Frontline workers may have been the heroes of the pandemic, but a new survey shows that even superheroes reach a point when they just want to hang up their capes.

According to an international survey of frontline workers, nearly half of them are planning to leave their jobs.

And it’s burnout, not a lack of compensation, that is driving their decision-making.

The survey was conducted in Canada, the U.S. and Australia in July and August of this year by global market research firm Arlington Research, on behalf of Waterloo-based frontline employee training specialist Axonify.

The 2021 Global State of Frontline Work Experience Study conducted online surveys with more than 2,500 employees who held frontline roles in grocery, retail, finance, banking, insurance or professional sales for companies with more than 1,000 employees. It’s the fifth annual survey of frontline work, expanding this year, with pandemic impacts in mind, beyond worker training to focus on worker experience.

Beyond the startling number of staff – 45 per cent – who plan to quit their frontline jobs, there are details about worker concerns with gender equity, limitations on training, the opportunity gap between full-time and part-time work, and some statistics that throw light on the challenges of working outside the head office.

In a news release about the study, Axonify CEO Carol Leaman said, “Everyone is talking about the future of work, but too many of these conversations focus solely on the corporate employee experience and don’t consider the frontline. The time has come to rethink the frontline work experience.

“Successful companies realize that frontline workers are the face of their brand. We need to emphasize the importance of this group’s experience to ensure they are supported and provided with equitable opportunities so they can advance their careers – and serve as brand ambassadors.”

Among the highlights of the study:

  • About 45 per cent of frontline employees say they plan to leave their jobs, with Gen Z most eager to leave (63 per cent).

  • When frontline employees were asked why they’re planning to leave, 58 per cent cited feeling burned out; 53 per cent said they felt there was a lack of appreciation from management and/or peers; and 51.9 per cent expressed a lack of interest in daily work. Poor compensation came fourth, at 51.7 per cent. Different sectors showed different results, with 63 per cent of retail workers, for instance, reporting burnout as the reason for leaving, compared to only 50 per cent citing compensation.

  • While 49.2 per cent of those surveyed said improved pay would reduce employee turnover, 44.2 per cent said they wanted more flexible work scheduling; 42.6 per cent wanted to be better appreciated; and 42 per cent wanted more positive relationships in their work environments.

  • The study showed frontline employee perceptions of equity disparity in gender, work location and job status. For instance, 70 per cent of staff who identify as male reported satisfaction with their compensation, compared to only 60 per cent of staff who identify as female. While 86 per cent of those working in the office were satisfied with the support they received from the employer, only 67 per cent of workers in stores or branches were satisfied. On a similar metric, 81 per cent of office workers were happy with their everyday work, while only 64 per cent of those working at the store or branch and 62 per cent of those working remotely or from home reported being happy with such work. And full-time workers reported higher job satisfaction than did part-time workers.

  • More than one-third of workers said they only receive training during big job changes, and one in five said they never receive additional training at all.

The need for employers to focus on employee engagement has never been more apparent, according to a recent book by Waterloo-based author and Plasticity Labs co-founder Jennifer Moss.

The demand for workplace flexibility came through loud and clear as Moss prepared material for The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It, published by the Harvard Business Review Press last month. Moss writes that employers must connect with their employees in ways previously not considered. The pandemic, and the changing workforce, has altered worker expectations, and employers have to keep up, or lose their talent to other companies.

Says Leaman in the Axonify study, “It’s time to take a hard look at the day-to-day frontline experience and make adjustments that will help people feel safe, supported and well taken care of. It’s time to ensure equitable opportunities for all workers so everyone, regardless of title, location or background, can do their best and advance their careers. It’s time to foster improved relationships and renew trust with the people who are the enthusiastic faces of your brand and owners of your last mile. Remember: a job is more than just a paycheck. It’s part of our identities.”