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The employee turnover tsunami is coming

Research from Eagle Hill Consulting reveals that one in four employees plan to leave their organization once the COVID-19 pandemic is over. That number jumps to one in three for employees with children remote learning at home and for Millennials. What can companies do now to prepare for this wave of change? 

On the heels of a strong economy and shifting attitudes about workplace loyalty, the country experienced high rates of job switching in recent years. That is until COVID-19. Amid mass layoffs, lockdowns, and uncertainty, many people are staying in their positions—thankful to have a job. Quit rates reached their lowest level in nine years in April 2020, according to the Society of Human Resources Management. And analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that between April and August 2020, the number of employee-initiated separations decreased by 27 percent compared to the same period in 2019.

When the pandemic ends and the economy starts to recover, many industries can anticipate a tsunami of employee turnover. This trend will be different than before the pandemic. It will be fueled by complex forces that have a compounding effect on each other. And it will occur in a landscape where so many aspects of business will be profoundly changed—from business models and customer demands to competitive dynamics. This reality raises the stakes for managing turnover proactively.

Companies need new strategies to get ahead of this massive wave of employee turnover. It is key to ensure that the business has the right skills, roles, and talent needed to support a future of growth.  

Employee turnover comes from a sea of impacts

By simple definition, a tsunami is a series of huge waves caused by a massive force shocking the ocean—an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, or even a meteorite. In the case of the turnover tsunami, that massive force is COVID-19. It is causing a sea of impacts that will contribute to turnover. Some have already begun.

Burnout: Psychic weight is heavy

While employee burnout was an issue prior to the pandemic, it has intensified during the crisis. Our poll reveals that 57 percent of U.S. employees say they are burnt out. This is up from 45 percent in the early days of the pandemic. Both millennials and women report higher levels of burnout, as do employees with kids remote learning at home. About half (49 percent) of those surveyed say that workload is the top cause for their feelings of stress. Leaving is often viewed as the best option for employees to address burnout. And when the economy and labor markets get healthier, some employees may feel they have no other choice.

Employees who report burnout are four times more likely to leave their organization after the pandemic is over compared to colleagues who are not burnt out (37 percent vs. 10 percent).

Source: Eagle Hill Consulting

Necessity: Crisis is a forcing function

Employees are leaving the workforce during the pandemic out of necessity. Working parents feel the competing pull of responsibility between their jobs and their children. With kids learning virtually for the foreseeable future, more women than men are quitting their jobs to help with schooling. The Washington Post reports that as of October 2020, more than two million women have dropped out of the labor force—leaving the lowest percentage of American working women since 1988. Some of these women may never return to work, and more may leave as the pandemic’s impacts continue.

When the 2020-2021 school year began, 865,000 women left the workforce while just 216,000 men did.  

Source: The Washington Post

Choice: Opportunity comes from crisis 

People have had time to reflect, reassess, and recalibrate their priorities in their personal and professional lives during this crisis. They are determining how to live their best life. This introspection coupled with a “life is too short” spirit is poised to fuel career pivots among people who would never have made such high-risk, high-reward moves before. The pandemic has also shifted norms around ways of working that employees have come to appreciate and expect. What happens if an employer stops offering options like remote working or flexible schedules? Employees may be inclined to seek out these things elsewhere.

61% of the members of a UK women’s professional network are planning a career pivot after the pandemic. 

Source: Forbes

Pent-up demand: The flood gates will open

Many employees have been in survival mode over the last months—focusing only on basic needs as opposed to growth needs. Even some who have struggled with burnout, been challenged by work-life balance issues, or who have had a career epiphany have stood still. There are many reasons for this, and every person is different. But the end of the pandemic—even the prospect of vaccine availability—will create a “light at the end of the tunnel” moment. It will be a time when people feel they can make the moves they’ve put off. And the flood gates will open on employee turnover.

More than one-third of Millennial employees (36 percent) and employees with remote learning children at home (34 percent) say that they are likely to leave their current job when the pandemic is over.

Source: Eagle Hill Consulting

Now is the time to stem the tide 

Employers are all too familiar with the consequences of employee turnover, including its negative effects on the bottom line, productivity, morale, and corporate reputation. When this wave of turnover crashes, companies will have to brace for these impacts as they have traditionally done. However, they will also be in new, unfamiliar territory. Not only will they have to solve for attrition, companies will have to do so in a competitive talent market while bouncing back from the effects of the pandemic and driving growth in a transformed business landscape. Waiting for the wave to crash before acting is not the answer. The better approach is to “get on higher ground” now with capacity and workforce planning actions. Here’s how:

Identify the strategy, then begin. Business as usual won’t exist coming out of the pandemic. While the degree of change will vary for every company, the business strategy for most will look different. New strategic objectives will dictate the talent, skills, and roles that a company needs to deliver the products, services, and customer experiences that will make its post-pandemic future. Put simply, any workforce planning effort must be in lockstep from the very start with the new business strategy.

Bounce forward, not back. There is a knee-jerk reaction that often happens when managing turnover. Companies default to backfilling roles with the same skills. But bouncing forward doesn’t mean going back to where things were. It means identifying and cultivating new skills through upskilling, reskilling, and in hiring practices. For example, as companies introduce automation during the pandemic, many may discover that they now need people with more analytical skills and less transactional skills. 

Think creatively, act strategically. The pandemic has taught companies to be more creative in how they fill roles and source skills. By reallocating talent thoughtfully, companies can fill talent gaps and help reduce workload burden, motivating employees and addressing burnout. When companies find their next normal, they will not have to revert to the old approaches for bringing in skills. The talent pool will be deeper. Companies can weigh the options and trade-offs of on-demand models and gig workers, partnerships, and global resources. 

Keep top performers engaged. Companies should identify and engage high performers for obvious reasons—and because studies show they are the most susceptible to burnout. To help A players feel valued and excited about staying with them, companies should focus on their career growth. This includes things like targeting A players for stretch exposure, offering exclusive training, or being more transparent about career progression and compensation. Stay interviews provide insights for creating a differentiated employee experience for each high performer.

Listen to employee needs, then listen again. During this crisis, companies have had to do a lot of talking to employees about everything from policy changes to the logistics of remote work. This is good. But as important as it is to talk to employees, it is equally important to listen to them. By conducting employee surveys, encouraging “open door” exchanges, and providing career counseling and mentorship opportunities, companies can create a supportive environment. These approaches also provide a realistic pulse on the potential turnover issues in an organization before they occur. 

Anchor in company culture and evolve it. Culture is a touchstone that companies can come back to again and again. It is also an important port in the storm of any crisis. Every company should stay true to its culture and values, ensuring that reallocation, reskilling, and hiring practices are consistent with them. At the same time, by evolving culture to embrace a focus on employee well-being and emotional intelligence, companies can help to retain their people, attract right-fit talent, and future-proof the culture in the process. 

Preparing now for the turnover tsunami is critical. Companies that do it well will balance making tactical decisions for today with strategic workforce planning for tomorrow. That’s how they can address where they are—and where they want to go. Both for the business and and for their people.


The 2020 Eagle Hill Consulting COVID-19 Workforce Burnout Survey was conducted online by Ipsos from November 12-16, 2020. The online survey included 1,003 respondents from a random sample of employees across the United States. The survey polled respondents on burnout and retention in light of the COVID-19 Pandemic.