Even though many employees are unhappy, most are not looking for new jobs -- which means there could be an increase of presenteeism in the workplace. HR leaders need to be proactively identifying the employees they want to retain, and create reasons for them to want to stay.
With the unemployment rate still hovering above 8 percent, employers in many sectors have not been very concerned about employee retention. After all, with few other options available, they are unlikely to leave for better opportunities.
As the economy begins to show some slight signs of improvement, however, the situation is likely to change.
"There is a storm brewing," says Lynne Sarikas, executive director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University in Boston. "Many people will be looking to make a change once they perceive improvement and stability in the job market. This will have significant impact on their employers."
For now, however, although many employees indicate they are unhappy in their current jobs, they have no plans to leave, suggests a recent Accenture study.
The study -- The Path Forward -- finds that more than half (57 percent of the women and 59 percent of the men) of the respondents say they are dissatisfied with their jobs. Yet, more than two-thirds say they have no plans to leave their current employers.
Kay Kapoor, managing director and chief executive at Accenture's U.S. Federal Practice in Reston, Va., says the economy is likely the reason workers seem to be staying in their current jobs.
"As the economy turns and opportunities present themselves, we will see more attrition in those environments where people are unhappy longer term," she says.
"With the significant reductions in force and high unemployment in the last few years, many people who would normally have left to seek other opportunities have stayed where they are," she says. "They may not like the company or the work and they may not be happy but they have a job and the prospect of not having a job scares them.
"I like to think of it as 'the agony of the complacent.' "
That agony can have a negative impact on the organization -- now and in the future.
Elene Cafasso, president of Enerpace, Inc., an executive coaching firm based in Chicago, says the study's results may point to how widespread the issue of "presenteeism" has become.
While the term was originally coined to refer to employees coming to work ill and not contributing fully in terms of their production, it now applies as well to individuals who simply show up physically, yet are not productively engaged at work.
Employers, of course, don't want employees to be simply present. They want them to be productive.
Productivity, not Presenteeism
Asher Adelman is founder and CEO of eBoss Watch, a Las-Vegas based online career resource for evaluating employers and job candidates.
Retention alone should not be a goal for employers, he says. Instead, "employers should be striving to improve their work environments so that they'll be able to retain happy, productive employees who are enthusiastic about contributing to the success of the organization."
The Accenture study, says Adelman, "is very problematic for employers. Unhappy employees are less productive and innovative than their happy co-workers and that negatively affects the workplace," he says.
In addition to concerns about unhappy employees in the workplace dragging down morale and productivity, employers must also be concerned about the other end of the spectrum -- losing key staffers once the economy shifts.
Mark Royal, a Chicago-based senior principal at Hay Group and the author of The Enemy of Engagement, says the "soft labor market may have held down turnover rates in many organizations in recent years. But that doesn't mean that talent retention shouldn't remain high on the priority lists of leaders.
"It could be that we have been in the eye of a turnover hurricane," says Royal, who spearheads the Hay Group/Fortune's World Most Admired Companies report.
"Those organizations that have failed to identify and act on workplace issues during this break in the storm are likely to find employees exiting in increasing numbers as other opportunities become more plentiful," he says.
That's why employers need to be proactive in terms of identifying their top talent and taking steps to keep them engaged, says Sarikas.
Don't wait until a key player submits a letter of resignation," she says.
Impacts on Engagement
One important workplace issue, according to the Accenture study, is work/life flexibility. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the respondents cite this as their reason for staying put.
"Employees may be staying in jobs for now because they value the work/life benefits," Sarikas says, "but they may not continue to stay if a better opportunity comes along.
"Employees all have other roles in their lives as parents, children, siblings, etc., and being able to balance those other roles can be very important. Companies that offer some flexibility in work schedules and locations tend to have much more loyal employees," she says.
Another study by Minneapolis-based PDI Ninth House -- Pulse on Leaders -- released in February reports that leaders ranked work/life balance seventh among 19 possible motivators.
The firm, which has been surveying leaders across all levels of organizations since 2006 -- when work/life balance ranked fourth -- finds that the top motivators for those responding to its most recent study were stimulating, challenging work; influence on organizational direction and responsibility for others.
While leaders may have different motivators than general staff, the discrepancies may not really be relevant, says Steve Langerud, the director of professional opportunities at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.
"The most important factor for employers is not why they stay, but why they are unhappy in the first place," he says.
Barbara Adler, managing consultant for IMPACT Group, based in the Tampa, Fla. area, says the issue extends beyond unhappiness and that HR leaders and supervisors should try to evaluate what aspect of the job itself has created dissatisfaction.
There are a number of factors that could reverse such a feeling -- from understanding that a job has meaning and having a sense of contribution to being given the opportunity to grow and develop skills, she says.
Unfortunately, not many organizations take the steps to delve into these factors, until it's too late, Adler says.
Often, says Mary Hladio, founder and president of Ember Carriers Leadership Group, an organizational performance firm based in Cincinnati, exit interviews can reveal some of the reasons employees leave.
Such reasons can include misalignment of mutual expectations, person-job mismatch, insufficient coaching and feedback, perception of poor career-advancement prospects, work/life imbalance and distrust and low confidence related to senior leadership, she says.
Awareness, of course, is the first step toward impacting satisfaction.
The Role of HR
The Accenture study, says Hladio, supports a shift in terms of what employees are looking for in their jobs. The takeaway for employers: "Job satisfaction and productivity are correlated, so the next step is to continue to engage employees in a more rewarding overall work experience."
Managers plan an important role here, Adler says.
"It is really important for managers to have ongoing conversations with their employees" about goals, development interests and areas of potential contribution, she says.
While HR certainly plays a role, Kapoor says, it is personalized connections that really matter to employees. Broad-scale HR initiatives are not enough to create engagement.
"I'm a fundamental believer that success should be tailored to the individual. The fabric of the workforce today is very much what I call 'mosaic-ed.' We have more diversity than ever before -- not only in terms of race and ethnicity, but also diversity of thought [and] diversity of lifestyle."
Royal says companies that can effectively engage their employees can weather impending transitions caused by an improving economy.
"When it comes to employee engagement and enablement, Most Admired Companies report that they are emerging from the recession in a better place than they entered it," he says.