Don’t quit on emotions:
How joy and hope of quitting promotes employee retention

By Nirit Pisano, Ph.D.

How do you maintain your workforce and reduce employee turnover?

Allow them to feel joy and hope when contemplating quitting!

Wait, What?!

Droves of employees are voluntarily leaving their jobs in the wake of a pandemic that altered collective perspectives of time, space and self-care. Economists, journalists and sociologists call it inevitable, even predictable, given longstanding workplace issues predating Covid-19. Some point to an existential shift allowing individuals to prioritize the whole self beyond the work self for the first time, while others highlight the role of burnout, fear of in-person viral transmission, and a shortage of childcare options as driving people to resign.

Despite myriad explanations regarding this phenomenon, real-time clarity on the emotional drivers of this movement are needed. A search on Cognovi’s Psychological AI narrowed in on the emotional profile of personnel in the food service industry. An analysis of social media communications in the first three quarters of 2021 – including 18.9 million posts by service industry workers and 30,000 explicit statements about their resignations – revealed a shifting narrative: employees’ motivation to resign, as measured by Cognovi’s Intent score, spiked from a low of 3% in January to a high of 37% by end of September.

Beyond the growing impulse to quit, the emotional transformation in the workforce between January and September 2021 is profound. Depictions of quitting sparked primarily joy and hope in January – an emotional profile that reflects an aspirational goal, wherein people feel broadly optimistic and compelled to sustain the status quo. With or without conscious awareness, joyful, hopeful individuals tend to sit back and preserve their current circumstances. While this dreamy state certainly sounds (and feels) pleasant, we know in the world of emotion research that exclusive joy and hope will inevitably fall short of propelling individuals toward active pursuit of their goals.

As individuals described their resignations in September, the experience of joy and hope was altogether missing. In its place, anger, disgust, sadness and contempt overwhelmed the scene, with amusement following closely behind. This altered mentality suggests a growing hostility, reactivity and flippancy regarding this life decision, rousing people to act:

“If you were looking for a reason to quit — you’re welcome!”

“I quit today and immediately felt a weight off my shoulder. I’m so excited to not be in a bad mood every day lol”

“Can’t wait to get my nails done when I quit my job lol”

“I walked out saying, ‘Just so everyone knows, I quit’ mid-shift and all the guests clapped🤣”

As we continue to study who, why and where people are resigning in order to grasp the fuller context surrounding this trend, the emotional experience of employees is key. While individuals’ stated reasons for quitting may not always align with their true underlying motivations, here we have a glimpse into what heightens or reduces service industry workers’ likelihood of parting ways: as it turns out, peaked levels of joy and hope about the idea of quitting also curbs its likelihood of occurring. For organizations looking to preserve their workforce, then, the task is quite literally to infuse the notion of resignation with joy and hope; both because this suggests your workers are generally feeling brighter, and because it reduces their impulse to act on the option.

In sum, feeling joy and hope towards one’s job is ideal, and heightened joy and hope around the possibility of quitting will keep colleagues coming back. Here employers have an opportunity to cultivate – in a scientific and data-driven way – the right emotional environment for employee retention and growth. As the old cliché suggests, “If you love something let it go”; or in current times, we might re-write this as, “If someone is vital to you, increase their joy and hope – even if that means setting them free.”

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