Retention more about comfort than pay

Money gets them in the door, but low stress, good work-life balance are why they stay

In 2006, Bayer decided to introduce some new stress-release outlets at the office — an on-site gym, a games room, a quiet room and, for avid golfers, a putting green and driving net. It also built an all-purpose court for tennis, basketball or hockey and is now building a green space on its property, filled with hundreds of trees planted by students from neighbouring schools

Employees are allowed to use the on-site facilities any time during the day or on weekends.

“We assess people based on results so we’re not monitoring the clock. People go on a schedule that suits them and know what work needs to be done,” says Gord Johnston, vice-president of human resources at Bayer, a health-care and crop-science company based in Toronto.

“The whole focus of the Life at Work program was to allow for outlets for people to release the tension and stress in day-to-day work as well as to be more convenient for them.”

The initiative was prompted by suggestions from annual employee surveys and, since its implementation two years ago, turnover rates have gone down, he says. Last year’s rate should be about five per cent, significantly less than the double-digit numbers common in the industry, says Johnston.

As further proof, he says he’s heard employees say they wouldn’t consider leaving Bayer unless a competing company had similar offerings. Once employees start building these kinds of stress-release rewards into their daily routine, it’s hard to leave and start all over again, says Johnston, who admits when Bayer first launched the program, it “didn’t realize the power of these things in terms of retention.”

Surveys crucial to understanding

To reduce turnover, companies are increasingly using employee surveys, recognition programs, more flexible work arrangements and off-cycle pay increases. Bayer has done third-party employee surveys for years, but more recently started to strategically respond to the results. The company also started doing exit surveys for “accurate, honest information” and recently launched onboarding surveys to gain feedback on recruitment and ways to improve the process, says Johnston.

The University of Toronto conducted its first all-employee survey at the end of 2006 and the results highlighted work pressures as a major concern for employees, says Christina Sass-Kortsak, assistant vice-president of HR at the university, which has a turnover rate of 4.5 per cent.

“We certainly know that stress and work-life balance are key in retention and that’s one of the things we’ve been focusing on for a while,” she says.

As a result, the institution is forming a working group to look further at what more it can do and the school just launched an “Add balance to everyday” campaign with campus-wide posters and a website encouraging employees to take 10 minutes out of their day to relax and refresh.

The university also offers work-life workshops, encourages employees to take their lunch breaks and provides a family-care office and an online wellness site.

“We’re a publicly funded institution, we don’t have limitless resources, so the volume of work is always going to be challenging,” says Sass-Kortsak. “But the more support we can provide employees and help them develop skills to set their own priorities, feel in control of their work lives and help them manage the balance between that work and outside life, that’s what we try to focus on.”

The school, which has 12,000 part-time and full-time workers, used to run a work-life balance month, with a series of workshops and programs, but decided it made more sense to spread them out through the year to keep work-life balance on everybody’s agenda.

“We’re going to work to keep that on the front burner all the time,” she says.

Employers not getting the message

However, the efforts of these two organizations are not the norm, judging by the results of a 2007 survey of 946 companies worldwide that shows efforts to limit turnover are hampered by a significant disconnect or misunderstanding — employers overestimate the importance of base pay and career development while underestimating the impact of stress and the need for work-life balance.

Global Strategic Rewards by Watson Wyatt Worldwide and HR professional association WorldatWork found more than one-third of employees (37 per cent) consider stress levels a top reason to leave their company, followed by base pay (33 per cent), promotion opportunity (26 per cent), career-development opportunities (23 per cent) and work-life balance (22 per cent).

“Across the five global regions, stress ranked as the number-one reason to leave by employees. This is the first year stress has come out so highly,” says Anne Peiris, compensation consultant with Watson Wyatt in Toronto.

A 2008 survey will delve further into the issue of stress, asking about the causes (such as excessive workload or not having the right tools or resources), how it’s defined and how organizations can reduce the strain.

“We know year after year, organizations are asked to do more with fewer people and that is starting to affect the employees having to do this work,” says Peiris. In addition, technology means people are accessible anytime, anywhere.

The survey also showed employees satisfied with stress levels and work-life balance are more inclined to stay with their company, at 86 per cent, versus those who are dissatisfied, at 64 per cent.

Employers had a different view of why they thought employees left. They cited base pay as the top reason (52 per cent) followed by career-development opportunities (47 per cent), promotion opportunity (45 per cent), relationship with a supervisor or manager (35 per cent) and work-life balance (24 per cent).

Asking the right questions

To justify their departure, employees might take a simple, non-confrontational route and say “pay” instead of mentioning a bad manager or heavy workload. So it’s worth asking, “At what point did you decide you were going to leave?” says Peiris.

“The catalyst for an employee to start looking outside of an organization, it’s that point in time that’s critical in understanding. The reason they may accept a job at another organization could be because of higher pay, but what is it that caused them to start looking or become disengaged in their own workplace in the first place?”

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