Rethinking your relationship with work? So are a lot of people

Experts say the broad changes sweeping through the work world pre-date the pandemic, but they're speeding up as a result of it.

Pre-pandemic trends speed up, as 'career shock' prompts workers to rethink priorities

Former executive chef Robert Brouillette, at his Whitehorse-area home, decided to change careers after a downturn in the restaurant industry during the pandemic. He'd been thinking about heading in a new direction, but the pandemic pushed him to train for a new career in media. (Submitted by Robert Brouillette)

Robert Brouillette is putting together a new recipe for his career.

The former executive chef is back in school at age 40, training for a new career in media.

He'd been thinking about making a move for a while but didn't take the plunge until the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, which eventually put him out of work.

"[It] gave me that extra push," said Brouillette, who's now studying multimedia communication at Yukon University in Whitehorse.

The pandemic has altered most people's employment in one way or another as workplaces have made adjustments and workers have dealt with the ensuing consequences.

Anil Verma, professor emeritus of industrial relations and human resources management at the University of Toronto, says many of the changes taking place in the work world pre-date the pandemic — but the pace of change has picked up. (Submitted by Anil Verma)

Yet experts say many of the broad changes occurring in the work world pre-date the pandemic, though they're now picking up speed.

"The pandemic has not created anything new," said Anil Verma, professor emeritus of industrial relations and human resources management at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

"What the pandemic did do was that it magnified things ... [and] they got accelerated," Verma said, listing remote work, flexible schedules and workers rethinking what they want from their employment as issues that emerged well before COVID-19.

Wanting something different

For Brouillette, the desire to make a career change built up during years of working long, stressful hours in restaurants, even though he'd done well for himself.

"I was lucky, I was making good money," said Brouillette, whose work brought him from his hometown of Montreal to Yukon about five years ago.

The loss of his job during the pandemic, however, left him staring at the prospect of "going back down to the bottom of the ladder" in his industry.

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He decided to move on.

As the pandemic drags on, many people, like Brouillette, are thinking about their future, their work-life balance and the things they want to change.

DeeAnne Chomiak, a Florida-based life and business coach, went through that process herself years before the pandemic, leaving behind a high-flying business career for something different.

Since COVID hit, she's watched others confront the same issues, but amid the pandemic context.

"I think a lot of people ... say enough is enough and that I want to enjoy my life, especially if we're going to have pandemics and other things," said Chomiak, who estimates four-fifths of her coaching clients are currently wrestling with these issues.

A widespread 'career shock'

Julia Richardson, a professor of HR management at Australia's Curtin University, says the pandemic has put a massive number of workers through a "career shock" — an uncontrolled, external event that changes people's thinking about their careers.

"Some people have lost their jobs as a result of COVID, other people have been required to work from home or they've lost colleagues, and that creates this change, I think, in how they're thinking about work," said Richardson, who believes this kind of rethink is occurring across a variety of demographics.

Dean McLauchlin, who worked for the Canada Revenue Agency for 30 years, is enjoying retirement. He says pandemic-era stresses factored into his decision to leave his working days behind — although he might one day return to work if something comes along that appeals to him. (Submitted by Dean McLauchlin)

That was the case for Dean McLauchlin, a now-retired Canada Revenue Agency employee, who spent months working from home in Peterborough, Ont., before deciding to call it a career.

"You have to put in your time," said McLauchlin, 56, who reached the 30-year mark before retiring.

He says pandemic-era work stresses factored into his decision to leave his working days behind.

Six months into retirement, McLauchlin says he's "loving it" so far but admits he might eventually re-enter the work world — though only if something comes along that appeals to him.

More risks for some

The pandemic has also brought into focus the risks that some workers are facing far more acutely than others — particularly those working in front-line roles that cannot be carried out from the safety of home.

"The pandemic changed the equation between the reward and effort," Verma said, adding that the risk element is clearly spurring some of these lower-paid workers to seek other employment — as seen in what has been billed in the United States as the "Great Resignation."

Verma said these low-wage workers need better pay and that it's incumbent on their employers to make that happen.

"If not, there will be continued shortages for years to come," he said.

The need for improved wages for low-income workers seems to have some political currency in Ontario at the moment, with the provincial government recently announcing it will raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour next year.

Front-line workers have faced higher risks during the pandemic compared with people who have been able to work from home. The Ontario government recently announced it will raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour next year. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, whose Progressive Conservative Party will seek re-election next year, told reporters that "workers deserve to have more money in their pockets."

With the coming change, that will put Ontario in the middle of the pack across the country, as five provinces and territories — Alberta, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, Nunvaut and Yukon — already have minimum wages of at least $15.

The balance of power

Jason Lavoie works as an office administrator for a Hamilton company he's been with for years.

Secure in his employment, Lavoie says he isn't looking for a new job. But he believes anybody thinking about doing so would have a lot to consider — including the potential loss of job security and benefits.

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From job ads he's seen, it seems that certain kinds of positions are up for grabs right now — particularly those in the service industry.

There are definitely people in need of work — as Statistics Canada reported Friday that the country's jobless rate stands at 6.7 per cent.

But Lavoie says he wonders how long workers can hold the upper hand.

"These jobs are going to start being filled," said Lavoie, who expects the balance of power will then shift back to employers.

Verma points out that Canada typically relies on "a steady supply of cheap labour" — via immigration — that has not been available in the same way as it was before the pandemic. That's unlikely to change right away.

But that doesn't mean that when new workers come to Canada in greater numbers again, they'll want to stick with the first jobs they land.

"I don't think any immigrant comes to Canada with the hope of a minimum wage job and being stuck in that job forever," Verma said.

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