Management; Center for Ethical Business Cultures

Date of this version


Document Type

Working Paper


Identity, wellbeing, retention, turnover


Explanations of turnover from extant management research focus on the what (content) and how (process) of turnover. This study explores the why (meaning) to employees of quitting or staying at an employing organization, in order to add a new layer to our understanding of retention and turnover. Analysis of data from in-depth interviews with leavers and stayers, both post hoc and in situ, using grounded theory methods, reveals identity and psychological wellbeing assessment sensemaking cycles, which occur periodically or when threat to core elements of identity and wellbeing across life domains is perceived. Core elements of identity and wellbeing include purpose, trajectory, relatedness, expression, acceptance, and differentiation (PTREAD). Perceived threat to PTREAD elements across life domains leads to coping, often with varying levels of psychophysiological strain, and re-assessments, often in repeated cycles. Successful coping and lack of threat to PTREAD elements result in retention. Unsuccessful coping with threat to PTREAD elements results in retention while repeated occur, and in voluntary turnover. Cycles of unsuccessful coping deplete resources over time, escalating strain and contributing to turnover. Overall, these findings suggest that from the perspective of the actors “being retained” or “turning over,” retention and turnover are part of a quest for positive, congruent identity and holistic psychological wellbeing. Implications for research on retention, turnover, identity, wellbeing, and psychophysiology in organizations, as well as practical implications, are discussed.

Citation/Other Information

An early version of this work was presented at the 2010 Academy of Management annual meeting in Montreal, and a version based on additional data collection was selected as a featured top poster and presented at the 2012 Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology annual meeting in San Diego.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.