Cigna on Fostering a Sense of Belonging To Help Organizations Retain Top Talent

Originally published at Cigna ranked No. 33 on The Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021.


Employees in the United States are leaving their jobs in record numbers, and those numbers are growing with each passing month. Many businesses are quickly scrambling to find ways to hold onto their talent, but they don’t always have the clarity needed to understand the underlying causes of the Great Resignation. While there are multiple reasons driving this mass exodus, not feeling valued and a lack of belonging are the top drivers, according to a recent study from global consulting firm, McKinsey & Company.

“These findings are alarming, but come as no surprise,” says Cindy Ryan, Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at Cigna. “Among other things, COVID-19 forced many employees to work for an extended period of time at home, which disrupted relationships with colleagues and hindered the social connectivity that is vital for worker well-being. With all that has happened over the last 20 months, we’re also seeing more and more people take the time to reevaluate how they feel about their work, their place of work and their coworkers.”

As the new survey shows, employees mostly want a fulfilling, inclusive experience at work — which means the traditional transactional incentives employers use to retain talent, such as pay, bonuses and flexible working arrangements, should not be the only levers to consider. Even job security is less of a factor, as 40% of resigning U.S. workers surveyed left their employer without having a new job lined up.

“Today, many people and especially younger professionals are looking for an interactive work experience rather than a transactional one,” Ryan said. “Employees who feel like they are just ‘going through the motions’ and are not a part of a team or organization working towards a common goal are less likely to stay at that job for long. Feeling a sense of purpose or shared mission is critical to retaining top talent.”


The Benefits of Employees Feeling Like They Belong at Work

“To feel included is a basic human need, and important for good physical and mental well-being,” Ryan said. “Given that many people spend most of their time at work, feeling like they belong there is crucial for individual well-being as well as the health and well-being of an organization’s full workforce.”

Research has found that an inclusive work environment can help drive job satisfaction and retention. Workers with the highest sense of belonging are 10 times more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, are 34% more likely to remain with their employer, and 167% more likely to recommend their organization as a great place to work. What’s more, workplace belonging was found to be the most effective driver of employee happiness on the job.

Workplace belonging is also vital for business performance. Studies have shown that people who feel like they belong at their place of work are more engaged and productive on the job than those who feel out of place.

“We’ve learned from Cigna employee surveys that people perform best at work — and drive more satisfaction from doing so — when they are able and encouraged to bring their whole selves to work,” said Ryan. “This is more than having their views and opinions heard, but also being respected for who they are in addition to the work they do.”


Strategies for Creating a Sense of Belonging Among Employees

Employers can help improve employee retention and loyalty, as well as workforce health and productivity, by building a greater sense of belonging in their organizations.

“In some cultures this may be challenging,” said Ryan. “But there is a simple, scalable approach to start that helps level the playing field between employees who are at home or in the office: for meetings that are video-based, ensure that all participants use their own video so virtual attendees can observe body language and other key interactions the same way people physically in the room can.” Treating all employees equally in this way can help them feel like a respected part of the team, Ryan added.

Individual check-ins, by both leaders and colleagues, can also go a long way. Ernst & Young’s Belonging Barometer study found that colleagues checking in with one another, both personally and professionally, was the most effective tactic for fostering a sense of belonging for employees across all generations.

In addition, diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives are an important driver of workforce belonging. This means more than accepting ethnic and cultural representation. Enabling each person to contribute using their individual skills and unique talents, as well as giving them opportunities to develop and grow their careers, helps employees feel connected to their place of work.

One effective means of fostering diversity and inclusion, added Ryan, is establishing employee resource groups (ERGs). “We currently have 11 ERGs at Cigna, many with thousands of members,” she said. “They provide a forum for development, networking, mentoring and advancing their careers within the organization. Most importantly, it helps people feel connected and more comfortable bringing their whole selves to work.”

These groups are usually, but not always, led by employees who share a common characteristic, including gender, ethnicity or even working at home. Managers and other employees who may not identify with the characteristics can also join these groups as an ally. “There truly is strength in numbers,” said Ryan. “These groups can help individual employees feel empowered to share their thoughts, concerns and ideas with the organization, which not only drives a sense of belonging but can also drive business innovation.”

An inclusive work environment demonstrates respect, care and consideration for them as individuals and their entire workforce. When that sense of belonging is missing, people are more likely to seek employment elsewhere. While there are many factors driving the Great Resignation, employers that foster a sense of belonging can help make their organizations more attractive to current and prospective talent.

“A sense of belonging by itself will not solve all of an organization’s retention issues,” said Ryan, “but those issues cannot be addressed without it.”