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Want to retain your employees? Here’s an important question you can ask them.

“…recent quit rates are too high to be explained solely by labor market tightening. Future research should use individual-level data to identify and assess additional reasons why quit rates might have increased.”  Bureau of Labor Statistics. The “Great Resignation” in Perspective. July, 2022.

There are many factors fueling The Great Resignation. Understanding these factors will be critical as business leaders both plan for future employee turnover as well as try to retain their best. Economists have attributed recent quit rates to many possibilities: from larger labor market forces to individual factors including low wages, stimulus payments, health concerns, childcare issues.

It might, however, be a question better asked of philosophers, who might start with:

Why do you work here?

In a series of U.S. nationally-representative surveys administered by Kumanu and The Harris Poll, we’ve asked thousands of employees whether their organization tries to understand their personal purpose for working. We found that fewer than 2 in 5 employees felt that their organization showed this interest. We then ask the same employees about their intention to stay in their organization over the next two years.

What we’ve consistently found – from 2020 polling to our most recent poll in July, 2022 – is that employees who felt that their organization was interested in their purpose were over twice as likely to intend to stay in the organization (79% vs 34% in our July 2022 poll). Importantly, we found this after statistically controlling for age, education, income, gender, race, occupational role, and number of people reporting to the employee.

We’ve found that people have many purposes for working, including financial, personal growth, customers, team, organization, and even society as a whole. A nurse, for example, may be very committed to her patients, but when asked what her most important reason for working is, she may bring out her phone and show you a picture of her daughter. I want her to have every opportunity I didn’t have, she might tell you. Now that you know why she works, you can help her better fulfill her purpose for working, increasing her engagement and her intention to stay.

In fact, in two real-world health care organizations, we ask whether their organization helps them fulfill their personal purpose for working. Those who perceive this support (2 in 5, just like our recent national poll data) are a third as likely to plan on looking for a new job in the next six months compared to those who don’t (3.6% versus 11.3%). While economists have found that resignations are more likely among younger and less educated workers, the effect we found is far more predictive than age or education.

The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said that Everything has been figured out, except how to live. The pandemic, like wars and other disasters, has left the world trying to figure out how to live. We see it in skyrocketing rates of anxiety and depression. We see it in The Great Resignation. A conversation focusing on the “why” of working may be a starting point for healing.

  • Bureau of Labor Statistics. The “Great Resignation” in Perspective. July, 2022.
  • Bart Hobijn. “Great Resignations” are common during fast recoveries. Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, April 4, 2022.

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