Recently there has been a major uptrend in annual employee turnover, with 35% of the UK workforce and 47% of the US workforce leaving annually (Boys, 2022; Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022).
These statistics suggest a wide-sweeping challenge that many organizations are currently facing: Individuals are leaving their jobs faster than ever before and in larger numbers.
So what can organizations do to stem the bleeding? If you are an employer who has experienced or is currently experiencing high staff turnover rates, this article is for you.
In this article, we explore ways to keep your talented employees by using a positive psychology approach. Specifically, we’ll look at how organizations can build employee retention and wellbeing programs, what these might look like, and how to implement them.
Increasingly, organizations recognize the merits of employee wellbeing as a driver of productivity, performance, job satisfaction, and crucially, intentions to stay (Spence, 2015). As such, organizations can significantly drive down their staff turnover rates by focusing explicitly on improving their employees’ wellbeing.
Employee wellbeing programs do just that. They are systematic strategies aimed to nurture the emotional, psychological, physical, and social wellbeing of employees.
Often these programs involve implementing a suite of initiatives, running from amending workplace policies down to nurturing employee relationships. For ultimate impact, these initiatives ought to be evidence-based, drawing upon theory and research from academic disciplines such as social, organizational, and positive psychology.
While such programs are gaining traction and popularity in corporate environments, two worrying problems remain.
Employees are continuing to leave seemingly “good jobs.”
Wellbeing programs repeatedly fail to have any significant impact.
Below, we explore these two issues in more depth.
Why do employees keep leaving?
Off the back of cumulative crises such as pandemics, economic downturns, and climate change, workers have taken stock of all aspects of their lives including work.
There is nothing like the threat of uncertainty and death to push individuals into a state of reflection, one that has contributed significantly to “the great resignation” (Cable & Gratton, 2022).
Accordingly, there has been a noticeable shift in how employees think about work and what employees now want from their organizations, including:
While some individuals may have “good jobs” in which they have good pay and a supportive manager, many individuals continue to quietly quit their organizations, particularly when there are significant cultural problems.
Why great people quit good jobs - Christie Lindor
Check out this short TED talk on why great people leave good jobs.
Why can wellbeing programs fail?
Corporations have recently renewed their commitment to workplace wellbeing programs; however, these programs can fail to have the desired positive impact (Spence, 2015).
One key reason for this is that many organizations forego meaningful change on a macro level if, for example, there is an overall lack of a positive working culture, and instead opt for wellbeing initiatives that aim to provide employees with a short-term boost to their happiness (Spence, 2015).
Subjective wellbeing programs aimed solely at the individual, such as incorporating mindfulness sessions, can actually mask wider organizational toxicity. Toxic factors such as long work hours, lack of resources, and workplace bullying can have a significant bearing on the long-term wellbeing of employees.
Other challenges that wellbeing programs face include (Spence, 2015):
Lack of comprehensive and coherent services
Lack of understanding the value such programs bring (particularly in terms of business-critical outcomes)
Low employee up-take of services on offer
Despite evidence suggesting that employee wellbeing initiatives can have an array of benefits (Page & Vella-Brodrick, 2012; Edwards & Marcus, 2018; Donaldson et al., 2019), research studies often only reflect the type of interventions organizations are currently implementing.
In other words, the lion’s share of studies assess the impact of wellbeing initiatives that solely aim to augment individual levels of happiness, and organizational level change is often not considered.
A New Strategy for Employee Retention
In light of the facts above, organizations must consider a different approach to their employee wellbeing programs to address existing challenges.
This means providing a positive working climate from top to bottom, from policy to practice.
It is of little consequence to offer your employees gym memberships if some of those employees face institutional discrimination or have a toxic leader who is supported and protected by those at the top. Rather, organizations must engage in transformational change.
Here, we present an alternative approach to employee wellbeing programs that addresses the challenges outlined above. Drawing upon positive psychology 3.0 (i.e., the third wave of positive psychology, which suggests a need to focus on structural change; Lomas et al., 2021) we recommend using a holistic approach to employee retention and wellbeing programs.
The LIFE model
The Layered Integral Framework Example (LIFE) model (Lomas et al., 2015) is a multidimensional approach to wellbeing that includes the impact of systems or organizational level structures on an individual’s wellbeing.
Based on the collocation of two prominent ideas in psychology, subjectivism versus objectivism and individualism versus collectivism, the LIFE model identifies four levels at which wellbeing can be construed, including mind, body, culture, and society (see Figure 1).
Although the LIFE model describes further granular ways to assess wellbeing, for ease of accessibility and practical use in this article, we stick to the four different domains of experience.
When engaging with employee wellbeing programs, most organizations will implement low-cost interventions at the subjective mind level, which may sometimes spill over into the objective body.
However, by using the LIFE model, organizations will be able to better map out the level at which their proposed initiatives will operate and will be encouraged to think about wider positive systemic/structural changes that can be made.
How to use the LIFE model to create your wellbeing program
So what does this mean for those looking to build an employee wellbeing program? It means implementing initiatives within all the different domains of the LIFE model.
Below we show just what this might look like in practice.
Initiatives that fall into the individual, subjective mind level could include:
Practicing gratitude and kindness – These are easy ways to boost employees’ mood.
Job crafting – This provides employees with the opportunity to play to their strengths.
Practicing mindfulness – This has a direct impact on emotions, awareness, and cognition.
Using the Johari Window enables individuals to build self-awareness.
Initiatives that are correlated to the physical substrates, still on an individual level, include:
Stress/anxiety management training – This provides employees with the tools to manage felt stress and anxiety within the body.
Physical exercise and nutrition – Providing free exercise classes, gym membership, and nutritious lunches directly influences employees’ health.
Health insurance or health cover – This is a vital benefit that can give employees peace of mind when medical intervention is required.
On an intersubjective level that affects relationships, collective initiatives could include the following:
Relationship maintenance – Leadership and management training, team-building activities, and employee resource groups can help shape cooperative relationships.
Create shared values and a shared vision – This is particularly important around work–life balance.
Celebrate cultural events – Demonstrate that the organization champions its employees and cultural diversity.
Material systems and structures that can be considered affecting the collective could include the following:
Organizational policies and practices – All can be retooled to promote employee wellbeing, including pay, benefits, time off, sick leave, and parental leave.
Physical working environment – Redesigning offices to provide access to light and green space can affect employee’s physical health and psychological wellbeing.
Public commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion; corporate social responsibility; and environment, social, and governance goals – This shows that an organization fundamentally cares about doing good by their employees and society.
Clearly, there is an abundance of organizational and group-level initiatives that can be embedded into any employee wellbeing program.
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Planning an employee wellbeing program is vital to its success. In light of existing research that highlights several challenges that organizations often face when embarking on this journey, we outline seven key steps to planning and implementing an employee wellbeing program.
1. Appreciative inquiry
Use Appreciative Inquiry as a method of organizational discovery. Appreciative inquiry is not your typical needs assessment, but rather focuses on possibilities rather than looking to fix specific issues. This can be an excellent way to kick-start a process of change.
From a positive psychology stance, appreciative inquiry is highly constructive, and we’ll share a list of recommendations in our resource section below.
2. Set clear and measurable goals
Before implementing any program or initiative, it is vital to be clear on what the goal of the initiative is and to have methods for assessing progress.
Given that research suggests employee wellbeing programs often have low uptake from employees, there is a clear need for buy-in from all individuals in the organization, including senior leaders and executives.
To that end, you may want to start with our article How to Assess and Improve Readiness for Change. Although aimed at assisting clients in therapy, it also mentions organizational change, and the models and theories discussed can be used in the workplace.
4. Budget and resource allocation
To have a truly effective wellbeing strategy that can reduce turnover, organizations must be prepared to carve out significant budget and resources. Ideally, this should be discussed before designing the program.
5. Use the LIFE model to plan a suite of initiatives
As discussed above, the LIFE model is an effective model to institute change. Organizations are further encouraged to think deeply about whether the initiatives will be inclusive and accommodate the diverse needs of all their employees.
6. Communicate the planned wellbeing program
Develop a comprehensive communication plan to inform employees about the wellbeing program. Use various communication channels, like email, messaging, and team meetings, to ensure everyone is aware of the program’s benefits and how to engage with the services.
7. Identify your method of evaluation
Collect data and evaluate the efficacy of the program. Feedback gathered via surveys, focus groups, and interviews will allow organizations to recognize what is working and what needs to be improved or changed.
Below, we discuss in more detail the importance of monitoring and evaluating your employee wellbeing program.
Measuring the Success of Wellbeing Programs
When considering creating an employee wellbeing program that will affect employee retention rates, organizations must consider how they will assess the impact of their efforts.
Any employee wellbeing program worth its salt must be audited to determine its efficacy. There are several ways this can be done, with primary data collection at multiple time points, before and after implementation, as a minimum.
Employers can use the Job Satisfaction Scale (MacDonald & MacIntyre, 1997), to determine how satisfied employees are. This scale takes into account several organizational, group, and individual-level components of job satisfaction including:
Relationships with coworkers
Relationships with supervisors
We know that job satisfaction theory is linked with employee retention, and this type of scale can act as a useful yardstick to gauge how employee wellbeing programs are faring.
Alternatively, the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale (Schaufeli et al., 2006) is one of the most widely used and rigorous scales of employee engagement. This scale assesses components of employee engagement including:
Given the association between employee engagement and intentions to stay or quit, this scale can also provide excellent insight into the efficacy of a wellbeing program.
Without setting clear and measurable goals, and mapping these goals onto appropriate methods of evaluation, there is no meaningful way to discern the success of an employee wellbeing program.
3 Bonus Staff Retention Ideas
Now that we have identified the LIFE model as a foundation that organizations can use to build their wellbeing program, below we note some additional staff retention ideas that show huge promise in boosting wellbeing, productivity, and intentions to stay.
1. Employee recognition
Employee recognition is an emergent popular approach to retaining talented employees. This involves giving employees the credit they deserve for their contributions to their organization.
This includes giving and receiving praise, promotions, and bonuses and symbolic rewards such as “employee of the month.” Recognition should be equitable and consistently applied.
2. Diversity and inclusion
Championing diversity and inclusion is what many employees look for in a progressive business. Organizations must show their commitment to creating a diverse workforce and an inclusive environment.
In practice this might look like having a publicly available diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) charter, regular DEI events, and implementing inclusive policies, such as parental leave for LGBTQ+ individuals.
3. Build support and trust
Fostering high-quality connections within your organization is a key pathway to several beneficial work outcomes, including performance, productivity, engagement, and intentions to stay.
In practice, this might include team-building activities, which can be a great way to build a network of support and trust among employees. Leaders should also focus on knowing their team members and building psychological safety.
PositivePsychology.com’s Relevant Resources
Employee wellbeing programs can involve many different interventions. Here we outline further reading and exercises on topics that are directly related to or impacted by wellbeing programs.
Several of our appreciative inquiry articles are crucial for improving employee retention.
Given that relationships are the bedrock of any successful business, learning how to foster high-quality relationships is a critical pathway to boosting employee wellbeing.
The High-Quality Relationships worksheet is excellent for building awareness of some of the key dimensions of positive working relationships, including positive regard and connectivity. In light of the contents of this article, we recommend using a relationship with a work colleague as an example.
2. Resilience and Change
The premise of this article is that employers need to get comfortable with and embark on a journey of systemic change. In the Resilience and Change worksheet, individuals are given the space to reflect on their approach to change and the psychological resources they have available to support them during times of transformation.
Positive leadership is a crucial part of creating organizational change, and there is nothing more powerful than leaders who can lean into their vulnerability.
In the Vulnerability worksheet, individuals are invited to reflect on recent situations where they felt vulnerable and encouraged to envision ways they might have reacted with bravery. Practicing vulnerability is an excellent way to begin to build a culture of psychological safety, which can be crucial for retaining top talent.
Employee wellbeing programs ought to have the power to transform organizations into places that employees feel inspired by and committed to.
Yet this transformation cannot happen from a bottom-up approach only.
Looking to retain your top employees and make them happier with self-help activities will do little to influence long-term intentions to stay, nor to positively impact business profitability.
Organizations must see the bigger picture and understand their role as a system embedded within wider systems. Acknowledging this and seeking to shift the dial on structural level issues will be instrumental to building a positive working climate.
A vital question remains. Organizations need to ask themselves whether they are really serious about doing the work required to create such positive change.
While this will involve a considerate amount of time, energy, and resources, the benefits to be gained are exponentially greater.
Do the basics. Show that you care about and value your employees by providing a positive work climate, good benefits, inclusive policies and fair pay, supportive and inclusive leadership, psychological safety, opportunities for growth and development, and the ability to job craft. These are just a few possible pathways to retaining your staff.
What is the meaning of "employee retention"?
Employee retention is simply the term used to describe how organizations keep or retain their talented staff.
Why is employee turnover high?
Employee turnover can be high for any number of reasons, from a poor or toxic working environment to lack of challenge, lack of recognition, poor pay and benefits, bullying or harassment, poor leadership, toxic working conditions, or discrimination.
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Cable, D., & Gratton, L. (2022). What’s driving the great resignation? London Business School. Retrieved October 5, 2023, from https://www.london.edu/think/whats-driving-the-great-resignation.
Donaldson, S. I., Lee, J. Y., & Donaldson, S. I. (2019). Evaluating positive psychology interventions at work: A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Applied Positive Psychology, 4, 113–134.
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Lomas, T., Waters, L., Williams, P., Oades, L. G., & Kern, M. L. (2021). Third wave positive psychology: Broadening towards complexity. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 16(5), 660–674.
MacDonald, S., & MacIntyre, P. (1997). The generic job satisfaction scale: Scale development and its correlates. Employee Assistance Quarterly, 13(2), 1–16.
Page, K. M., & Vella-Brodrick, D. A. (2013). The working for wellness program: RCT of an employee well-being intervention. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14(3), 1007–1031.
Schaufeli, W. B., Bakker, A. B., & Salanova, M. (2006). Utrecht Work Engagement Scale-9 (UWES-9) [Database record]. APA PsycTests.
Spence, G. B. (2015). Workplace wellbeing programs: If you build it they may NOT come … because it’s not what they really need! International Journal of Wellbeing, 5(2), 109–124.
About the author
Kirsty Gardiner, Ph.D. is a Social Psychologist with a passion for using research to power social change. She holds a doctorate in Psychology, a masters in Applied Positive Psychology, and is a registered chartered Psychologist with the BPS. On completing her Ph.D. she taught on the MAPPCP programme for several years. Currently, she is based in the UK as the Research Director at Ardent - a DEI consultancy.