3 tips for retaining unhappy employees in the depths of winter

Staff turnover can be highest at this time of year. What can employers and employees do to stay happy at work?

January 16 was supposedly the gloomiest day of the year.

Blue Monday, as the third Monday in January has come to be known, was a concept created in 2005 by a researcher working as a tutor at Cardiff University in Wales. Largely backed by a PR firm working on behalf of a travel agency, the researcher devised a mathematical equation that determined the third Monday in January is the most depressing day of the year based on factors such as weather conditions, debt levels, time since Christmas, and time since failing our new year’s resolutions.

The idea itself doesn’t get much credence from actual mental health professionals, but it’s no secret that a real condition like seasonal affective disorder does affect millions each year.

According to Business Matters, the U.K.’s largest business magazine, 44% of workers say winter has a negative effect on their mental wellbeing. Additionally, Google search trends in January show a significant jump in the number of people searching for “work happiness” and “how to quit your job.”

Early in the year a lot of workers look for new opportunities to expand their careers, earn a little more, or just move on from their current company. Because of this it can be a difficult for business owners and managers to find and keep good employees.

“The start of a new year can certainly be a time for reflection, and we do see more questions around career growth this time of year,” notes Amanda Daering, director of people operations for Centare in Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago. “It’s natural for people to think about whether to change jobs or shift their career focus.”

With that in mind, Daering offers three suggestions for avoiding winter turnover that business owners and managers can implement to let employees know they’re valued.

1. Start the tough conversations. “Don’t wait for employees to come to you,” advises Daering. “It’s important to create a safe environment where people can be honest with their thoughts and concerns. That being said, even in the most open environments, it can still be really intimidating for an employee to start the conversation. As an employer, asking the right open-ended questions in a calm and supportive way can help you better understand what your team members are really thinking.”

2. Consider programming or activities that support overall wellbeing and show that you value your employees as people. Daering recommends instituting wellness programs, fitness contests, or healthy living community groups, in addition to the following:

  • Offer healthy snack options, especially those high in vitamins C and D.
  • Provide site classes such as meditation or yoga.
  • Talk to your benefits providers about available financial education.
  • Have fun! Plan social gatherings, or better yet encourage teams to coordinate their own events and support them rather than having HR take the lead on all company functions.

3. Learn from your losses and take action. Improve your exit interviews and think about other ways to understand your departures. Then have honest conversations with your leadership team to identify potential themes and/or room for improvement.

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Retain yourself

Employers aren’t the only ones who should be proactive about staff retention. Employees who are struggling or having a hard time staying motivated in their current job shouldn’t shy away from talking to their manager about the situation.

“Remember that employers will likely value your honesty,” Daering says, “and if not, it may confirm your decision to move on from the company. I’ve heard some direct and painful feedback from employees over the years. I am always relieved to hear it from them rather than after someone leaves — or worse, not at all.”

Andy Hall, director of consulting for Centare Madison, adds, “When you come to the table, be honest with your boss but also productive. Be sure to identify specifics surrounding your concerns and offer ideas for improvement if possible.”

Hall recommends workers create and share specific goals with their manager. “Remember, you are the ultimate owner of your career development. The good news is that this means there are often options that aren’t laid out by your employer. They may even be open to something new.”

It’s also okay to ask for help, Hall notes. A good leader will help employees figure out sensible career paths and future opportunities. That may be a direct manager or someone in HR at your company. “A respectful and honest conversation helps everyone work better together. If one person doesn’t have the answers, ask around. Solicit advice from peers or even mentors outside of your office.”

Greener grass?

Sometimes change is the best course of action, but before dissatisfied workers make the leap in the heat — or in the case of the winter blues, cold — of the moment, they should consider whether a new position will truly be fulfilling or leave them just as unhappy once the novelty wears off.

“First, make sure you understand what’s really lacking [at your current job],” Daering says. “For example, are you looking for greater autonomy, higher compensation, or more recognition? There are endless variables. Know which ones matter most to you before beginning the job search.”

Daering says workers need to understand that the pace of change can be slow. While this can be frustrating, taking time and being part of the solution can be incredibly rewarding. She suggests tracking your progress to make sure you’re not stuck, and keep reminding yourself that real transformation takes time.

“Here are a few questions to ask when evaluating a new opportunity,” Daering says: “What does success look like for this role? What separates top performers from average performers? Tell me about your toughest day here. An average day. Your best day.

“Listen for what could be a theme,” Daering concludes. “No company is perfect. This is a matter of understanding what challenges will be found elsewhere, as well.”

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