2023 was a difficult year for business and career landscapes alike. The UK suffered from a marked skill crisis – with 9.7% of companies reporting a lack of appropriate talent in October last year, according to the House of Commons Library. In addition, rising costs forced many organisations to enter into administration, with the government registering 6342 insolvencies in the second quarter alone.

As we forge ahead into 2024, little appears to have improved. Rising long-term sickness – at 2.5 million since Covid according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – continues to reduce the pool of available skilled talent, whilst unemployment – set to reach almost 5% next year according to the British Chamber of Commerce – continues to threaten individual futures. It’s a bleak outlook for employers and employees alike.

Rising redundancy

The volatile economy has also left many businesses struggling for survival. This has had detrimental impact on employees, with many being made redundant, either because the company they worked for has had to close down or because managers and leaders have been forced to scale down and reduce the size of their teams in order to continue operations.

In fact, according to the ONS, an overwhelming 102,000 redundancies were officially made between May and July last year. It’s not that leaders don’t appreciate the workforce, but rather that they can no longer afford to keep such a high number of people on their payrolls. Some, more unscrupulous employers have also taken to pushing valued members out of their team, only to replace them with cheaper, apprentice-level labour in order to save money – a move that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the general population.

Looming insecurity

Other employees, from the same or separate companies, have thus begun to feel insecure in their roles, seeking opportunity elsewhere as a means of career protection. This behaviour has generated a widespread restlessness in an already talent-short job market, calling for an urgent solution if continuing businesses are to hold on to their most valuable asset: skilled, experienced staff.

Cushioning the blow

It’s only natural that, amidst an ongoing cost-of-living crisis, people should want to protect themselves from potentially getting fired. Indeed, it takes an average of five months to find a new role, according to Randstad, and most individuals simply cannot afford to take time out of the labour market between jobs to find suitable replacement employment.

The concept of ‘career cushioning’ has thus emerged. Put simply, this set of skill-boosting, opportunity-seeking behaviours is designed to cushion the blow of potential redundancy ahead of time, allowing employees to prepare for when things go wrong from the comfort of their current roles. From independent learning and development to taking on multiple jobs and regularly updating CVs on LinkedIn, it helps insecure employees to feel more proactive in a situation they cannot control. Some will even go as far as to apply for vacant positions – be it causally or with purpose – despite feeling comfortable in their current job, simply as a matter of prudence.

Increased competition on the market

Of course, this comes as bad news for employers, who are at risk of losing already trained talent to their competitors, many of whom will be willing to offer better benefits to secure hard-to-find talent. For instance, an employee who might have been applying for ‘back-up’ jobs on LinkedIn despite having no real intention to move, unless threatened by redundancy, could easily find themselves presented with a more lucrative salary or irresistible job perks like hybrid working and private health insurance from another employer, causing them to seriously consider the otherwise hypothetical working situation.

Competitors that can offer such perks most certainly will, given that there are such high stakes on the skills market. This leaves the original employer flailing, attempting to attract replacement talent, despite not being prepared or in a position to offer benefits that compete with other companies in their field.

Protecting your assets

Employees who engage in career cushioning are essentially keeping themselves relevant and employable by exploring upward options and developing themselves as tradeable assets. In the midst of an ongoing skills crisis, where retaining top talent remains a priority, employers would do well to maintain this asset-growth mindset as well, holding onto their team members as best they can by offering quality employee engagement. Offering in-house training and development can also go far, as it demonstrates a long-term commitment to keeping employees and allowing them to grow with the company, perhaps easing their concerns that they could easily be replaced, whilst ensuring that the skills of your team remain on par with others in the market.

Encouraging people to stay

One of the best ways to ensure that employees remain loyal to your team is to tackle their career uncertainties head on. Make sure they know they play a secure part in your company’s future by scheduling regular development discussions with them, coming up with mutually beneficial career paths for them to follow. In order to gain loyalty, you must create opportunity for progress – and what better way to do this than through deliberate career paths that will also steer the future of your business in the right direction? Business nowadays is more of a partnership than it is a unidirectional exchange of power, so this approach is vital.

It’s well within your power to offer training opportunities, too. This not only allows you to upskill your own teams to maintain competitivity and achieve your overarching goals, but also helps when it comes to holding onto top talent, as people will feel valued and appreciated, as well as feeling there is still progress to be made in their current position. In fact, LinkedIn research estimates that the skills required to perform well in all jobs are likely to change by around 65% by the year 2030, making training and development a fundamental step in your business future.

Value beyond pay

In addition to offering a sense of security, employers must also look to facilitate a range of value-added benefits like health insurance and employee rewards on top of any monetary pay. Reward schemes can be implemented on any budget, at any scale, and are a simple way of showing people that they are valued. This reassurance can go a long way in the face of growth and change.

Of course, the more people feel compensated for their efforts, the more they are likely to put into the company, as well. This not only means you’ll get more out of them in terms of performance but also in terms of dedication to any training programmes and in terms of loyalty to your company. Whilst higher salaries may not be an option in the current climate, company away days, employee of the month schemes and other heartfelt initiatives serve to keep teams engaged – and its this engagement that creates personal ties to the company, creating a sense of community that can often sway where loyalties lie.

Direct-from-source guidance

When undertaking any kind of engagement initiatives, it’s important to remember to take employee needs and feedback on board. Speak to your teams to find out what they want to improve and what they need to do better in their jobs. Not only will this prove to them that you care, providing that sought-after reassurance, but it demonstrates an environment of continuous improvement, furthermore creating a shared journey in which they form part. In other words, company developments are no longer something that happen to employees but something they influence, drive and participate in – a move that cannot be rivalled when it comes to creating a sense of belonging within the company.

A journey shared

Employers can easily combat the potential losses that can come with career cushioning by embarking upon a shared journey with their team to reach mutual goals. It’s a question of planning and communication in the face of dual volatility – and it’s important to foster and nurture mutual trust rather than see both parties – employee and employer – plough ahead, scared for their own futures.

Michael Doolin
Michael Doolin
Group Managing Director at Clover HR

Michael Doolin is the CEO of Clover HR and a subject matter expert in the areas of HR employment law, Reorganisation and Change, HR infrastructure, and policy and procedure development. He has held board director positions and designed and developed HR strategies for some of Europe's leading brands.