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Case study: Improving retention at the Veterans Health Association


After recognising that a talent shortage at the Veterans Health Association (VHA) was imminent and that it could have a disastrous impact on the organisation, the VHA chose to investigate why employees were leaving and, most importantly to see what steps they could take to improve retention.

Identifying the talent shortage

The VHA (in the USA) employs over 150,000 people to provide healthcare support to veterans of the US military. Recently, the VHA found themselves facing a ‘demographic bubble’, with many ‘baby boomers’ approaching retirement, potentially causing a severe talent shortage. If their fears were to be realised, the VHA faced the retirement of up to 50% of its nurses within 5 years.

What steps were taken to address the potential talent shortage?

To stop the talent drain, the VHA needed to investigate the reasons why so many employees were leaving the organisation in order that they could identify what steps could be taken to improve retention.

The VHA worked with employee surveying experts, Sirota, to identify and understand the reasons behind employees choosing to leave the organisation.

Over 7000 former VHA employees – who had left the organisation voluntarily – were contacted and asked to complete a 40-question survey, either through
an automated telephone system or a dedicated website.

The questions were chosen to include ones that had previously been proven to be important to employee attraction and retention, and they also reflected questions that VHA had recently asked existing employees in an internal survey. Around 25% of those asked completed the questionnaire.

What issues did the survey reveal?

The results of the survey provided an insight into the key reasons why employees had left VHA and what actions could be taken to reduce future turnover. The headline results included the following:

  • Three-quarters of the nurses who left VHA moved into another healthcare job
  • 50% of respondents said they left the organisations for negative reasons – and would have stayed with VHA had the conditions been right
  • When asked if something could have been done to help them stay, 40% said yes, but nothing had been done
  • A further proportion said that only weak efforts had been made to retain them.

Further analysis of the survey results revealed the actual factors influencing employees to leave the VHA: 30% blamed poor management and 15% pointed to obstacles that prevented them doing their job.

The management failings that the respondents reported included an uneven distribution of work; a lack of recognition; poor communication and a lack of interpersonal skills in individual managers.

The VHA recognised that all of these factors could have been resolved earlier – particularly before it led people to leave the organisation.

What were the immediate results?

The VHA was able to immediately attract 15 former employees back to the organisation.

The results of the survey have also been widely communicated throughout the organisation to increase levels of engagement and motivation among employees.

In addition, all employees who now leave the organisation voluntarily are automatically asked to complete an exit questionnaire.

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