Why do they leave? This is a good place to work.

I was chatting with a respected, long term physio colleague recently and he pinned me with the question, ‘How long do you expect physios to stay?’ Meaning, what is a realistic expectation for professional staff turnover? I asked him some further questions and it seemed a more common problem with recent graduates (one, two or three years out of uni) and he told me he does exit interviews.

‘What do they reveal?, I asked. He indicated some move onto formal post-graduate study which necessitates leaving the area but the others seem to feel they have exhausted their learning opportunities at the current practice. One departing employee said, ‘I feel like I have learned all I can here, and need to move on.’  One reason she can move on easily is she had no ties to bind her geographically: no partner with a job nearby, no children in school or other family nearby.

We observed that recruiting staff a little further along their life journey provides some of these anchoring factors that aid retention, perhaps up to around 5 years as opposed to the 1-2 year expectation for the more recent graduates. I guess I felt that the curiosity and mobility of youth was a fact of life, probably not limited to physiotherapy and resiled myself to it being an unalterable tenet.

However, on further reflection this may not be the case, at least in all cases. Over the first year or so of being employed by an experienced colleague there is a steady knowledge transfer from senior to junior. This tends to be intense at first and gradually tapers as the lessons are passed on. There may reach a point of equilibrium where the teacher runs out of new material and the learner has the skills and knowledge close to that of the teacher; and being hungry for more, starts to look elsewhere.

What can be done to encourage a longer tenure in such a situation? Perhaps we need to be counter-intuitive and reverse the roles somewhat, helping the learner become the teacher and the teacher open their mind to the learner.

Lovely words – what does it mean?  I distinctly recall having talented employees who could have taught me much but my ego and inflexibility blinded me to this opportunity. They were ready and able to teach, but I was unready or unwilling to learn.

Developing talent is a wasted process if once developed it is not deployed where it can make the greatest contribution. In our mini-case-study, what may have eventuated if the physiotherapist who had filled her learning quota had been asked to take over the development of staff for a year or so? Including the principal. Not by re-teaching the same stuff, but by adding from her unique knowledge and experience base, by bringing in new information to the organisation, by developing leadership and development skills in her role and by being rewarded for this contribution.

Sure, she may still leave even after this extension of her role (and tenure), but she would be leaving a more enriched organisation behind and leave as a more accomplished practitioner and employee. She would also have contributed to the training of those who followed her.

As employers we often see how much we give to our teams and resent any feelings of not being repaid by output, loyalty or even simple thanks. Step back, stop giving for a while, and ask what you might receive if you realised everyone has something to teach. Have you ever asked your reception staff how they ‘read’ clients?  Asked them to explain how they manage to multitask with phones, computers, people, money, files, letters, reports and the rest? Or asked your cleaning staff how they know when they have done a good job? Or your professional staff what skills and knowledge they may have that can be adding value to the organisational goals or client outcomes? In order, these represent customer service skills, time/task management skills, self-managing team skills and self-knowledge/development skills.

The answers to such questions may surprise you (as much as being asked may surprise them!) and potentially restless staff may even stick around to see if you have learned anything from them and are prepared to put it into practice. Who knows, you may discover your eventual replacement and they may discover a career path.


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