Posted December 26, 2021 by Mark Perna
The current talent shortage may have its roots in a trust gap between employers and employees. Mark’s article, “If Trust Is A Bridge, Here’s Why Employees Aren’t Crossing It,” published at Forbes.com on December 21, 2022.
Everywhere you look, staffing challenges abound—as do the theories as to why more people aren’t heading back to the workforce. While many factors are at play, we may be overlooking one simple yet profound reason: broken trust.
Where has trust been broken? Dr. Toby A. Travis, author of the new book TrustED: The Bridge to School Improvement, believes that many people are hesitant to reenter the workforce because they don’t trust the company to look out for them. “Workers have a high level of suspicion that employers won’t be equitable or protect them,” says Dr. Travis.
Without trust, workers have little loyalty or motivation to push through temporarily tough conditions. On the other hand, employees who trust their company believe that management is working for their benefit to mitigate any current challenges and that ultimately, things will get better.
“Trust is like a bridge,” says Dr. Travis. “If we perceive a well-maintained bridge, we may not consciously consider potential instability during our morning commute. But if the bridge develops potholes and has frequent lane closures due to repairs, we may no longer trust it as we once did.”
Dr. Travis points to four key areas where trust has been broken in many workplaces: excessive workloads, long hours, burnout and anxiety.
Going back to work may land employees with more than they bargained for—and the prospect isn’t attractive. One example, says Dr. Travis, is in education. Schools have been battling a teacher and substitute shortage for years—a shortage that has now reached critical levels. “Those who aren’t readily returning to the workforce know that their colleagues who are still there must fill the gap and take on additional duties,” he says. “I know of several school principals who are currently doubling as bus drivers.”
Heavy workloads and short staffing come hand in hand with long hours. Extra time at work, especially for salaried employees who don’t receive overtime pay, just isn’t appealing. “Studies have shown that work hours have increased significantly during the pandemic, with significant negative effects, such as increased occupational disease, higher risk of heart disease, inadequate exercise, unhealthy diets and increased addictive behaviors,” says Dr. Travis. Now, people have grown too accustomed to a more flexible lifestyle to voluntarily surrender all that freedom.
Excessive workloads and long hours, unremitting and over long periods of time, invariably lead to burnout. And it’s on the rise. “We hear it everywhere,” says Dr. Travis. “A registered nurse shared with me that she’s not actively pursuing employment because local healthcare facilities require employees to work extremely long hours.” Overworking employees, even when you’re paying them well, isn’t sustainable in the long term. Without a better work-life balance, many would-be workers are opting to forego the workplace as long as possible.
Now that we’re dealing with more Covid variants, many people may be asking themselves if it’s even safe to return to work. “We’re all attempting to manage an undercurrent of stress and anxiety amid the pandemic,” says Dr. Travis. “Add that reality to the mix and it creates a recipe for hesitancy to return to the workplace.”
Usually it’s easy to tell if trust between management and the workforce has been lessened or broken. “When trust has been broken, people tend to isolate themselves and pull back relationally,” says Dr. Travis.
One measurable way that broken trust manifests in the workplace is in fewer voluntary hours dedicated to projects or task completion. “Studies have revealed a direct correlation between high levels of trust in leaders and the amount of discretionary time and effort contributed to the organization by stakeholders,” says Dr. Travis.
“If the scheduled workday ends at 5 p.m. and the office becomes a vacant ghost town at 5:05, that’s a good indicator that trust between management and the workforce has been lessened or broken.”
Not everyone has the luxury of staying out of the workforce due to a lack of trust—but everyone has access to information that can make or break a company’s reputation for trustworthiness.
“Jobseekers often talk with current and recent employees, not just hiring managers,” says Dr. Travis. “During the interview process, they may ask for a copy of the employee handbook and seek to identify to what extent the organization intentionally invests in the well-being of employees and supports the aspirations of employees.”
What are they looking for in the employee handbook? “For one thing, they want to know if there are pathways for completing certifications and degrees, funded in part or entirely by the company,” says Dr. Travis. “They’re investigating the level of autonomy employees have in the completion of their work and responsibilities.
“Organizations marked by high levels of trust are those that hire well and then empower well—not micromanage.”
To build trust, companies must also be intentional in dealing with each of the four areas where potential employees are finding it hard to trust an employer.
There’s no quick way to cross the trust gap. Rather, trust is repaired over time by the accumulation of many small actions that add up to a powerful whole. Start taking the steps now to strengthen relationships with current and prospective employees—and build the trust that marks every great team.