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How to get your employees to stay when they’ve got one foot out the door

The more human you are as a leader, the more your workers will respond.

How to get your employees to stay when they’ve got one foot out the door
[Photo: Andrew Teoh/Unsplash]

A record 4.5 million workers quit their jobs in November, showing that the Great Resignation is not slowing down. The current omicron surge has just added to the universal instability everyone everywhere is feeling. Everything is up in the air—from matters at work to those in our personal lives. To put it simply, it’s overwhelming. The continued tsunami of turnover has leaders in a constant state of uncertainty about their workforce. Are your people about to quit? And what can you do about it?

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You may see signs that employees are antsy and might be getting ready to leave, but what is the reality? Harvard Business Review writers Timothy M. Gardner and Peter W. Hom describe a host of signs and signals when someone is about to quit, which include a few of the following:

  • They have lost enthusiasm for the mission, customer, or organization.
  • They have exhibited less effort and work motivation than usual.
  • They have exhibited less focus on job-related matters than usual.
  • They have expressed dissatisfaction with their current job more frequently than usual.

These are the normal signs of an employee heading out the door. But things are no longer normal. The global pandemic and the resulting stress from juggling all the pulls on our lives—kids, school, working at home, back-to-office, dealing with parents, and illnesses—has changed the employee experience.

Talkspace commissioned a 2021 Harris Poll survey, focused on exploring current employee attitudes toward mental well-being and work. Surveying just over 1,000 full-time employees between July 29 and August 2, the study discovered that there is a huge correlation between stress and the Great Resignation. Of those considering resignation:

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  • 80% describe themselves as burned out
  • 43% have a hard time sleeping due to stress
  • 39% feel short-tempered

The fascinating part is that the numbers are lower but present, even for those who are not considering resignation:

  • 39% describe themselves as burned out
  • 30% have a hard time sleeping due to stress
  • 21% feel short-tempered

These are difficult times for employees everywhere, and for leaders as well. The normal warning signs of an impending employee departure are blurred as stress has become more universal.

So, as a leader, what can you do? It’s a good time to step back and pause to consider: What exactly is the problem you need to solve? What is the outcome you want to achieve? Right now, you may be looking beyond retention to how to proactively help your employees. That can start by bringing more humanity to work. Here are a few recommendations to get you started.

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Be curious

Your people are stressed in a way they’ve probably never been before. During times of uncertainty and change, the most important aspect of working with people is to build an environment that feels safe and builds trust. What do they need to “feel safe”?  Ask them not later, but today. The act of asking in itself builds safety, and they will likely give you some important cues on how to build a culture of trust.

Open the door to these conversations with genuine curiosity. Ask what do they need right now, and be open to all feedback. What can you do to make their lives less stressful—more time off, extended timelines on projects? By getting curious, you build the trust they need right now to share. It also shows your people that you don’t know all the answers, either; you are human, too. From there, don’t forget to also genuinely listen.

The answer is not always changing policies, or making a decision, or agreeing to everything. Just listen to your workers concerns and what they need. They will feel respected and cared for. Once you gather their input, you can begin to consider what steps to take.

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Understand that relationships are two-way streets

This is a relationship, and perhaps the pendulum is swinging in a different direction. Most healthy relationships are a two-way street. How is your relationship with your people? Have you followed through on what you said you would, or no?

In the Talkspace/Harris Poll survey, two-thirds of employees say they are planning to leave because their employers have not followed through on the promise to help them deal with their mental health. Is this true for you and your organization?  If so, what are you willing to do? Take an inventory of your relationship with your people: How are you doing? If you feel the need for change, what shifts make the most sense? If you don’t know, try the above step, and try getting curious about their lives and thoughts.

Think outside the box

We are in conversations with clients and colleagues right now that are looking at what policies are in place and why. With the ping-pong conversation of remote work to back-to-the-office to remote work happening constantly, keeping your flexibility muscle strong is essential right now. This is not the time to announce rigid policies, either way. Remain flexible in what your people need. According to the research from Talkspace, people have other suggestions for what employers can do:

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  • 74% would find paid time off for mental health helpful
  • 69% would appreciate an open-door policy with managers
  • 64% would appreciate subsidized counseling and therapy

People are leaving. Things are stressful. Uncertainty is all around us. So, focus on what is within your control and what you can do to develop a rich relationship with your people. Start with a curious mindset, and ask them questions. You can try saying phrases like, “I care what you think” and “I value your ideas.” This creates safety. And, when you create safety, you actually strengthen the relationship; and when that happens, trust is strengthened, too. And, maybe, just maybe, your people will stay on a little longer.


Debbie Cohen and Kate Roeske-Zummer are the cofounders of HumanityWorks, a leadership-development organization that focuses on increasing productivity by embracing humanity at work. They are the coauthors of Humanity Works Better: 5 Practices to Lead With Awareness, Choice, and the Courage to Change.

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