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8 Ideas for retaining staff who feel at breaking point

We are experiencing a record number of vacant posts in the UK (Office for National Statistics, reported by BBC News).

Alongside this there is a growing trend of people walking out of jobs they don’t like. In most cases, I celebrate when people are able to escape a bad situation — but in some settings, this is cause for alarm and for action by those who lead.

I am thinking about the settings that are most critical to all of us, such as education, healthcare and other critical public sector roles. For many staff, working through and past COVID has brought intense pressure and fatigue. Staff have started to wonder about whether the role is worth the cost, as disillusionment is surfacing after a lengthy battle in a scenario that doesn’t seem to offer a bright future any time soon.

Add to this the depleting patience and compassion of the public. Staff are reporting record abuse and anger from patients and families. We see public sector staff, worn out themselves — in a system that can’t meet their needs — being blamed or fought against by people who are frustrated, panicked and sometimes afraid. There is a genuine risk that something is going to break and we are seeing it, as staff choose different careers and a staffing crisis (already existent pre-COVID) is reaching epic proportions across the sector.

It is here that we have to ask, ‘what can a leader do to support the retention of their key staff?’ I will offer 8 ideas, based on our work on this very issue across sectors.

8 ways to promote staff retention, under pressure

1. Reinforce professional identity and reward it

No matter what role staff have in the public sector, a sense of collected teaming and identity is critical. Staff need to feel that their role is a profession, it is valued and it is a part of a wider team who do the same. This is most critical for key frontline staff such as receptionists / wider admin, who often feel like a cog in the machine and also often receive the most public distress / anger.

Celebrate openly their role and encourage the wider team to appreciate the role as critical, making this apparent to staff. Patients and families often thank teachers and nurses, but who thanks receptionists? This is often the need of the team and the leaders and should be embraced.

Look for this need in the team and meet it. Celebrate success in role as much as you can!

2. Show a future

Regularly talk about the future for the team, the organisation and the individuals in the team. Plan for team goals and catch small wins. Plan for individual advancement and development, show the staff that effort leads to reward and that no matter the crisis, their development remains important. This can seem difficult, but is imperative for people to feel a sense of belonging and a joined up commitment to succeed.

3. Create safety

Encourage staff to air their issues, gripes and frustrations about their roles, the team and even you. Invite this with a warm hope to learn about their experience and to improve it. Show them that you are trusted and support every disclosure to transform into a conversation in which you both create ideas on how solutions can be made.

Aim for your staff to feel “supported” when you turn up in the office, and not “watched” or “pressured”. Be their go to person, else it will be the manager in another role who draws them away.

4. Model compassion

Be compassionate to yourself and use this to energise your team. I won’t repeat all of this here.

But in short, when we care for ourselves we ooze that out to the team too. When we martyr ourselves as leaders, we lose the connections that count.

When we and our teams prioritise self-care, we care for each other and that includes the team and its goals.

5. Vary role

A change is as good as a break.

Think about what your team might benefit from, in terms of their engagement, if it were added to their role. Be brave enough to ask and consider what the team could be doing that it isn’t now.

I’ve found that letting staff know the main problems you have for the team and inviting volunteers to solve them / to do the work — creates engagement and adds variety to roles that may have lost their appeal.

6. Give power

Autonomy is the glue that keeps us in post. Consider what power or space a staff member may need to enable more success and more engagement. This can be very small for some staff members, but can become a task or role that they are proud of and run with to success. Many staff members rise to their responsibilities and the absence of responsibility can lead to us feeling un-needed. Much research has shown how autonomy can be a bigger driver than income, for staff, in terms of retention.

7. Add in humour

Don’t be afraid to laugh at the pain and struggles, with your team. Think of ways to laugh about the current difficulties, recognising them as temporary. Laugh with staff and share your own challenges in a way that invite a shared humour about the current situation.

Staff who play together, stay together.

8. Work on the team

When leaders ask me how to retain people, the first question I ask is… “what are they a part of, that would make them want to be retained?”

Ask if your team are cohesive and pulling people inwards. Look towards team development support if this is not the case. When a team can feel something like a family — it can activate like a family around staff who need it. This is not farfetched and is something I’ve seen in the best of teams.


A light touch list of ideas that you can try, based on what we have seen work with teams who are losing staff. For more detail, subscribe on our site and we’ll send you loads of free resources (ebooks, training etc).




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