A simple intervention that can reduce turnover

Work can be hard, but it shouldn’t be hard all the time. New research co-authored by Wharton’s Maurice Schweitzer shows that overloading workers with too many difficult tasks in a row makes them more likely to quit.

Managers who want to keep employees from quitting should consider reordering their tasks, according to a new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences co-authored by Wharton management professor Maurice Schweitzer.

A stressed person in an office.

In the largest field study of its kind, Schweitzer and his colleagues found that people are far more likely to quit when given too many difficult assignments in a row, compared with a workflow that is balanced out with easier tasks. Breaking up long streaks of challenging assignments may be one of the simplest ways that managers can reduce employee burnout and boost retention.

“Retaining and motivating people is really hard, and there is always difficult work to be done. The insight from this research is that we don’t want to load it all at once,” Schweitzer said. “We do better when we break it up. It shouldn’t be the case where we have one horrible day and get it all over with. Lining up a bunch of difficult things in a row is exhausting and demotivating.”

While the content of the conversations influenced the quit rate of volunteers, the data revealed that the order of the conversations mattered even more. Volunteers who experienced long streaks of hard conversations were 22% to 110% more likely to quit. Conversely, breaking up these hard streaks by reassigning tasks to different volunteers would “reduce volunteer quitting rates by 22%, boosting prosocial behavior and likely saving lives,” the authors wrote in the paper.

“There are so many contexts in which quitting is a very common problem. If we could just reduce turnover, it would improve the efficiency of an organization so much,” Schweitzer says. “When organizations think about efficiency, they think about the workflow and using the physical space as efficiently as possible when, in fact, it’s the experience of the people that’s so important.”

Read more at Knowledge at Wharton.