HR News & Trends

Survey: Half of Employees Want to Leave or Have Checked Out on the Job

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It shouldn’t be a shock that lots of American workers are unhappy and dissatisfied with their employers.

If you have been paying attention over the past year, poll after poll and survey after survey keeps making this point: that workers everywhere are fed up with their employers, with the way they were treated during the recession, and are generally disengaged on the job. This feeling is particularly strong in younger employees (yes, with Millennials), but workers pretty much across the board share this feeling.

Yes, your employees are mad as hell and say they aren’t going to take it for much longer.

If you aren’t hearing this from your workers, you probably aren’t listening very well, but just in case all the previous surveys haven’t gotten your attention, here’s another that might.

“The business consequences … are significant”

Mercer, the global HR consulting firm, just released the results of its new What’s Working survey, conducted over the past two quarters among nearly 30,000 workers in 17 countries, including 2,400 workers in the U.S. It found that nearly a third (32 percent ) of American workers are seriously considering leaving their organization at the present time, up sharply from 23 percent in 2005.

As bad as that sounds, another 21 percent of workers say they are not necessarily looking to leave but view their employers unfavorably and have rock-bottom scores on key measures of engagement, meaning that when you combine the two, more than half of all employees (53 percent) are either looking to leave for a new job or have mentally checked out of their old one.

So much for all the yadda yadda yadda you keep hearing from companies about how they’re working so hard to improve employee engagement.

“The business consequences of this erosion in employee sentiment are significant, and clearly the issue goes far beyond retention,” said Mindy Fox, a Senior Partner at Mercer and the firm’s U.S. Region Leader, in a press release announcing the highlights of the survey. “Diminished loyalty and widespread apathy can undermine business performance, particularly as companies increasingly look to their workforces to drive productivity gains and spur innovation.”

Mercer’s What’s Working survey (and you can sign up to get the survey summary here) found that overall scores are down consistently across key engagement measures, while intention to leave is up across all employee segments, with the youngest workers most likely to be eyeing a departure — 40 percent of employees age 25–34, and, 44 percent of employees 24 and younger.

Other indicators of employee dissatisfaction

Here are some of the other top line findings from the Mercer survey:

  • Benefits satisfaction is still good, but slipping. Some 68 percent of employees rate their overall benefits program as good or very good, down from 76 percent in 2005, while 59 percent say they are satisfied with their health care benefits, down from 66 percent.
  • No matter what you hear, pay REALLY does matter. Salary and pay may not be the No. 1 motivator of employee behavior, but it is sure right up there. The survey found that base pay is the most important element of the employment deal, by a wide margin, but in the U.S., workers show lower satisfaction with base pay (53 percent satisfied, down from 58 percent  who said they were satisfied back in in 2005).
  • Career development satisfaction is better, but still not all that great. Despite some improvement, scores for career development and performance management remain fairly low. Just 42 percent of employees agree that promotions go to the most qualified employees in their organization, up from 29 percent in 2005, and less than half (46 percent) agree that their organization does an adequate job of matching pay to performance, up from 33 percent.
  • Workers aren’t doing much retirement — and employers don’t help much, either. Mercer found that only 43 percent of U.S. employees believe they are doing enough to financially prepare for retirement – down from 47 percent in 2005. And, workers feel that employers aren’t helping them with this very much. Just 41 percent believe their employers are doing enough to help them prepare, up slightly from 38 percent in 2005.

Overall, this survey shows again what other similar research has shown — that workers aren’t very happy with what their employers are doing for them, and in most areas, the trends are getting worse as the economy slowly improves.

An employer-employee disconnect

“Employees see a ‘disconnect’ between what employers are promising and what they are delivering,” Mercer’s Fox said. “Organizations should re-examine their deals – both the traditional and non-traditional elements – then support them with effective administration and consistent, authentic communication that fosters a sense of belonging and helps employees make better rewards choices and career decisions.”

Mindy Fox is right about what organizations should do to better connect with employees and foster a sense of belonging, but my question is this: After so many surveys and research pointing to such terrible employee engagement that makes large numbers of workers want to leave, why aren’t American employers doing anything about it? Did they not get the message, or are they still in that recession mode where they don’t really care if workers leave because there are so many people out there ready to be hired?

And one more thing about Mercer’s What’s Working research: they gave quite the definition of employee engagement. Given the wide variety of ways organization’s try to define engagement, I was interested in this and thought you would be, too.

Mercer defines engagement as a psychological state in which employees feel a vested interest in the company’s success and are both willing and motivated to perform to levels that exceed the stated job requirements. It reflects how employees feel about the overall work experience – the organization, its leaders, the work environment, and the recognition and rewards they receive for their efforts.”

The message in this survey is pretty clear

The Mercer survey is a big piece of research. The What’s Working survey, which examines employee views on their work, was conducted among more than 2,400 U.S. workers in late 2010. The survey, last conducted in the U.S. in 2005, includes more than 100 questions on a range of work-related topics and reflects the overall demographics of the U.S. workforce in terms of age, gender and job level. This research also is being conducted in 16 other countries worldwide.

Make of this what you will, but what I make of it is pretty simple: American employers are going to be paying for their shortsighted talent management policies and attitudes for  a long time to come.

It’s easy to ignore this issue right now with so many people out of work, but more and more organizations are going to be facing talent shortages among their very best people as they depart for greener pastures where they are appreciated more, get compensated better, and generally find the work more enjoyable and fulfilling.

The Mercer What’s Working survey shows this very clearly. If America’s managers and executives won’t wake up and see what’s happening, well, they deserve what they’ll get when they wake up someday soon and find that all their top talent has left and gone someplace else.

John Hollon is Vice President for Editorial of, and the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices. Contact him at, and follow him on Twitter at
  • Chris aka newresource

    i read 50% of all employees hate their jobs. So 16M unemployed and millions more unhappy. How can we fix this?

  • Rich Boberg

    You are correct – pay really does matter, especially with the cost of nearly everything increasing while most paychecks remain static. 

  • One Page Talent Mgmt

    John – I’m not sure the results are quite as draconian as they may appear:

    1.  What intent to leave really means: Intent to leave tends to be the best predictor of actually leaving, but of those who say they will leave research shows 40% – 60% actually do.  So while 32% of workers are considering leaving their jobs vs. 23% before, this means about 16% actually will go vs. 11.5% before.  Worrisome?  I don’t know. Unless those additional 4.5% are your best and brightest, this may not really be that consequential and there are no facts presented to suggest that this is the case.

    2.  Other engagement factors increase promisingly:  Intent to leave increased 39%, but those who feel promotions are fair increased 45% and those feel that pay and performance was matched increased 39%.  These are very strong increases during a short and economically difficult time period.

    3.  These findings likely show economic variability of engagement, not bad employer actions : The facts of the case don’t support a call for companies to “wake up” and or to call corporate practices “shortsighted.”  To #2 above, employers actually seem to be engaging in tactics that are focused on driving engagement.  Things like small increases in dissatisfaction with pay or lack of confidence in retirement dates are driven by economic variances across all companies.  

    4.  Where are employees running to?: It’s great to say that there will be a mass exodus of employees, but that suggests that there are employers willing to hire them. Current stats say that there are not and will not be for the foreseeable future.  

    Mercer does fine research but we should carefully examine the facts presented to understand what’s truly relevant for employers.

  • Anonymous

    This isn’t surprising at all. It’s not even new. The same has been true
    for nearly two years now. What employers need to be the most concerned
    about are the employees who are there, but with one eye on the door.
    Just think about all the time they spend at work thinking, planning and
    dreaming of leaving.

    As I wrote about Right Management Research from late 2009:

    87% actively engaging in activity to leave your organization. Take a
    look around your company today. Which employees do you think are the 13%
    most likely to stay? I guarantee it’s not your top performers. Various
    studies on employee engagement show it is the most disengaged that stay
    in their current role.

    Look at it another way: that’s 87% of
    employees distracted by thoughts, daydreams or plans to leave your
    organization; 87% not fully focused on the task at hand, not fully
    engaged in helping you achieve your strategic objectives.

    Research details and citation here: along with what to do about it.

  • Valerie Iravani

    As a manager and an employee, I have always wished that my own managers would mentor me, train me well in new skills, and recognize my excellent work with small rewards such as a personal thank you note or taking me out to lunch.  It’s much easier than they believe.

    As a manager, I have always fostered employee develop, cross training opportunities and personal rewards – since promotions and raises are few and far between.

    But my biggest gripe is that lack of succession planning and the lack of willingness of HR and executive management to support formal or informal succession planning.  The most common comment, “It’s up to the employees themsevles”.  Well then, waive bye bye!