New Research: How Did the Pandemic Impact Employees’ Life-work Journeys?

New Research: How Did the Pandemic Impact Employees’ Life-work Journeys?

From historic unemployment to remote work to “the Great Resignation”, the pandemic continues to upend the workforce, keeping both employers and employees in flux. While employers struggled to reimagine business operations and keep their doors open, employees faced sweeping uncertainty and plenty of time to reimagine how work fit into their lives.

Currently, nearly 34 million people in the United States have tested positive for COVID-19. More than 600,000 have died. Long-haul syndrome has impacted approximately one quarter of these people, many of whom are dealing with debilitating chronic symptoms including headaches, memory and concentration difficulties, and potential long-term organ damage. While more than half of the U.S. population has now been fully vaccinated, new and potentially more dangerous variants continue to emerge as mask mandates are dismantled and Return-to-Office policies are announced. Heightened levels of post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are evident across all industries and income levels. 

All this begs the question: How has the pandemic impacted employees’ Life-work Journeys?

What is the Life-work Journey?

UKG first introduced the concept of the Life-work Journey last year, defining six stages — At Risk, Security, Growth, Self-realization, Influence, and Legacy — that reflect the wide variance of experiences employees face during the course of their lives (and careers). It’s not uncommon for employees around the same age in the same position earning similar salaries to be in very different places on their Life-work Journey. 

Each stage has its own implications; employees who are At Risk are primarily concerned with self-preservation and are more likely to keep their heads down and prioritize following orders vs. suggesting out-of-the-box, moonshot ideas. Conversely, an employee who’s reached Legacy is more likely to be focused on raising up others, transferring knowledge, and making a meaningful contribution to their organization, customers, and greater community.

But this journey is not linear. The average employee journey has many detours. Unforeseen disruptions can quickly send someone from Influence or Legacy right back to At Risk; the past year and a half has been an extreme example of this. While both engagement and productivity during the pandemic have been researched and discussed at length, an employee can be both engaged and productive and driven solely by fear and stress. These metrics are valuable but are not indicative of an employees’ well-being and long-term potential within an organization.

We wanted to dive deeper.

The Pandemic’s Imbalanced Impact on Employee Life-work Journeys

To learn more about how the pandemic was affecting this journey, UKG commissioned a study with’s HR Research Institute in the fourth quarter of 2020 (see full report here). With responses from 1,227 participants across a broad cross-section of organizations, we hoped to gain a glimpse into the real experiences of employees in the United States and Canada. Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that these results were skewed to include employees that remained employed despite sweeping layoffs and economic uncertainty (which affected some industries, like retail and hospitality, significantly more than others).  

We learned that a full 91% of employees said the pandemic had changed their life-work development in some important way. For 30%, the pandemic created new opportunities; for another 25%, it made them less financially stable. Nearly two-fifths said the pandemic made them laser-focused on keeping their current job, and just over half of respondents said they didn’t have a financial safety net to fall back on in case of job loss. This collective data points to a majority of respondents falling into the At Risk category (despite the fact that these were all employed individuals).

This “mixed bag” of experience is also aligned with what we know about the pandemic’s exacerbation of inequity. Unemployment rates among women and people of color were significantly higher than white men during the worst months of the economic crisis, and their recovery rates have continued to slog behind their white male counterparts. Add in the fact that women are underpaid relative to men — referenced by both pay gaps for similar roles as well as overrepresentation in low-wage jobs — and the fact that they’re typically responsible for more household and childcare responsibilities, and the pandemic’s adverse outcomes on women are well-documented. Black women fared the worst, facing a full 6% drop in employment from February 2020 to April 2021 (nearly twice that of white men). Women of color are also disproportionately represented in both essential industries and those that experienced widespread job loss, and therefore experienced much higher levels of health and economic risk.

The Pandemic Paradox and the Great Reset

Despite these figures, it’s also clear that we’ve witnessed a counter-intuitive paradox when it comes to employee expectations and demands. Traditionally, unemployment and recessions have a positive impact on employers in terms of retention and hiring. But that wasn’t the case this year. Countless industries (particularly those requiring in-person work) struggled to fill their open jobs, even at the height of unemployment. Now that industries and society are opening back up amid climbing vaccination rates, the so-called “Great Resignation” has arrived with a bang. 

In April alone, a record four million U.S. workers quit their jobs (the highest rate since 2000). Microsoft surveys revealed that an astonishing 40% of global employees are considering looking for new jobs. Nearly every company in every industry, from tech to manufacturing to government, is struggling to retain its people. Meanwhile, though job openings have been smashing expectations since January, the number of job seekers coming back to work has been significantly lower than anticipated. Unemployment figures don’t include voluntary decreases in labor force participation, and a not-insignificant number of people have chosen to temporarily leave the workforce altogether.

Employee expectations have evolved significantly since the beginning of 2020. Benefits that seemed revolutionary 18 months ago — remote work, a four-day workweek, childcare stipends, flexible hours and mental health days — are now attractive bargaining tools leveraged by a growing number of employers. Organizations failing to provide this type of flexibility are facing record attrition. 

This data also tells us that employees are reassessing their options and taking professional risks that we would typically associate with the more stable levels of the Life-work Journey. Faced with an exhausting year of burnout plus chronic, legitimate life-and-death fears for themselves and their loved ones, many employees had time to reflect on what truly matters to them. They reflected on where they were on their Life-work Journey, where they wanted to be, and perhaps reevaluated their priorities and definition of success. 

In short: The pandemic has had a sweeping impact on employees’ Life-work Journeys. Perhaps its most enduring influence will be employees placing an increasingly higher value on the “life” part of the equation — a reality that, frankly, is long overdue.