Almost everyone knows by now that employee engagement is in the toilet, largely because ALMOST EVERYONE IS CURRENTLY DISENGAGED. (87% of the workforce is rolling their eyes right now with an, “I could have told Gallup that and saved them 30 million surveys” look on their defeated faces.)
And despite the widespread disdain for work, most of the disengaged worker bees are mentally checking out yet doing diddly squat about the leaving part. We worker bees have a tremendous capacity to adapt to lackluster work situations, don’t we?
So, what triggers people to hand in their resignation letters? What straw breaks the proverbial camel’s back when it comes to quitting a job and jumping ship?  It’s often personal events that spur us to take action­– key milestones that act like a wake-up call in a world of unsatisfying yet “comfortable enough” career situations that we’d otherwise stay in for decades to come. Here are a few key triggers to be aware of as a manager so you can pay a little extra attention to your team, and maybe save the ones worth saving:

  • New Year, new you. The third week in January is apparently gangbusters for job searches at (and our own career coaching cycle), likely after people have had a chance to cement their resolutions and maybe complete their post-holiday detoxes. Fresh starts give people the confidence to wipe the slate clean on their careers, as I waxed on about here last year.
  • Reunions are the worst, for so many reasons. 16% of people come back from school reunions—colossal self-esteem annihilators—feeling bolstered and thinking, “I’m going to make something of myself. I’ll show them.” No one wants to go back to the next reunion in 10 years still feeling like a lowlife.
  • Happy Birthday to you. Job searches spike 12% before birthdays, especially the ones with zeros that have the potential to trigger midlife crises, like 40 or 50. The idea of spending another decade in the windowless office, for example, can horrify many into taking action.
  • Promotion anniversaries. “Now that my three-year anniversary as a Senior Director is coming up, it’s making me think about what else is out there,” said Kim, one of our recent Spectacular clients. Reflection is real. And role-specific anniversaries prompt 9% of people toward a career change. (Read here for more on the grass is greener line of thinking that can pop up here.)
  • First year & annual work anniversaries. 6% of people pretend they aren’t close to bailing while sharing their anniversary cake with colleagues in the lunch room, but they’re one foot out the door and ready to sign the offer letter they’re hoping is waiting for them in their inbox. Research by Entelo shows that people tend to stay in a job in 12-month increments, with the 12th month having the highest probability for bolting (meaning the 1st anniversary on the job has the greatest risk). The quitting probability declines after month 12 and then spikes again at month 24 and then continues annually… you get the idea. It’s a yearly thing that motivates us to reassess.
  • That damned beach. 70% of people are more likely to look for another job upon returning from vacation—something to do with the mental detachment, relaxed vibe, and a lot of piña coladas.

What is a self-respecting manager to do with these interesting stats? One bad idea might be to stop celebrating anniversaries, so employees don’t have to face the harsh light of reality each year. In the same vein, you could refuse to give your team PTO to attend school reunions or the Riviera Maya. Or you could get ahead of the situation in the following ways:

  • Regularly check in with your team. See what’s going well and what they’d change if they could. How can you help them do more of the good stuff and avoid the bad stuff or at least show empathy about the unavoidable bad stuff?
  • Become an employee engagement guru. At least familiarize yourself with the Gallup Q12 and seek to understand how your team would answer the questions and how you can help make the answers awesome.
  • Act more like a mentor and less like a manager. Ask questions about your team members’ career aspirations, encourage them to draft plans on how to achieve them, and be there as a sounding board and accountability partner. The more you show you care about your team members’ futures, the higher the likelihood that you’ll be a part of them.
  • Make a note of key anniversaries and birthdays on your team. This isn’t meant to be a cheat sheet to intervene the week before to make sure, “We’re good, right?” This is about talking to your team members in advance, maybe sharing this article with them and asking about their thoughts on what might cause them to both leave AND stay. Ask what it would take to have them come back from their next reunion proud of what they’re doing and the company they’re a part of. That’s the kind of leader that people don’t quit.

Being aware of the triggers that have the potential to feel like a slap in the face for your team members is the first step in preventing attrition. It’s clearly not about preventing Rick from turning 50; it’s about making him feel fantastic that he gets to do what he does with you and the team and the company in his next decades of work.

Jodi Wellman

Jodi is a co-founder of Happy Work Spectacular Life, loves red Skittles (maybe too much) and finally got a Happy Spectacular logo tattoo.