Top Ten Reasons for Reluctance to Return to Work


On June 4thof this year, we published a blog article with the title “As Re-opening Accelerates, Where are the Workers?”. That was five months ago,and the problem continues.

Some of the reasons for this “reluctance to return to work”, that we reported on in June,are still issues today, others are new. Because this whole topic is such a critical issue for many segments of the economy, including the staffing industry, we thought it would be a good idea to dig into worker surveys, and other research, including expert opinion, to give some insight into why this is happening.

We hope this will be helpful to employers in considering what changes they may want to make in order to recruit better as well as to maintain a well-qualified, happy, and productive staff.

So, here are what our research shows are the top 10 reasons for reluctance to return to work. These are not ranked in order of the most, to the least common, but all of them come up in many surveys.

closeup of a young man in an office holding a briefcase
closeup of a young man in an office holding a briefcase and a surgical mask in his hand

#1 – Re-evaluation: The fall-out from Covid has caused or made the time available for many workers to reevaluate their attitudes towards work in general and the particular job they had been doing before the pandemic slowdowns and layoffs. Did they want to go back or look for something else? Those decisions are still being made. Some may have worked under difficult circumstances or even in “toxic” environments. Some had more time with their children and decided they wanted more of that in their lives. Some simply retired early (see # 3 below)

#2-Fear of Covid which is continuing with the “Delta Variant” plus the situation of so many people resisting both vaccines and mask wearing which has made those fears worse. Many employees are holding off returning until the situation is under more control.Even those vaccinated workers who are otherwise ready to return are demanding that employers mandate vaccinations for every employee. They are concerned about“breakthrough infections” where they can become a symptomatic carriers of the infections to older or immune-compromised family members.

#3 – Early retirement(55-64) is a very significant reason for employees not returning to work – ever! The life-re-evaluations we spoke about(#1 above) resulted in more than 3 million early retirees. Federal Reserve research calculated that figure which accounts for “more than half” of the “missing workers”. Enabling this dramatic rise in early retirement was the surge in both stock and housing prices. Wealth for seniors (55-64), the Fed reported, rose by 14.2 percent between the 4th quarter of 2019 and the second quarter of this year (2021). Amazing!

#4 –Moving to smaller communities. The dense concentrations in both housing and work spaces in our larger cities caused a huge migration after Covid hit. NY City alone had over 180,000 move outs and Brooklyn (which I thought was part of the city) lost more than 75,000. Many of these moves were enabled by a change to remote work, usually from home. If the “home” was also an apartment or condo in a densely populated area many moved to smaller or even rural communities. With the remote work option (or necessity) this was a new possibility for many. And, for the most part it has worked. Many workers liked the flexibility of working from home including the time and money spent in their daily commute. Technology enabled remote work and the pandemic made it necessary. But the bottom line is that millions want remote work to continue, even permanently.

Although employers have been open to it especially during the pandemic, others have seen it as temporary. So, there is a split in many cases and until it is fully resolved, many workers are going to continue to look for remote work and are willing to search for new employers where they can continue that option.

#5 – Freelancers. On July 30, 2021 Staffing Industry Analysts (SIA) reported on a survey by a company called “Braintrust” that found 85% of employed knowledge workers i.e., those who work primarily with digital content, are open to becoming Freelancers. The reasons these workers cited were the ability to work from anywhere, to be their own boss, to work on projects of greater interest to them. 85% is a huge and fascinating figure.

Also, on October 20, 2021, SIA reported on another survey that found that 70 percent of IT workers plan to quit in the next 12 months. They all will quite probably still work but as freelancers, not employees, working from anywhere, on projects of interest etc. IT workers are some of the best jobs to enable freelancing but still 70 percent is remarkable.

The US government, specifically the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, defines freelancers as neither employed nor unemployed and therefore not in the labor force. We also know that many women Estimated at 3 million by CBS News, had dropped out of the labor force during the pandemic to care for their children when schools and day-care centers were closed.

Also cited by CBS were the problems women have even under normal conditions of unequal pay, affordability of quality childcare, lack of medical leave for themselves and their children and especially for workers in lower paying jobs where these benefits are most needed. Many of these women may never return to the work force or may delay it for as long as they can.

Working In Modern Office After Returning From Quarantine. Millen
Working in modern office after returning from quarantine. Millennial lady in protective mask speaks on phone and looks at laptop at table with antiseptic in office interior, empty space

#6 – Better Balancing work and leisure has been mentioned quite frequently in surveys of workers attitudes which yielded a clear indication that “work” in the US is out of balance with the human needs of childcare and increased general parenting time, social life, and personal pursuits.There have been many studies of the need for a better balance between work and leisure and Increasingly there are demands for improvement.

#7 – Better pay, benefits and working conditions are always important but the data has some surprises. First, Forbes magazine reported on a survey of 3,000 employees at some very prestigious companies (Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook) The survey question was “Would you give up $30,000 to work from home?”. The preferences for working at home were, Google(67%) Amazon (64%), Microsoft (62%) Apple (69%) and Salesforce (76%). I find these findings truly remarkable!

Regarding other benefits, the Harvard Business Review reported on a study of “The Most Desirable Employee Benefits” which also had some surprising results. The most desired benefits were, first“Better health, dental and vision care insurance”, which was not a surprise, but this was tied with“More flexible hours”(see below #8 below)

The next two benefits employees cared about the most were “More vacation time” (80%) and Work-from-home options” (80%). Comment: Something is going on in the current workplaces and its not just for higher pay. The high ratings of these benefits demonstrates that workers care a great deal about them and are prepared to invest the time to get a position that provides them

#8 – Flexibility: Especially with more women in the workplace the benefit of more flexible hours deserves a whole different category. The topic comes up quite often. The pandemic brought this issue to crisis proportions when schools and day care centers were closed. With the return to work, flexibility in scheduling work hours has become a permanent value. Women want to work or need to work but they also need to have time to get their kids off to school and be there when the children return home. They need better maternity leave and work from home options especially when a child is sick.

Many nurses now prefer 12-hour shifts 3 days a week with 4 days off. They rotate with other members of the staff, so weekend work is shared. According to my own survey, nurses like it very much.

There are many examples of flexible work hours that have proven to be very successful from a management standpoint as well as from workers. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)had an article five years ago titled “Workplace Flexibility Necessary for Business, Speaker Says

And, a much more recent article, carried a very detailed article on Managing Work Arrangements where they detail many opportunities for employers to offer greater flexibility in scheduling work hours while maintaining productivity.

Both articles cover both the opportunities and the challenges in providing greater flexibility in work scheduling.

I believe their analysis is well balanced and realistic.Companies looking to find and keep good employees in these difficult times would benefit greatly from their advice.

#9 – More Vacation time is also a significant desire for many employees which may be turning into a condition for job acceptance. And there is considerable evidence that more vacation time is good for employers as well as employees. In a study reported on by the Harvard Business Review above (see #7 “Which Benefits are Most Valued by Job Seekers”). Of the 17 listed benefits which the survey asked 2,000 employees to rank, “More Vacation Time” ranked #3.

This is consistent with other surveys that show a great desire to balance work and leisure, work and family life, more personal time etc.

#10 –The tenth reason seems to be more of a cluster of worker desires and needs and their concerns and skepticism about the possibility for change. The pandemic with its shutdowns, layoffs, deaths, and generalized fear has given millions a chance to think about what is most important to them. The answer seems to be that “we want what is best for ourselves and our families”.

If workers feel they cannot achieve real progress they will continue to be reluctant to return to work.If forced back by inevitable necessity, we will have a silently bitter work force who will “play the game”, but their hearts will not be in it.

Smart, pragmatic, and creative employers and politicians should listen to what workers want and need. Then go about creating new and better business and economic policies. Now is a great time to do it.

Stay Safe!