Employees Jump Ship During Life Milestones—Here’s How to Keep Them

Nancy Gray-Starkebaum

We’re all creatures of habit. When everything is running smoothly, no one thinks to ask why or second guess anyone’s choices. 


Yet that mentality often goes out the window in the face of a work or life milestone.


Every time something significant happens in a person’s life, they naturally take stock of whether their job and company will allow them to be the best person they can be within the new parameters of their situation. Milestone triggers are, of course, different for every employee. And managers and HR professionals first have to know their people to understand what's important to them. The more they’re aware of employees’ lives inside and outside the office, the better they can support them.


Marriage, House, and Health

Compared to work milestones, life milestones are inherently personal and based on significant life events such as marriage, divorce, having or adopting children or pets, moving or buying a house, illness or death of a loved one, and landmark birthdays.


As different as these experiences are, they all make employees reconsider their circumstances. At the positive end of the spectrum, a new spouse, child, pet, or home is exciting, but the transition can be tumultuous. New boundaries are being forged with shifts in responsibility and finances. 


At the other end of the spectrum, divorce, break-ups, illnesses, and death make assessing one’s life and priorities especially poignant—they’re a wake-up call that life is short. These events are also highly emotional and involve a grieving process that varies by individual. Companies that restrict bereavement periods to how they define the significance of a relationship evoke a feeling of callousness. 


Likewise—whether it’s to deal with the sustained illness of a loved one, or to be the primary caretaker of children—limited time off and inflexible core hours can make it virtually impossible for employees to create a schedule that accommodates both their personal and professional obligations. 


Though often less life-altering for the individual, work milestones can have a significant impact too.

Promotions, Anniversaries, and Bosses

While the list of work milestones is plentiful, the most crucial ones fall into two categories:


Employee success indicators such as performance reviews, anniversaries, raises, bonuses and promotions are all good ways for employees to gauge how valued they are at a company. The first performance review is especially important, since it’s an inaugural opportunity to get real feedback from a manager, and it’s usually tied to monetary compensation. If the review isn’t in line with an employee’s expectations, there’s a good chance they’ll start thinking about leaving.  


Similarly, when an employee reaches a milestone anniversary, they want to feel accomplished yet supported to continue growing. Companies that offer internal mobility, upskilling, and succession planning foster the kind of career pathing support people are looking for today.


The second category is team upheavals. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a manager, team member, or respected fellow employee—any time someone in an employee’s inner circle quits, retires, is fired, promoted, or makes a lateral move, it can trigger considerable change. Responsibility hierarchies can become unstable in the face of such transitions and leave employees questioning their own place and worth at the company. 


It All Comes Down to Flexibility and Empathy

How managers and company policies handle these life and work circumstances can be a deciding factor in whether employees stick around and put in their best effort. To facilitate a healthy work environment, HR professionals need to prioritize two things: flexibility and empathy. 


A rigid 9 to 5 mentality is passe, as technology affords tremendous flexibility for remote opportunities and unconventional hours. Yet loose boundaries delineating when the work day starts and stops means a person’s work life and personal life often bleed into one another. 


As a result, it’s even more important for HR to change the way they measure employee success. Managers who judge employees on activity alone watch the clock and count hours. This creates unnecessary stress and makes it harder for employees to do their job, let alone grow and evolve within the company. 


Managers who stress productivity and contribution do the opposite—as long as employees deliver, they don’t need to micromanage how they get there. This affords their team the opportunity to manage their time as they see fit, fostering communication and building trust. A productivity-driven approach is especially important when people are going through life events that may pull them away from the office.


Giving the cold-shoulder to those who may be struggling with work or personal issues is an antiquated, counterproductive approach. And depending on the situation, the consequences of this ignorance can be significant. Disengaged employees have 37% higher absenteeism, 49% more accidents and commit 60% more errors and defects. 


By contrast, employers who support their people, gain a lot more than a clear conscience for doing the right thing. Companies with highly engaged workforces see 147% higher earnings per share than competitors, 20% higher productivity, and 21% higher profitability overall. 


Employees who are consistently getting what they need, don’t want to leave, regardless of what work or life milestone they reach. If you pay close attention to these events and support workers through them, they’ll be willing to go the extra mile for you when you need it.