How to avoid a talent exodus

7 mins

The observation that we are ‘living in unprecedented times’ is becoming tiresome for many of...

By Natasha Crump

Chief People & ESG Officer

The observation that we are ‘living in unprecedented times’ is becoming tiresome for many of us - aside from simply being over-used, it’s also acutely obvious!  What the world is experiencing is far more profound than simply a short-term change from the norm; we are seeing seismic shifts in people’s behaviours, beliefs, and life-styles. Patterns of the past are no longer accurate models for the future, and that unpredictably is making the ‘new normal’ both exciting and terrifying for many of us, not least businesses and employers.

The pandemic is creating a long-term upheaval to how we perceive and value our day-to-day needs and priorities; and work is top of the list for many, because of the knock-on impact it has on our lives in general. Despite job losses and insecurity penetrating almost every industry and every nation, workers are voluntarily quitting their jobs in unprecedented (sorry, just couldn’t resist it!) numbers.   

In this article, we explore the main drivers of this trend, and share 5 steps companies can take to help retain talent.

What is causing so many people to hand in their notice despite global job losses and insecurity?

There is, of course, a danger of over-generalising when considering what causes an individual to walk away from their job, and there will always be very personal reasons that get lost when looking at overall trends. But, identifying trends and understanding common triggers is essential to help organisations take action to avoid losing their best people. Broadly speaking, the four key factors leading people to quit, even without a job to go, to are:

1.     The safety factor: around one-third of workers are willing to quit if their workplaces are not COVID-19 ‘safe’ and insufficient steps have been taken by their employer to adapt the working environment to curb the spread of the virus*.

2.     The stress factor: the impact of the pandemic on our mental health is well documented, and many are experiencing levels of anxiety and stress that are simply overwhelming. Employees who have seen their workloads increase as companies downsize are at a high risk of ‘burnout’; whilst others may find working from home isolating and lonely. Either way, stress and anxiety are significant causal factors; and it’s women who are being most affected, with up to a quarter of women reported to be considering giving up work due to stress.**

3.     The family factor: undoubtedly, the strain of balancing work with family responsibilities (be that children or caring for a loved on) has been too much for many. Again it’s women who are disproportionately bearing the brunt, resulting in 1 in 4 women considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely.**

4.     The ‘life’s-too-short’ factor: lockdowns and furlough have given people time to reflect on what’s really important, reconsider priorities, and adapt our lifestyles. Add to that, the constant media coverage of rising death tolls and the ever present risk of infection, it’s no wonder so many people are giving up professional careers for vocational callings; cashing in nest-eggs to travel the world; or simply downsizing careers, homes and lifestyles in pursuit of ‘the good life’. Lockdowns and social distancing measures have also given many workers a taste of life without the daily commute, the benefits of more flexible working patterns and working from home, which they don’t want to give up.

5 steps companies can take to help retain talent

Recognising the tell-tale signs that an individual employee is about to quit is clearly important (check out How to tell if your best employee is planning to quit  - and how to stop them), but it’s crucial companies take wider steps to address the specific issues and causal factors outlined above in order to prevent widespread attrition and hold on to your best people.

1.     Listen: Don’t assume you know how your employees are feeling. Make sure employees have plenty of opportunities and channels to tell you how they are feeling. Engagement Surveys can help capture companywide and team trends; Let’s Talk group sessions focusing on specific topics can be facilitated either face-to-face or via video-conferencing; Effective 121s are great, but often focus on performance so make sure your management team understand the value of regularly picking up the phone, or grabbing a coffee with employees, with the sole purpose of asking how they are. By taking the time to really listen to your employees you will not only identify opportunities to improve overall engagement at work, but will also build a culture of inclusion and belonging, which are essential for employee loyalty and retention.

2.     Act: Take tangible, effective actions that protect both the physical and psychological safety of all your employees. This is more than simply fulfilling your obligations to ensure the workplace complies with COVID-19 regulations; it’s understanding what each employee needs, and that may well mean adopting more extensive safety measures for some than others (for example, some people will only feel safe in an office in a mask, even if it’s not compulsory, so consider providing masks for those that want them). We’re in a constant state of change. The only way you will know what it is people need to feel safe at work is by asking regularly, as it can change on a daily basis depending on the latest government and scientific guidance. Some people will not feel safe in the office at all for the time being, so consider if and how you can accommodate this.

Don’t forget to communicate the actions you are taking. By demonstrating that you are willing to accommodate employees, you will create the psychological safety required to communicate more honestly their needs and preferences.

3.     Care: Workplace wellbeing has never been more important to retaining talent.  Employees who work for an organisation who invest in employee wellbeing are 9 times more likely to stay with their employer for at least 3 more years (Source: Limeade). Take care not to adopt a tick in the box approach to employee wellbeing, as this can be more damaging than doing nothing at all! Check out Wellbeing at work matters, for advice on how to develop and deliver an effective wellbeing programme.

4.     Adapt: It’s generally accepted that for most industries and jobs, the way we work has been changed forever, and those organisations who can authentically demonstrate to their employees that they are keeping up with the new normal, will be the most successful in retaining talent now and in the future. Be proactive to identify and communicate the ways that your business can accommodate more long-term flexibility for your employees. There are many ways this can be achieved, so find what is workable for your business, whether that’s a staggered start and finish times; provision for at least some home working; job-shares; compressed hours; part-time working; offering sabbaticals; or even accommodating short term job swaps. Internal talent mobility can be a highly effective way of retaining talent in your business during periods when employees face changes to their personal circumstances that might otherwise force them to quit. Small changes to annual leave policies, such as bank-holiday swaps and additional leave days can be a massive benefit to working parents, who are finding the struggle to cope with childcare harder than ever with schools and nursery closures, after-school clubs cancelled, and social distancing preventing grand-parents and others from helping out.

Performance targets and expectations may also need to be adapted if they’re unrealistic in the current economic context. Similarly, consider how appropriate your benefits, incentives, and Reward and Recognition programmes are – if you haven’t reviewed them yet then make this a priority! Feeling recognised and valued is hugely important to employee loyalty.

5.     Connect: Connected teams drive collaboration, nurture healthy working relationships, and promote knowledge-sharing; all of which underpin productivity and job satisfaction … key ingredients for talent retention! This is more than weekly team meetings via video-conferencing, it’s about finding creative ways to make employees feel truly connected to each other. Companywide fundraising challenges are a great way to do this, just make sure they’re inclusive and accessible for all employees (check out our AB Active Challenge for inspiration); similarly running events and competitions for employees’ families is another great way for employees to feel connected at a deeper level with their colleagues and you as their employer.


Companies need to rethink and redefine team socials too in a world of social distancing, but there are still loads of things you can organise for your teams to participate in together when team nights out aren’t an option, such as online cookery and cocktail masterclasses; Friday drinks over zoom, or even live streamed events. The best way to identify what will work for your organisation is obvious: ask your employees for ideas!!

We’re interested to hear from you about the impact of COVID-19 on employee engagement and retention in your organisation; the challenges you’ve experienced, and what’s worked well in overcoming these. We’d also love to hear your feedback on this article – and suggestions of additional insights we can share and topics you’d find useful for us to cover in the future. CONTACT US HERE


**Lean In survey