The Great Resignation has spawned a cottage industry of experts arguing over exactly who is quitting and why. Is it mostly service workers looking for better pay, or burnt out office staff? How many people are quitting to start their own businesses? How much of it is about the dire state of child care?

These pieces are fascinating, but if you're an employer worried about staffing your business, they're also a distraction from your main concern. What employers want to know is simple: How do you get your people to stick around? 

Helpfully, all the discussion about why people are quitting has spawned plenty of concrete suggestions for employers. Flexibility, meaning, a healthy culture, clear opportunities for career progression, and, as ever, decent pay and humane scheduling have all been flagged as important for retention by experts. But a new study underlines the power of one of the simplest factors of all: gratitude. 

'Thank you' matters more than you might think. 

For the study, recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the researchers focused on one of the pandemic's hardest-hit professions, health care workers. One in five health care workers have left the profession and those who remain, by all accounts, face crushing burnout. If ever a group was in need of a good retention intervention, it is doctors and nurses right now. 

So what massive policy shift or radical shift did the researchers try? Nothing fancier than a bit of gratitude from those they served. The team asked several hundred doctors and nurses at hospitals in China and Singapore to report on how much gratitude they received from patients and how it impacted their energy levels and mood. They also surveyed the workers' spouses about how conditions at the hospital spilled over into their home life

The team found, unsurprisingly, that thankful patients make for happier health care workers with happier partners. What surprised them was the magnitude of the effect.  

"We found that receiving gratitude energized health care workers on the job and, significantly, improved their family life by making them better spouses. Gratitude, it would appear, has greater impact on the recipient than what many might think," the authors report on Insead knowledge

This isn't the first time researchers have shown the shockingly big effects of a little gratitude. For an earlier study, a team led by Wharton's Adam Grant invited an employee of a company to come and speak to the call center workers whose efforts generated the sales that ultimately paid his salary. After hearing their colleague voice his gratitude for their hard work, the call center workers' revenue generated shot up 20 percent per shift. 

How to do gratitude right 

A thank-you from someone who concretely benefits from your work might seem like a small thing, but its impacts on energy and performance can be profound. And so many workers need a lift in those areas after two years of pandemic chaos. "We believe our findings can be extrapolated to workers in other essential services such as public transportation, sanitation, delivery and food," the researchers write. 

The key to wringing the most benefit from gratitude is to find ways to weave it into the daily rhythm of work. "Annual grand gestures such as International Doctors' or Nurses' Day are important but not enough. For gratitude to work its magic and give essential workers the energy to go on, the key is to practice it regularly," the researchers claim. 

So if you want to keep your staff happy and around, perhaps it's time to think creatively about how to feed them a regular diet of customer gratitude. Could you send that great testimonial you received around to the whole company? Maybe a wall of thanks where customers can tack up words of appreciation would go over well? Or how about taking a page out of Grant's playbook and bringing in a customer to talk about how much your team's work means to them? 

Interventions like these might seem simple (and no one is suggesting they can paper over exploitative working conditions), but the latest research suggests the difference between hiring headaches and keeping your best people around could be as simple as a regular thank-you from customers.