Employers are facing even further labour headaches as a new study has suggested that up to 16 million UK workers are considering changing jobs within the next six months, including more than 10 million who intend to do so by the end of this year.

The survey of 1,500 employees by private insurance provider Westfield Health uncovered a “widespread sense of unrest” across the workforce, with more than half considering a change and a third saying that a move is imminent. At an average of £3,000 per employee, the total estimated recruitment bill to rebuild in the wake of such an exodus would be in excess of £48 billion.

The findings come as the labour market already faces large-scale shortages across a raft of industries, with job vacancies at record highs and the availability of candidates at all-time lows.

The authors of the report, entitled “Emergency Exit”, warn that mass departures have the potential to derail the post-pandemic recovery. With burnout looming for many members of staff, flexible and remote working options have supplanted higher salaries as the factor most likely to stop them from leaving.

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Vicky Walker, head of human resources at Westfield, said HR teams have faced “one major challenge after another” during the past 18 months, with scaling up the return to the workplace the top priority for many at the moment. However, this may be distracting from the “even more significant threat” of failing to retain staff.

“The pandemic has forced us all to think about what really matters and that applies to our careers too,” she said. “Where employers haven’t impressed or are looking to reduce flexibility, people are seriously considering voting with their feet, potentially costing UK businesses billions.

“People and wellbeing issues have found themselves top of the boardroom agenda throughout the Covid crisis. The scale of people looking for a change – and how easily they could be retained with the right support – is a timely reminder of why a preventative, proactive approach to your team and their wellbeing has to remain a business priority.”

The Westfield report comes on the heels of analysis from data diagnostics specialist Untapped AI covering 10,000 users across the financial, professional services, energy and hypergrowth sectors. It found that four out of five employees are in the grip of so-called “change fatigue”, with factors such as an enforced return to the office or lack of coherent strategy for hybrid working affecting people’s outlook on their jobs and livelihoods.

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“The uncertainty that comes with this stuttering pandemic recovery creates dilemmas for companies who are trying to solve them with wildly differing strategic options,” said Kendal Parmar, chief executive of Untapped AI. “Hybrid working is just one of them.”

Asked why they were considering quitting their job, 40 per cent of those in the Westfield survey were keen to either “try something new” or change careers. That was followed by 35% seeking a better work-life balance, 34% looking to prioritise their mental or physical health, and 27% who were unhappy with either their flexible work options or how their employer was managing the Covid crisis.

Among those contemplating a career break, 30% said wellbeing was their main motivation, the highest of any reason given. More traditional motives such as travelling (13%) and raising children (7%) were a lower priority.

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Although more than half of all workers said they were less than a month away from burnout, 83% of those considering leaving said they would stay if their employer made certain changes. Top among these was improved flexible and remote working options (43%), followed by 40% who would stay if given a pay rise and 35% who wanted more wellbeing support.

There was an almost even split between those who felt they were more productive working at home (48%) and those who felt more so in the office, but when asked to compare the two, more than 26% said they’re not working in their preferred location and would be more effective in a different environment.

On this point, the report concluded: “While leaders may encourage a return to ‘business as usual’, any opposition to flexible working policies must be weighed against the impact of talent drain to competitors who offer a more adaptable approach.”