· 2 min read · Features

What can employers do to stop the 'two year itch'


By the time they have been in a job for two years, most managers are thinking about what their next promotion will be. When it’s not clear if or when a promotion will happen, the best performers will start looking for other opportunities. Even if the job market is tough there will always be opportunities for these top performers, so employers should not be complacent.

The 'honeymoon' phase of employment tends to last about two years. For example, the Kenexa High Performance Institute looked at the engagement of a sample of 840,000 managers in the US and Britain in 2012 and found that 57% were disengaged by the two year mark. The Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) also found that UK managers are happiest during the first two years in a new organisation, after which many start to ask, "now what?"

The challenging economic environment, dealing with continuous stress, burnout resulting from poor work/life balance and working short-staffed for too long can all be factors influencing this "two year itch". Other issues include feelings of frustration that one's performance isn't being recognised or rewarded, feelings of injustice that poor performers aren't being weeded out and a lack of a clear career path. There is also a well-established negative correlation between employee satisfaction and a lack of frequent and clear communication with their managers and supervisors.

So a key question to examine is what organisations can do to build on an individual's early enthusiasm and avoid this two-year stress point.

Starting with communication, it is important to ensure that channels remain open at all levels. Whether formal (coaching or performance review sessions) or informal (coffee break chat or 'touching-base' session), it is most important that communication is regular and on-going. Make sure feedback is positive as well as negative.

To combat issues arising from a lack of a clear career path, institute a formal succession planning program which covers all managerial levels in the organisation. Make sure employees understand where they fit into the plan. This can be accomplished through HR interviews with managers about what they want to do next and what their ultimate career goals are. HR should talk directly to employees since they may not feel comfortable telling they boss that they want his job next.

In terms of training and development, review the tools in place to recognise top performers as well as training programs and tactics used to deal with poor performers

There are a number of approaches that can be taken to help combat burnout. When times are tough, managers can skimp on holiday time. So reward employees who take the holiday that has been allocated. Too many organisations use examples of people who don't take their full holiday entitlement to illustrate a good work ethic. This is both detrimental to the individual concerned and more generally counter-productive. Instead, initiate programs that only allow a few days to be carried over from year-to-year and have a simple approval process for time off requests.

Provide people with plenty of personal space so that they can manifest their authentic selves at work. This should include allowing employees with two years of tenure a set period of unpaid time off (like a short sabbatical) to pursue a personal interest knowing their job will be there when they return.

Encourage employees to pursue volunteer work on company time. Set aside time each month for a group of employees to volunteer at a charity important to both the employees and the organisation. Rotate this time throughout the organisation.

We can categorise employers in a couple of different ways. There are those that are really working out how to maximise their workforce in a reasonable way. Staff who work for those employers will likely remain satisfied as long as they receive individual recognition that their performance is valued.

But employers who take a short-term and non-sustainable approach to reducing headcount in order to improve profit margins and don't invest in effective communication with their people are far more likely to face real retention and motivation issues. In a stagnant job market this is especially true for good people who don't fit in the high-performance category and who may not be in the position to find a new job.

Dr Suzanne Edinger is lecturer in organisational behaviour at Nottingham University Business School