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6 Min Read

What is brain drain?

Genevieve Michaels

Brain drain sounds like that feeling you get at 4pm on a Friday. The coffee’s not working, the week’s almost over, and your focus is fading fast. Or could it be what happens when you meditate — draining your mind of all worries and thoughts?

Actually, it’s neither. 

Brain drain happens when large groups of skilled workers leave an industry, company, or geographic area at once, draining it of human capital.

It’s a silent killer that can tank innovation, negatively affect performance, and destroy employee morale. Here’s what causes brain drain, how it affects organizations, and what you can do to stop it in its tracks. 

Brain drain 101

Brain drain is more complex, and more specific, than simply losing talented employees. 

In some industries, like hospitality, high turnover is the norm. These firms are always hiring and losing employees, on a seasonal or annual basis. And at any organization, some level of attrition is to be expected. 

Brain drain involves a large group of high-performing professionals, or skilled employees, leaving their jobs at once. This has huge consequences for the companies affected. These departing workers leave behind a vacuum of institutional knowledge, essential skills and creative thinking. 

Those elements are key not just to innovation, but to maintaining normal, expected outputs.

What causes brain drain? 

Brain Drain is a complex phenomenon. But in general, people leave a company or industry in hopes of improving their future, their quality of life, or their career prospects. 

Let’s explore the most common reasons for high employee turnover to better understand why brain drain happens. 


Low compensation is the most obvious reason for brain drain. 

Without a competitive salary, employees simply will not stick around, and while they do, they won’t feel valued or fully engaged. Robust salaries are the simplest way to guard against brain drain.  

Engagement and culture

When employees feel recognized and valued, they stay invested in their workplace and take ownership of their work. 

That’s why a strong corporate culture isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have. Why would anyone want to stay with an organization where they feel like a replaceable cog in a machine? 

Growth opportunities and career progression

Most employees want to know that their hard work will pay off. A lack of opportunity, career progression, and professional growth is a recipe for disengagement and attrition. 

To build loyalty and prevent brain drain, help employees navigate a clear path to success with ample opportunities for learning and mentorship.

Work-life balance 

Work is just one aspect of a fulfilling life. If companies don’t make room for employees’ lives outside of work, the result is widespread burnout and overwork. can lead many employees to start searching for work elsewhere, potentially leaving for employers who offer flexible hours or other perks that help employees find balance.

How brain drain impacts organizations 

Brain drain has a compounding domino effect on organizations affected by it. 

One obvious issue is morale. When they see their co-workers leaving for greener pastures, it’s tough for employees who are left to stay engaged. 

There are also financial implications. Turnover is also expensive at the best of times – it’s costly to attract, hire, and onboard new talent, not to mention the productivity that is lost while new employees get up to speed. Brain drain amplifies that cost exponentially. 

How brain drain affects innovation

Brain drain and innovation are inextricably linked. 

With a strong workforce of skilled employees, companies can move more quickly, think more strategically, and stay at the forefront of their industries. But when their top performers all leave at once, outcomes suffer and businesses lag behind. 

On the flip side, destination organizations benefit from brain drain. These are the companies or industries professionals flock to after leaving their original organizations, who typically see an increase in innovation thanks to this influx of highly skilled workers. 

But gaining workers from brain drain doesn’t necessarily mean keeping them. Destination organizations need to offer compensation, culture, growth opportunities, and work-life balance to retain these workers long-term, rather than becoming a stepping stone.  

Beat brain drain — strategies for knowledge transfer and talent retention 

While brain drain is a complex issue, it is a type of employee turnover. 

Many of the same strategies that combat high turnover can work to address brain drain as well — and many boil down to creating a great employee experience. 

Research shows that employees are more likely to stay at a job where they feel valued. Here are some ways to keep employees engaged, invested, and excited about their work. 

Employee surveys

Check-ins and surveys are part of employee relationship-building. They’re a crucial way for employers to understand how their people are feeling, and take proactive steps to address issues before they lead to brain drain. 

Surveys make employees feel valued and listened to — especially if action is taken to address their responses. 15Five’s engagement surveys help you understand what’s up with your workforce in a sustainable, data-driven way. 

Employee recognition

Would you want to stay in any relationship, professional or personal, where you didn’t feel appreciated?  

Meaningful employee recognition is an essential element of keeping people engaged. Companies should encourage managers to take time out to acknowledge employees who go above and beyond. These simple gestures create a sense of belonging and have a positive effect on retention. 


In addition to searching for and hiring top talent, businesses should learn to nurture the potential greatness that’s hidden in plain sight. 

Invest in a robust training and education program for existing employees, to help keep the talent pool fresh. Not only are you showing your employees you believe in them, but you’re future-proofing the skills of your entire organization. 

Engagement stops talent from draining away

To beat brain drain, employers need to build strong relationships with their workforce. Are their people satisfied? Do they take pride in their work? Are they optimistic about the future? 

It’s hard to monitor engagement like this at scale. That’s where 15Five’s engagement assessment tools come in. They track, store, and organize data about how your people are doing — so you get a big-picture of all your engagement, both at any moment and over time. 

With 15Five, you keep your finger on the pulse of your organization, staying aware of how you can better meet your employees’ needs and continue to provide a positive employee experience. It’s a comprehensive, all-in-one platform to collect feedback, facilitate conversations, and level-up performance across your organization. 

Learn more about 15Five’s engagement assessment tools today.