People work to live, but most also live to work. A study on the meaning of work conducted back in 1987 revealed a strong attachment to work as a way of life. The study found that 86 percent of people would continue working even if they had enough money never to work another day. There could be no better indication that work is not simply a matter of putting food on the table, but is core to the being of most adults.
Adults in mid-life in particular often find this sense of work as a central component of their lives under direct assault from a business culture that undervalues personal fulfilment as an essential driver of productivity.
I believe the next wave of workforce management for enlightened corporations will be to focus on “softer” indicators of productivity. Fulfilment, meaning, satisfaction, and that intangible sense that the job is about more than a paycheck are what will make all workers, in particular those in mid-life, more productive.
The alternative to paying attention to these issues is to suffer high levels of attrition among mid-life workers. Some corporations take the short-sighted view that “experienced worker” is a euphemism for “highly compensated” and therefore see little reason to make any effort to retain older employees. Enlightened organizations understand that this is a penny wise and pound foolish approach.
Mid-career, mid-life employees are often among the most productive, skilled and dedicated in an organization. And as compensation plans tend to be more variable and results-oriented than in the past, it is less of a concern that more tenured employees earn more money just because they have been with the organization longer.
As everyone knows, the cost of retaining an employee is considerably lower than the cost of hiring and training his or her replacement.
Retention programs have tended to focus on tangible rewards. Bonuses, tuition assistance, flexible working hours, concierge services, even free gourmet coffee!
What has not been central to retention strategies is the soul of the mid-life, mid-career employee. So what practical measures can corporate HR and line managers take to nourish the souls of their most important employees?
Encourage employees to explore their inner needs.
Many mid-life employees are essentially satisfied with their work. They are challenged, never bored, and believe they are putting their skills to good use. Yet they may not be sufficiently introspective to understand whether they are building the deep level of career and life satisfaction required for true contentment. The challenge here is that such employees are just one wake up call away from questioning everything in their lives. Consider balance, introspection, exploration of different desires and interests, many of which are not work-related, a kind of preventive medicine for the soul.
Provide a safe environment to express personal needs.
The fear of projecting weakness is a powerful undercurrent in corporate culture. Organizations that provide a safe environment to express fear and doubt and explore ways to address these concerns will defuse many potential retention challenges among employees who fear reprisal if they confide a desire to achieve more work-family balance, take off time to pursue a personal interest or take a new direction in their careers. Organizations need to make their employees feel comfortable to ask questions, confide doubts or concerns. More critically, organizations need to demonstrate they will treat these confidences appropriately and direct them toward a higher level of employee satisfaction, rather than use them as “ammunition” at the next performance review.
Make “renewal” a job requirement.
This may seem counter-intuitive. Force employees to take time off every so often to walk barefoot through the park. Or more substantively, strongly encourage them to pursue outside interests. Ask yourself if there is a member of your staff that sings in cabarets on the weekends. Was this information volunteered? Or did management find out by happenstance? Was management’s reaction to reserve a table at the next performance or have a hallway meeting to question whether this employee valued lounge singing more than her job?
Think of it this way. If the cabaret singer feels comfortable pursuing her avocation, she is less likely to regard work as a burden that keeps her from pursuing a personal passion. Encourage that pursuit, and it is much less likely the two activities will come into conflict.
Taking an intangible like personal fulfilment and turning it into a job benefit is a significant challenge. It is much easier to give time, money or prizes. But the benefits of tangible rewards last only as long as the money, or the time, or the novelty of the prize. Encouraging the deeper personal satisfaction of key employees offers a bigger and longer lasting pay off.