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As the world emerges, at long last, from the COVID-19 pandemic, a record number of parents will become empty-nesters, many of whom are still very much in the workforce. There is the usual cohort of parents who see their youngest child off to university, or to other pathways in the “real world”, the result of which is a couple or single parent left alone at home – the “empty nest.” But the global pandemic has meant that many grown children have delayed leaving home and/or “boomeranged” back home while they waited out lockdowns and participated in online education. With life now getting back to normal and the return to in-person learning, the empty nest is now a reality for parents of these children as well.

For many parents, much of their personal identity and life purpose is naturally tied to the raising and care of their children. After 20 or more years of raising children, the loss can cause parents to feel a significant void. Some may feel a massive sense of relief and joy (“Yes, I’m finally free!”), while others will feel a deep sense of loss – even grief. And while the prospect of paying university fees for a few more years might, for some, serve as a motivating force to keep working and earning money, many may start to question why and what they are working for.

The transition could trigger the exit of experienced employees from organisations – potentially a disaster for HR teams who are already facing talent management and succession planning challenges – yet there are few initiatives directly supporting this demographic, begging the question, how can businesses keep empty nesters engaged?

New career motivations
For most, the empty nest stage tends to coincide with the “second half” of life, a time when it’s normal to shift one’s mindsight from one of achievement and accumulation of wealth to service and meaning. Or, put another way, moving from success to significance. Until this point many employees will be naturally focused on working their way up the corporate ladder and maximising their next pay rise in order to fund life. Personal ambition can, at times, seem more important than the sense of purpose and meaning when one is saving to put a deposit on a first house and paying costs related to raising children. But deep down we all long for meaningful work in our careers and this fact will often become more recognisable to empty-nesters.

The impact of “Life events” on employee performance and motivation is nothing new for HR managers, but marriage, child birth and death tend to garner the most attention. The transition to empty-nester can go unnoticed in the workplace, yet the emotional effects can have a profound impact on individuals and ultimately affect their long-term ambitions. There is a real opportunity for the HR team to help to harness new ambitions, with training and additional responsibility, as well as support changing goals with flexible working and employee benefits that align with new lifestyle priorities.

Appealing to new employee mindsets
It’s nothing new for HR departments to consider whether or not a current role is a good fit for an employee and to assess to what degree an employee is feeling fulfilled in his or her role. Any organisation benefits from happy and content employees who are living out their core values, however purpose and meaning becomes even more critical to empty nesters. And with potentially fewer commitments on the home front, employers may even benefit from a renewed sense of vigour and more time spent at work, so long as an employee is engaged in work which they believe to be fulfilling and meaningful.

Core values act as a driving force for both individuals and organisations giving a sense of purpose and direction. Comparing how one is living and working in relation to clearly defined values is key to living a happy life, both personally and professionally. However, individuals can find it hard to define their own values, which means they often feel they are not making a difference and lack direction.

HR departments can support employees at all stages of their careers in helping them to articulate and define their core values. Aligning corporate values with employees’ own passions can help to motivate these individuals and give them the sense of working towards something greater than themselves to leave a lasting legacy. Employees approaching the empty-nest stage of life are often more open and honest with themselves when it comes to connecting with their values. Conducting core value workshops and coaching sessions are simple ways to take action and support employees on this front.

Time for personal development
In the spirit of the motto “a change is as good as a rest”, another way that HR departments can support empty-nesters is through a robust sabbatical policy. Taking a break or sabbatical can be a great way for empty nesters to disengage, re-evaluate their priorities and return to work with renewed sense of purpose and outlook. A paid or partially-paid sabbatical, depending on an employee’s seniority, can help with staff retention, happiness levels and stimulate creative thinking. Some employees, if offered the chance, will happily agree to take unpaid time off, as long as certain base-level benefits such as insurances are maintained. To make the most of this time, an employee should be encouraged to set certain goals to achieve during a sabbatical. Travel with a purpose, working for a charity or work on a passion project are all potential positive uses of time off.

A sabbatical supported with some front-end coaching and regular check-ins could form the basis for the returning employee to begin a brand new season of renewed focus and productivity for the organisation. There is a risk that the employee leaves at the end of a sabbatical, however, it is better than retaining a disengaged and unfulfilled worker.

Giving employees the opportunity to work outside of their usual department and daily tasks can act as a break, while continuing to contribute to the business. This could be in the form of leading special projects, which offers professional development, helps to re-energise individuals and introduces fresh thinking to solve problems. They could also be deployed to directly support the HR function. Empty-nesters usually have a wealth of working experience and could add great value to training and mentoring programmes, helping to induct more junior colleagues and encouraging cross-team networking.

With a record number of students heading to university (UCAS) and youngsters moving back out of home to be closer to the newly re-opened office, higher-than-ever number of employees becoming empty nesters this year, wise employers will look for ways to engage and support their staff as they navigate what is likely to be an emotional and soul-searching time of life.

    Author, financial advisor and coach, Chris is a former partner at EY passionate about solving challenges related to family, money and career. His debut book, Fly – An Empty Nester's Quest for the Holy Grail of Life, Love and Longevity, is available now.

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