are other ways to say, ‘Thank you, I value you,’ without a (higher) paycheque.”

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Such perks don’t cost companies a lot of money, yet go a long way in showing employees they’re appreciated. Collectively, those incentives end up being more important than pay in getting good workers to stay, he said.

But the worst thing managers can do is stay quiet, especially in the face of so much simmering resentment. “There are lots of different things that you can do to show your employees you value them and provide a little more relief to their stressful lives,” O’Rourke said.

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A version of this story was first published in the FP Work newsletter, a curated look at the changing world of work. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

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