Leadership in a staff retention crisis

Occupational research has cited empathy as the key leadership skill needed for the new digital age. What has traditionally been considered a ‘soft’ skill, should really be considered as a core element of modern business leadership. Organisations need to pay greater attention to strategies that promote the engagement, wellbeing, and ultimately the performance of their most valuable human capital if they are looking to drive significant business results.

Retention is a major challenge that employers are grappling with in the aftermath of the global pandemic. There has been a significant rise in the number of people leaving their jobs as part of the Great Resignation.  According to a 2022 Labour Survey from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), there was a higher rate of resignations among workers coming from the five ‘shortage’ sectors finding it hardest to recruit people: construction; manufacturing; catering/hospitality; admin support; and health/social care.

Humanised work cultures

There is commonly a mismatch in what employers think their employees need and what their employees say they need/want for their occupational health and wellbeing.  Surveys of employees working in public-facing industries have suggested that the following would be helpful to improve working conditions: kindness, compassion, and trust; valuing staff feelings; psychological first aid training; time and support for reflection; managers having regular checks with staff; and acknowledging staff’s own personal and family responsibilities. Empathy clearly pervades these employee suggestions, and leaders should take note.

Employers think that employees want: better holistic health provision through work e.g. yoga, massage, mindfulness; better salaries; and the option to work from home. Employers also think employees leave jobs because they have been ‘poached’ by another organization, or that they get a higher ranked position and/or a better salary elsewhere. Although these undoubtedly do play a role, what employees also want reflect a different emphasis: being valued by their manager; being valued by their organization; a sense of belonging; and having caring and trusting work colleagues.

This suggests that employers need to focus more on the deeper employee experience and relational elements, while treating structural factors e.g. salary as secondary. It is clear that employees are asking for an investment in the more human aspects of work. A humanized and compassionate workplace. A renewed and revised sense of purpose in their work. Inspirational and authentic leadership, with leaders demonstrating abilities to pause, reflect, and think on their decisions and actions.

Furthermore, different generations of workforce want greater social and interpersonal connections with their colleagues and managers. They want to feel a sense of shared identity, and to feel valued. A key word distinction to make is that employees want interactions, not just transactions. These interactions to connect need not be face-to-face, but need to be of good quality.

So how can we create foster empathetic and authentic leadership as part of a compassionate, human-centric work culture? Qualitative research on how staff who have taken part in workplace-based storytelling in different work sectors has been consistent. Staff describe the sharing of their personal stories in facilitated, safe, boundaried, and reflective spaces as healing. This theme of healing conjures up images of a wound. In all organizations and teams, our work inadvertently ‘wounds’ us in different ways. What can organizations do in the face of this inevitability?

Workplace-based storytelling

Workplace-based storytelling sessions can take place either online or face-to-face. Session should last no longer than one hour. Sessions should be chaired by a trained storytelling facilitator who should set ground rules at the start.  This could be followed by the live oral delivery of two to three 5-minute stories by different staff storytellers. Storytelling sessions could be themed, perhaps advertised through association with a song title, book, quote, or film e.g. ‘Just Be Good To Me’, ‘Great Expectations’, ‘Seize the Day’, or ‘Mission Impossible’.

A storyteller is a staff member from within the organisation who has volunteered or was invited to share a 5-minute story related to an event at work or home. The story should focus on the social and emotional impact of the event. They should be prepared in advance of the storytelling session with the help of the trained storytelling facilitator, perhaps via online or face-to-face sessions. They should have the option to debrief with their fellow storytellers immediately after the storytelling session to ensure psychological safety.

A facilitated discussion between the storytellers and the audience members under the guidance of the facilitator should take place following the narration of the stories.  The discussion should be inclusive, safe, and respectful. Storytelling sessions should not be viewed as fix-it, structured operational debriefings where people reflect on how things could have been done better. They should focus on the emotional impact of the narrative. It is not a question-and-answer panel session between audience and storytellers either. Audience members could be from within the same team, but could also be from different sections of a single organization, or even stakeholders or external collaborators.

Benefits of storytelling at work

The safe spaces demanded of storytelling sessions allow staff to reveal their true selves, be heard, and feel supported. Interestingly, these qualitative themes run parallel to the principles of psychological first aid advocated by the World Health Organization: Look, Listen, and Link. Storytelling is an excellent way to pause and reflect, a great opportunity to receive support and compassion from work colleagues, and a powerful tool for an organization to acknowledge and show appreciation to their employees. Giving staff a voice certainly makes staff feel included, but creating a sense of belonging is having that voice heard. Storytelling does this. It raises staff engagement, reduces staff turnover, and improves performance. Ultimately it will positively affect work culture by optimising and promoting human connection.

There are also great benefits even if staff do not share their own story. The deep listening that audience members have to do as part of sessions, and the resonances they share back with storytellers has many positive outcomes for individuals and team cohesion and resilience. Listening with the intent to understand rather with the intent to reply and fix-it is often highly beneficial. There is evidence that staff should be supported by a system which supports wellbeing through the development of reflective thinking skills.

How can storytelling feature in organisations?

Ultimately, a work culture that is de-humanised and does not care for its employees as emotional beings will not be tolerated by a new generation of workforce. I would encourage all leaders to consider how personal storytelling could feature at every stage of the employee life cycle from: attracting new talent; onboarding new recruits; learning and development; reward and recognition; right through to when an employee decides to leave the organisation. Creating spaces where employees listen deeply to each other and where staff feel listened to as humans will create desirable work cultures. A culture of storytelling within the workplace could form part of a truly unique employee value proposition of openness, inclusion, and that key ingredient: empathy. 

Alternative storytelling suggestions:

-Showcase workplace storytelling sessions to attract new talent

-Leaders use personal stories to show how their values align to the organisation

-Incorporate stories to introduce and welcome new recruits to their work teams

– Stories as part of annual reports / individual appraisals to bring data to life

– Reward and recognition using personal stories

– Personal stories of employee resource groups for learning and development

-Use stories for internal conflict resolution and mediation

-Use stories to collate information from exit interviews

Dr Lalith Wijedoru
Wellbeing Consultant at Behind Your Mask | Website | + posts

Dr. Lalith Wijedoru is a passionate paediatrician with a strong focus on child health, safeguarding, and education. He champions staff wellbeing, using personal stories to drive engagement and diversity within organisations. With nearly 20 years of experience in the National Health Service and as a founder of Behind Your Mask, he continues to make a significant impact across multiple sectors to create authentic leaders and compassionate workplaces.