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Motivation and retention of employees: a new “old” challenge for companies?

Fifth session in the cycle on


Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Human Resources (HR): policy complementarities within companies


Click here to view a summary of the event


1 December 2016



Dr Sara Evans-Lacko

Associate Professorial Research Fellow, 

London School of Economics and Political Science 

Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, 

Kings College London


Emely Theerlynck

HR Research Expert, Securex


Caroline Haquet

Deputy Chief HR Officer, Mazars



Nicolas Vincent



Failing to motivate or retain its staff can cost a lot to an employer. Gallup estimated in 2013 that actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity per year.


Some investments should be made to retain employees, notably through improving motivation. Motivation and engagement is not only a matter of salary level and benefits but also an attitude. Generally speaking, workers say that being treated with respect is the most important non-financial factor, followed by work/life balance, type of work, quality of co-workers and quality of leadership. Other sources of motivation rely on the engagement of employees in the decision-making process, the work environment and the flexibility of human resource policies.


Return on investment bears large potential for companies with improvements in productivity, drops in absenteeism or sick leaves. There are other positive externalities, as motivated employees will also act positively and generate sound attitude and impetus among their co-workers.


This session of Policies & Practices was presenting the theory and discussing best practices on the topic.


Economic cost and return on investment 

Sara Evans-Lacko, researcher at the LSE and senior lecturer at Kings College, started the discussion by stressing the economic impact of employees’ disengagement: “low employee well-being, mental health, and low and poor motivation”, said the panelist, “lead to substantial reductions on productivity and also premature withdraw from the labour market.” On average, 1% of a country’s GDP is lost due to workers with depression attending work despite their condition.


What factors influence absenteeism and presenteism? Dr Evans-Lacko ran a study on eight different countries to find out. The main reasons, it revealed, is when individuals fear losing their job or when they lack support from their managers.


Studies show motivation is a worthwhile investment to undertake : “We did a simulation modelling around a workplace mental health promotion interventions”, said Dr Evans-Lacko, “the return on investment was 9 to 1.” These actions can take multiple forms, such as flexible working arrangements, career progression opportunities, stress audits, improved recognition of symptoms and stress, access to gyms or improved canteens…


“It does take some capital to invest at the beginning, so for small companies it is still a challenge, but for larger companies there is not really an economic question in term of investing in this,” Dr Evans-Lacko emphasised.


In order to maximise the investment, it is important to consider the culture and characteristics of the workplace: “if you want to make an intervention or a strategy you will have to think how to match all things up,” Dr Evans-Lacko added, before stressing the importance of monitoring the process. The panelist also warned against one-off measures: these interventions need often to be continuous, ongoing efforts.



Emely Theerlynck, HR Research Expert at Securex, was the next speaker on the panel. Ms Theerlynck presented an annual study she leads on year-to-year job rotation in Belgium. “We see that employees are less motivated and performant than before,” said Ms Theerlynck. “They have more stress, they fall sick, absenteeism is very high and there is a threat of burn-out. We see that people don’t see alternatives on the labour market,” Ms Theerlynck continued. In short, people keep their job too long because they are afraid to confront the labour market, not because they are happy with their position. 


Another trend appearing in the study is the “golden cage” syndrome: employees dissatisfied with their job but who nonetheless keep it by fear of worsening their situation, creating bore-out syndromes. This is characteristic of for example older employees who simply wait for their retirement. “Employers do not invest enough in those people,” said Ms Theerlynck, “they just let them seat there waiting when they will leave.”


In Ms Theerlynck’s view, not only should they be able to work until retirement but they should also be willing to work until then, loving their job and what they do.



Third panelist at the session was Caroline Haquet. As Deputy Chief HR Officer at Mazars, Ms Haquet does not believe in retention policy per se: “the only rule is to be sure that we assure that people love what they do”, she told the audience. This should be the real purpose of the company HR strategy, she added. “When you have a problem of retention for example or motivation with your staff,” Ms Haquet said, “you really have to go back to the deep roots of your strategy of your organisation, of your HR policy. You really have to work on your organisation culture.” 


Talking about management and leadership, Ms Haquet summarised the idea with the phrase: “you join a company but you leave a manager.” In her view, this is really where the essence is: managerial behaviours are the key parameter, even if it is not always easy to provide a sense of purpose for all activities. Ms Haquet provided an example of her company partnership with a non-profit organisation: Mazars employees can take up to fifteen days of paid leave to go help the NGO on specific field actions chosen by the employees. “For them,” Ms Haquet said, “it is very important to see that their company is committed in this kind of projects.” She added these commitments were very dear to their younger staff, “because it makes them proud of their company.” There are still numerous challenges to address for companies, such as compliance with regulation, integration of millennials, the status of women and elderly workers, digitalisation, open spaces… 


From the floor, Olalla Michelena, Secretary General of Make Mothers Matter, asked the impact Belgium’s legislation effectively had on burn-out. Ms Theerlynck replied a survey they ran on the issue showed that managers were putting effort to comply with the law such as filling out the paperwork but were not looking beyond that. What is required, though, is a change of culture and mentalities.


Another question from the floor rose the case of millennials in the workplace: how to cope with “high-potential recruits”, their rhythm and their continuous need for feedback. “They want to change everything”, Ms Haquet agreed, before continuing: “they have plenty of ideas, they want to go fast”, but the panelist also added it was important for them to share their opinion. “They understand contradiction if they have the opportunity to express their view first. If you consider them, if you listen to them; after you can slow the speed if necessary.” replied Ms Haquet.



Miroslav Fuchs, Labour and social policy attaché from the Czech Permanent Representation asked: “employability is necessary but are companies interested in investing in people, especially people over 50, to increase their skills and education?” Ms Haquet insisted it was a necessity and she added: “We will be helped by all this disruption coming from digital because everybody will have to be trained to embrace these changing.” In her view, this disruption is an opportunity, as it will shake more senior resources out of their comfort zone. “All these people claiming they do not need training, because they already know a lot – it is much easier to get them back to training sessions because they really have something new to discover” since these new technologies are challenging us all.


Maria Glowacz de Chevilly, from the staff representation of the European Commission, asked the panelists for theoretical or practical guidance as regards to the Commission’s staff specificities: three generations working together, with very different backgrounds and cultures in an administrative environment. Burnout is an important issue in the Commission, where several staff management cultures can be overlapping in the same institution (open space vs. individual offices, teleworking, etc.). Dr Evans-Lacko replied that changes in work environments often boil down to how the staff takes part into the decision process: “it would be important,” she said “to go to the basics and core principles to make employees feel involved, consulted and trusted.” Dr Evans-Lacko added: “I think a lot of companies investing in open space offices should also include much more flexible working time and more trust in the employees.” Dr Evans-Lacko insisted that the way these cultural shifts were implemented was very important. 


Ms Theerlynck reflected on a study Securex ran with the University of Ghent on work flexibility “which makes employees more performant, more motivated.” Ms Theerlynck added: “we also see that having the possibility to choose enables employees to work longer” while their motivation remains stronger. Ms Haquet agreed and insisted on consistency in the HR policy: “if you choose a path, you have to deploy it on your employer value proposition of course, in your processes, in the way you are organised.” 


“The workplace is very symbolic”, concluded Ms Haquet. “Open spaces are great if there is a true environment of collaborative approach, a willingness to have solidarity in the team.” Ideally, she said, this should also translate into collective appraisal as opposed to an individual one.



Tuesday 28 November, 2023





Policies & Practices