The Real Reason Americans Are Quitting Work

Last week the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the quit rate increased sharply in September to 2%. Commentators pointed out that this is good news. It indicates workers are more optimistic they will find better jobs. Others commented that ObamaCare makes it easier for workers to strike out on their own or take time off to search for a new job knowing preexisting conditions will not lead to gaps in health insurance.  But, I see a more insidious factor at work.

Survey research has shown that seven out of ten Americans are not engaged at work. This has not improved for more than a decade. Unhealthy workplace cultures make people feel unsupported, left out or lonely. They are more vulnerable to psychosocial stress and their bodies respond by sending blood, glucose and oxygen to the heart, lungs and big muscles in anticipation of the need to fight or flee. While in a stress response state, the body reduces blood flow, glucose and oxygen going to the brain, immune system and reproductive system.

This stress response makes people feel ill, so many seek pleasure or numbing sensation from addictive behaviors including overeating, which contributes to obesity and heart disease, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and/or promiscuity. While these behaviors provide temporary relief, they require more of the addictive behavior over time to produce the same effect. This destructive cycle contributes to premature death and is one reason why Americans under 50 now have the lowest life expectancy versus their peers in 16 other wealthy nations.

This begs the question: What can leaders do to improve workplace cultures so they experience greater wellness and wellbeing and don't want to leave?  The key is to transform the workplace culture from one that makes people feel unsupported, left out or lonely to one that makes them feel connected and part of the team. Here are three factors that create what can be called a “connection culture.”

Shared Identity

A shared identity unites people. People feel connected to their work because of their organization’s focused effort, and feel that their individual contributions made a meaningful difference. In the most powerful connecting experiences, the work of the group improves the lives of others by bringing goodness (such as a nurse’s work that reflects goodness through healing), beauty (such as the technology product designer who creates something well designed and functional), and/or truth (such as the teacher who brings knowledge and insight to students). A sense of shared identity develops among group members as attitudes, language and behavior communicate the importance of the work, how the work is done in a way that reflects shared values, and how the work is producing positive results as reflected by the organization’s favorable reputation.

Shared Empathy

Shared empathy is increased when people get to know and care for one another. Valuing people in and of themselves, rather than as means to an end, is key. Emotions are contagious, so as empathy increases people become more sensitive to the feelings of others, and as a result become more considerate and compassionate. People in a connection culture feel valued as human beings, rather than treated as means to an end. They have supervisors and leaders who care about them, take time to get to know them, and help them get into the right roles so they continue to learn and grow. These leaders encourage people when they do good work, give them autonomy, and keep them challenged without chronically overloading them with so much work that they have no work-life balance. People in a connection culture know that the people they work with value them, too. A sense of shared empathy develops among group members as attitudes, language, and behavior communicate to each person that she is valued as a person, and not merely for her work.

Shared Understanding

Shared understanding arises when members of a group are in the loop, so to speak. They are informed on matters important to them, and their opinions and ideas are sought and considered. In other words, when there is an abundance of conversation and communication within a group, it produces a high degree of knowledge flow that results in shared understanding. People in this environment appreciate the openness of their culture and the open-mindedness of leaders. A sense of shared understanding develops among groups as attitudes, language and behavior increase communication and bring greater clarity to issues that are important to individual members.

Effective Leaders Connect

Leaders at the top of organizations have some work to do, too.  They would be wise to put processes in place to measure managers on employee engagement (i.e. their ability to connect) and hold them accountable. When managers fail to meet the standard, help them with coaching, mentoring, education and development.  If they prove to be unable to connect with the people they manage, they shouldn’t be in leadership roles.

In addition to the right processes, leaders from the top down need to embrace the importance of conversation and be patient to develop a consensus on issues that are important to employees at large. Conversation and consensus are the only way to develop the strategic alignment and employee engagement necessary to achieve sustainable superior performance. When issues are pushed through to get “buy-in” rather than communicated with an open mind to find the very best solutions, those individuals whose ideas have not truly been considered start to feel disconnected from their organizations.

For individuals and organizations to thrive, we must be intentional about balancing the time we spend managing tasks and connecting with the people in our organizations.  Too much time spent on one side or the other is unhealthy and leads to poor performance and employees who want to quit.  When we invest time connecting with people they give their best efforts, focus on the right tasks, and help one another.  They are also more willing to share their knowledge and opinions.  In an environment of connection, decision-makers are better informed and the organization’s internal marketplace of ideas fuels innovative new products, processes and business opportunities.  This is what we desperately need right now to boost our economy and ensure a bright future.