Courting Talent: Empathy as a Competitive Advantage

by | May 20, 2022

Northeast Ohio’s workers told us how the pandemic impact them and what they want and need from work. Here’s a first look at what they’ve said, and what employers should be paying attention to.

By Bethia Burke, President — Fund for Our Economic FutureThe long-awaited results of the survey of nearly 5,000 working-age adults across Northeast Ohio are finally here! We at the Fund for Our Economic Future, along with our partners at ConxusNEO, Team NEO, PolicyBridge the Summit and Medina Workforce Area Council of Governments and the Center for Marketing and Opinion Research, are at the front end of using the data to surface insights into how the past two years have informed the choices of working aged adults across the region.

Even over the few months it took to develop, deploy and synthesize this survey, shifting tides in the economy have influenced decision-making—record-high savings rates have been exhausted, inflation is driving up the cost of living, the housing shortage is complicating relocation efforts, and the growing number of COVID variants and continued surges suggest long-term planning remains a risky endeavor. And yet.

In March, according to the most recent jobs report, for the tenth consecutive month, more than 4 million people quit their jobs. Unemployment rates remain at 3.6 percent. For employers struggling to fill vacancies and ensure business survival in this tight labor market, understanding what today’s workers want and need from work has moved firmly out of the realm of idle curiosity—it’s become an existential question.

There’s no silver bullet, no singular, “Aha!” moment to offer employers and workforce practitioners aiming to solve the talent crisis (except, perhaps, the drum we’ve been beating since we revealed the results of our employer survey: Ask your employees what they want and need, and listen to their answers. As I said in a recent interview with, the businesses that are seeing this moment of time as something they need to get through rather than respond to are going to lose the talent war to businesses that are choosing to empathize with their workforce and adapt.)

People are complex. Workplaces, careers and life situations are as diverse as the individuals who fill them. Our continued analysis, the discussions in the working-age adult focus groups now underway, and the community dialogue we look forward to facilitating around these questions will continually generate insights and implications for different work environments and challenges. In the meantime, we’re sharing a primer on the survey results to orient readers to the road ahead for this analysis. Read on below to see who answered our survey, the general trends we’re beginning to see, and how you can help us dig into the data and engage in these conversations.

Who Answered the Survey

The Center for Marketing and Opinion Research, an Akron-based market research firm that designed and deployed the survey, developed demographic profiles for the 11 counties included in the survey and conducted sampling that would produce a statistically valid data set—meaning that from these results we can reasonably extrapolate to the broader population this survey represents. (Because of an investment in the Greater Akron region of Medina, Portage and Summit County through Ohio Means Jobs, these counties produced a greater proportion of responses. The analysis took these variations into account and weighted them accordingly.)

Below is a demographic snapshot of those who answered the survey. (Click to view larger.)

What They Told Us

Here are a few interesting insights from our preliminary round of analysis on this survey. To hear more, join us on Wednesday, June 8 at noon EST for a lunch & learn webinar digging into the survey results. Register here. (And if you can’t make it, we’ll be sharing the recording.)

The pandemic took a toll.

One early and persistent hypothesis about why people were quitting was that stimulus payments, additional unemployment insurance and other benefits were keeping people out of the workforce, but workers disagree: When asked, “How much did benefits impact you to stay out of work longer or be more selective about your work options,” 26% said “A little,” and 62% said “not at all.”

One in five workers had to stay home from work to take care of their children. Of those, about a third either quit or took a leave of absence, a slightly smaller portion reduced their work hours, and nearly 40% just made do: working the same number of hours while also caring for children.

About 38% of respondents contracted COVID at some point. Of those, more than a third have dealt with prolonged symptoms of “long COVID” – which has affected their ability to keep a job at a rate of about 5% of the total working-age adult population surveyed.

People are quitting without other jobs lined up.

More than one in five workers quit or left their jobs in the past year (and we’re not including retirees here.). Of those, more than half left their jobs in the past 12 months did it without accepting another offer first.

Work environment is the key driver for people to leave, and worker wellbeing has taken a hit.

When we asked people the (open-ended) question of why people quit their jobs, half of the responses could be coded into these four categories: Toxic work environment, low pay, in transition (meaning they were moving, going back to school, or another life change unrelated to work), and schedule conflicts.

Among all currently employed respondents, one in five said they’ve called in sick due to feeling burned out at work in the past year, and almost twice as many report feeling overwhelmed by their workload. Other sentiments that point to a concerning deficit in worker wellbeing: More than half say their stress has increased at work since the beginning of the pandemic, more than one-third say their job demands interfere with their other responsibilities in life, and nearly half say they don’t make enough money to meet their family’s needs.

More change is on the horizon.

Employers who have been holding out hope for things to “settle” back to a less volatile status quo should take heed: Retention will remain a challenge into the next year. One in five currently employed workers say they’re somewhat or very likely to quit in the next 12 months, the same rate of workers who quit in the last 12 months. And more than 40% of workers say they’re at least somewhat likely to look for another job in the next year.

There’s hope for employers who can identify those at risk of leaving and are willing to hear them out: 56% of workers at risk of quitting say there are things their employers could do to encourage them to stay.

The 1099 Life

The growing sector of gig work—contract work fueled by app-based services like Uber, DoorDash and Task Rabbit, along with informal or “under the table” work like babysitting and odd jobs—has attracted many of today’s workers. With schedule conflicts in the top four reasons people part ways with their employers, the schedule flexibility that many of these opportunities allows may be the attraction; for others—especially those in industries hit hard with pandemic shutdowns earlier on—it may have been the only opportunity they could find to make ends meet.

Whatever the draw, more than one in five people who count themselves as currently employed has done freelance or contract work in the past year. Of those, 70% started this type of work in the past two years, two-thirds are currently earning money this way, just over a quarter consider this work their main job, and the vast majority (84%) enjoy this type of work.

So, what are workers looking for?

Depending on who we asked, the pandemic has shifted workers’ perspectives on work—for some, work has become more important since it was pre-pandemic, but an almost equal portion say it’s now less important. One thing almost all workers agree on, though, is that they want a clear understanding of salary before they apply for a job. Only 2% of respondents said salary information wasn’t important to include in a job listing.

Aside from good wage, other top factors people consider when they weigh different work opportunities are meaningful work, flexible hours, opportunities for advancement, time off and other traditional benefits like medical insurance.

They also want more work environment flexibility than they’re currently experiencing, with about 40% preferring some sort of hybrid work environment, 23% desiring fully remote work and less than 40% interested in working fully from their office or workplace. In reality, more than half are fully onsite and only 30% have a hybrid work option.
A series of focus groups with working-age adults is the last set of inputs to this body of research, which will culminate in a final report we will release this summer. Be sure to subscribe for updates on this work if you’d like to hear the latest.[mpc_callout preset=”mpc_preset_16″ layout=”style_2″ title_font_preset=”preset_13″ title_font_color=”#ffffff” title_font_size=”32″ title_font_line_height=”2″ title_font_transform=”uppercase” title_font_align=”left” title=”Join us on June 8″ title_margin_divider=”true” title_margin_css=”margin-bottom:10px;” content_width=”100″ content_font_preset=”preset_14″ content_font_color=”#ffffff” content_font_size=”16″ content_font_line_height=”1.75″ content_font_align=”left” content_margin_divider=”true” content_margin_css=”margin-top:0px;” icon_align=”left” icon=”fa fa-chevron-right” icon_color=”#ffffff” icon_size=”64″ icon_border_css=”border-radius:0px;” icon_padding_css=”padding:0px;” icon_margin_divider=”true” icon_margin_css=”margin-bottom:0px;margin-left:-15px;” background_color=”#00acd4″ border_css=”border-style:solid;border-radius:0px;” padding_divider=”true” padding_css=”padding-top:50px;padding-right:25px;padding-bottom:25px;padding-left:50px;” mpc_button__align=”left” mpc_button__preset=”mpc_preset_29″ mpc_button__url=”|target:_blank” mpc_button__font_preset=”preset_15″ mpc_button__font_color=”#ffffff” mpc_button__font_size=”16″ mpc_button__font_transform=”uppercase” mpc_button__title=”REGISTER” mpc_button__background_color=”#333333″ mpc_button__border_divider=”true” mpc_button__border_css=”border-top:2px;border-right:0px;border-bottom:2px;border-left:0px;border-color:#ffffff;border-style:solid;border-radius:0px;” mpc_button__padding_divider=”true” mpc_button__padding_css=”padding-top:12px;padding-right:32px;padding-bottom:12px;padding-left:32px;” mpc_button__margin_divider=”true” mpc_button__margin_css=”margin-top:0px;margin-left:0px;” mpc_button__hover_font_color=”#00acd4″ mpc_button__hover_background_color=”#ffffff” mpc_button__hover_border_css=”border-radius:0px;” mpc_button__mpc_tooltip__disable=”true” mpc_button__mpc_tooltip__border_divider=”true” mpc_button__mpc_tooltip__border_css=”border-color:undefined;border-style:undefined;” mpc_button__mpc_tooltip__padding_divider=”true” mpc_divider__preset=”mpc_preset_7″ mpc_divider__width=”66″ mpc_divider__align=”left” mpc_divider__content_type=”icon” mpc_divider__content_position=”0″ mpc_divider__content_padding_divider=”true” mpc_divider__content_padding_css=”padding-right:5px;padding-left:0px;” mpc_divider__icon_size=”15″ mpc_divider__lines_color=”#ffffff” mpc_divider__margin_divider=”true”]We’re hosting a public lunch & learn session on Wednesday, June 8 at noon EST to dig into these preliminary survey results. Click below to register. (Can’t make it? We’ll be sharing the recording.)[/mpc_callout]