Beverly Smallwood

Article Summary:

What job stressors have a negative effect on employee retention, and what you can do about them.

Employee Retention and Job Stress

Organizations that want to keep good employees must consider not only the benefits that enhance employee commitment, but also the hassles that subtract from their job satisfaction. Employees calculate whether it's "worth it" by weighing the benefits against the "costs" of staying in the job.

There are many forces in the work environment that are "downers". The list could occupy volumes... e.g., overly critical supervisors, feelings of powerlessness, lack of input, being "in the dark" and without needed information, dog-eat-dog competition rather than teamwork, and unfair organizational reward systems.

Here are five of the "downers" most commonly mentioned by our seminar participants, along with suggestions on how to minimize their negative impact on employees.

1. The trauma of transition.
Change is stressful, and organizations today are experiencing change of mammoth proportions. Change is situational; it is an event or series of events. Transition, on the other hand, is the psychological readjustment process that takes time and is difficult to achieve.
Employees in transition struggle with the losses that accompany the inevitable endings brought by change - e.g., losses of turf, identity, and familiarity. They feel confused in the "wilderness experience", which is the in-between time before they have connected with new beginnings. The resulting anger, grief, and confusion are some of the "costs" for employees.
Skillful leaders attempt to minimize those costs by implementing specific strategies to assist employees through the difficult tasks of transition. These change management processes can make the difference between a workforce that refuses and resists progress and a team which is willing to take risks and move the organization forward.


2. Interpersonal conflicts and power struggles.
Many headaches during the workday and at the end of the day are caused from either overt or underlying conflicts among co-workers. Unmanaged conflict leads to increased stress, efforts to make others look bad, withholding of information, lack of collaboration, and occasional "explosions."
Training and coaching in effective conflict resolution and problem solving can help to diminish destructive conflicts. Those who persist in using hostile words and actions that undermine the team effort should be dealt with through appropriate performance problem discussions or even discipline.


3. Frustrations with system problems.
Often the problems that are blamed on individuals are actually "system problems." For example, there may be system bottlenecks that create delays, causing deadlines to be missed. Imagine the frustration of the person at the end of the line who gets "credit" for the problem.

Exceptional leaders maintain awareness of the systemic nature of problems. They lead the team in examining how services or products flow throughout the system in order to improve quality and diminish "hassles" to employees.


4. Dealing with customer complaints and problems.
Most employees find dealing with customer complaints and problems to be very distasteful. It may seem unfair that, no matter what or who was responsible for the customer's dissatisfaction, the customer's negative emotions are taken out on the employee to whom the complaint is made. At that moment, the employee IS the company.

One helpful strategy is to develop employees' awareness that complaining is good! Research shows that most dissatisfied customers do not complain, but rather take their business elsewhere. Those who do complain are significantly more like to continue to do business with the company, particularly if the complaint receives prompt and courteous attention. In fact, interestingly, some recent research suggest that many customers actually become more loyal than they were before the problem occurred if the problem is resolved in an impressive fashion.

Skillful leaders help employees learn that complaining customers are to be welcomed and appreciated, not dreaded and avoided.


5. Inadequate monetary compensation.
Many might have put this issue at the head of the list. Interestingly, however, when employees report what is most motivating (or de-motivating for them) the size of the paycheck, as long as it is reasonably competitive, is not the most often-mentioned factor. More immediate aspects of the work experience tend to occupy more central roles.

However, the importance of monetary compensation becomes more important if there appears to be a clearly inequitable system for determining compensation. Equal pay for equal work, and equal opportunities to prepare oneself for well-paying jobs are critical components of a "magnetic workplace."


It is quite a challenge to create an atmosphere in the workplace in which employees are likely to be productive and motivated. Even when the leader works to provide such an atmosphere, there will still be those with unrealistic expectations or closed and negative attitudes who complain and rebel.

What I have described here, then, is not a panacea for all employee problems - far from it. Rather, it is an approach that greatly increases the likelihood that many employees will stay and thrive. By reducing negative experiences, you free the energies of good employees to be channeled into the accomplishment of common goals. You make it more likely that they will want to stay with you.

Beverly Smallwood is a licensed psychologist who has worked with Fortune 500, healthcare, and other organizations around the world for over 20 years. Her specialties are leadership development, employee retention, and personal resilience. She's often featured in such national media as MSNBC, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, FOX, and New York Times. To contact her about speaking, consulting, or coaching, call 877-CAN LEAD (226-5323) or visit her website Magnetic Places, where you can also sign up for her free email newsletter.

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