Human Capital & Careers

Why Your Best Employees Want Out

It's because they're stressed, a factor to which some employers seem to be somewhat oblivious.
David McCannNovember 1, 2011

Employers don’t seem to understand what drives their most talented employees to bolt, judging from new research by consulting firm Towers Watson.

While human-resource professionals at 316 North American organizations identified opportunities for promotion as the top reason that high performers leave, a separate study of more than 10,000 employees found that work-related stress was the chief factor. Employees did agree that advancement opportunities count (that was the second-most-cited motivator on their list), but work-related stress didn’t crack the top five reasons pinpointed by the HR pros. “It points to a lack of awareness, and a resulting attrition risk that could play out if and when labor markets improve,” says Laury Sejen, global leader, rewards consulting, for Towers Watson.

Yet companies acknowledge they’ve been pushing people to work harder. In the survey of HR executives, 65% said employees have been working more hours than normal over the past three years, and 53% said workers will continue to put in expanded hours over the next three years.

But for employees, the stress may not stem from longer hours. Only 57% of senior and middle managers said they were working longer hours, a figure that dropped to 36% (plus or minus 1%) for first-line supervisors and team leaders, administrative and clerical staff, and manual-labor workers.

Meanwhile, companies are once again finding it difficult to attract employees with critical skills (see chart, left). The skills gap “is getting dangerously close to where it was before the financial crisis,” says Sejen. At the same time, the difficulty of filling all employee openings remained at a historically low level for a third straight year. “There is actually a risk when you’ve got very little pressure at the all-employee level,” Sejen observes. “You can take your eye off the ball and assume there will be plenty of talent available whenever you need it, and that may not prove to be the case.”