The Fitness Zone

The #1 reason your employees will leave you – and what to do about it

Jan 20, 2023 | by Alisha Smith

As the fitness industry’s war for talent gets fiercer, we need to put as much effort into becoming the place where employees want to be as where customers want to be, writes industry educator and advisor Alisha Smith.

In 2007, I took a 30% pay cut from my successful personal training job to take an entry-level educator role with Australian Fitness Network. The reason for doing so was simple: I craved the kind of development opportunities that didn’t feel available to me in my existing position.

With industry legend Nigel Champion at its helm, Network was an aspiring polymath’s dream come true. Nigel’s generosity in handing out opportunities to green fitness professionals like me was matched only by his warmth and authenticity.

He took calculated chances on us all by saying ‘yes’ to requests and offering responsibilities beyond our existing levels of experience and expertise, and he shared his wisdom, knowledge and advice liberally.

Holding on to your best employees is critical for people-facing industries such as fitness.

Throughout the 12 years I worked at Network, I gladly stayed shoulder-to-shoulder with many colleagues who were similarly aged and had as many years of service under their belts. To retain a cohort of enthusiastic employees who were all in their 20’s and 30’s for such a long time was unheard of in fitness.

For those of us inside Network’s walls, this low staff turnover was unsurprising: its culture, its people and its ‘all hands on deck’ teamwork ethic were second-to-none. We all wanted to be there – for each other, for Nigel, and for Ryan Hogan, who would later become Network’s CEO – but also for ourselves, because Network invested in us as individuals.

Becoming an employer of choice

Fast forward to 2022 and our industry is feeling the labour shortage pinch. Many gyms operate on skeleton staffing and struggle to retain those they attract. As the spiralling global economic downturn continues to add pressure to businesses of all kinds, holding on to your best employees is critical for people-facing industries such as fitness. Whether you’re a large franchised operation, or a two-person outfit with your eyes set on expansion, your people are the heart of your business.

You must first look at your employees as the customers of your workplace

The strength of community that contributes heavily to customer retention relies on the relationships that your long-term team members can forge. Their commitment to continuing to do so depends on your commitment to their growth and development.

Simply put, in order to continue to service your paying customers, you must first look at your employees as the customers of your workplace. If you invest in your employees as people first, you’ll become known as a workplace of choice1.

The competition for talent by the numbers

  • 3.9% unemployment in Australia is currently the lowest it’s been in almost 50 years2
  • The number one reason employees leave a job is lack of development and growth1,3
  • 30% is the estimated figure added to the wage bill of business when accounting for vacancy costs, learning curve-related loss of productivity, and hiring costs3
  • 3 out of 4 employee turnovers are preventable by employers3

Drivers of employee engagement

If competition for talent is one of your top challenges, you’re not alone. Fitness industry skills shortages are at an all-time high4 and are likely to get worse before they get better. It’s not only disengaged staff who are at risk of jumping ship, either. World-leading management consulting firm, Gallup, has identified that some of your highest-performing employees may be miserable5, which makes them ripe for the picking by head hunters – even if they’re not actively looking for a new role6.

This is especially true for your best female employees, who have never been more likely to resign than they are now7. They’re asking for higher salaries, better conditions and, perhaps most importantly, investment in their growth.

It’s not only disengaged staff who are at risk of jumping ship

At Fuel Women’s Fitness Business Summit in April this year, Hema Prakash, Mindbody’s Vice-President and Managing Director – APAC, shared a practice that many businesses could learn from. Each quarter, Hema taps three or four staff on the shoulder and asks why they are still in the same role.

Why is this such a powerful practice? Because it’s far easier to let seemingly content staff continue to be seemingly content without ever driving them forward to bigger and better achievements. After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?


Gallup’s key drivers of employee engagement8 show that a sense of clear purpose, opportunities for development, a caring leader, ongoing conversations, and a focus on individual strengths help to improve not only employee engagement itself, but also customer satisfaction and company profits9.

With well over 1000 staff under her purview, Hema could easily dismiss the shoulder tap practice as being too time-consuming, but she understands the value of the ripple effect it creates.

Ask better questions to get better insights and make better plans

  1. Don’t assume that quiet staff are satisfied staff. Ask the same question about their satisfaction levels in a number of different ways: Are you happy? Are you satisfied? Are you challenged? If you rate your job satisfaction out of 10, what would it be and why? What would cause that score to rise? What would cause it to drop?
  2. Get genuinely curious about who they are and what is important to them.
  3. Help them figure out their strengths (either through tools such as Gallup Strengths Finder or the use of a credentialed coach who understands personalised strengths).
  4. Work together to determine ways those strengths can be capitalised upon within the company.
  5. Have conversations about ways their strengths can be developed further, internally or externally.

The strategy of engagement

When I eventually left Network in 2017 to fully commit to the studio I had opened 3 years prior, I took a remarkable number of leadership tools with me. The most important of all was the commitment to investing in my staff.

Alongside my business partner, I did this by providing continual access to upskilling the ‘hard’ skills they would need to excel in their roles and by actively looking for ways to support their development as individuals. I wanted them to grow through the work, not for the work. I wanted to help them develop so exponentially that they outgrew me and our business, and would go on to share that same approach to leadership in their future endeavours.

We did this by providing continual access to upskilling the ‘hard’ skills they would need to excel

That strategy never let us down. Our staff retention was exceptional, even when we couldn’t afford great wages or we made mistakes (and boy, did I make some big ones). 

We continually ask ourselves how to differentiate our brands and offerings from the countless others vying for our customers’ attention. Yet as the war for talent gets fiercer, we need to put equal effort into the quest to become places where employees want to be. 

Perhaps start by asking yourself: If I look beyond the money entering their bank account, how does this company meaningfully contribute to the lives of the people who work here? And if you don’t know for sure, then ask directly or engage someone who can. 

Our staff retention was exceptional, even when we couldn’t afford great wages or we made mistakes

Somewhat paradoxically, I always understood that investing in my employees’ growth would likely lead to them leaving for bigger and better things. I also always hoped that they would. To me, it always felt infinitely better to know that someone left because I invested in them rather than knowing they left because I didn’t.

FUEL Women’s Fitness Business Summit, April 2023

More than ‘just another summit’, FUEL is an opportunity to ​collaborate with like-minded individuals, reignite your passion for your craft and change the trajectory of your business.

Join Alisha and fitness business thought leaders and innovators in Sydney on 27 April 2023 to take the next steps to becoming the best business operator you can be.

Find out more at


Alisha Smith

Alisha Smith

Alisha is an industry advisor and presenter with a diverse career spanning 17 years across a range of globally recognised fitness organisations. As Learning and Development Manager at Australian Fitness Network, Alisha and her team were responsible for curriculum development, delivery, and conference programming that qualified or up-skilled many thousands of fitness industry professionals. Today, Alisha is the co-founder of Fuel Women's Fitness Business Summit, a personal and professional development event for entrepreneurs and leaders in fitness. She brings her background as an endorsed personalised health coach into her strategic innovation and leadership work, working with fitness professionals and enterprises to help them capitalise on their unique and inherent biological strengths. Alisha is also a Master Instructor for global fitness education company, Animal Flow, and editor of its digital publication, The Flowist.

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Disclaimer: Where Certificate III in Fitness, Cert III/Cert 3, or Fitness Coach is mentioned, it refers to SIS30321 Certificate III in Fitness. Where Certificate IV in Fitness, Cert IV/Cert 4, or Personal Trainer is mentioned, it refers to SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Master Trainer Program™ is mentioned, it refers to Fitness Essentials and SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Master Trainer Plus+ Program™ is mentioned, it refers to SIS30321 Certificate III in Fitness and SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Certificate IV in Massage or Cert IV/Cert 4 is mentioned, it refers to HLT42021 Certificate IV in Massage Therapy. Where Diploma of Remedial Massage is mentioned, it refers to HLT52021 Diploma of Remedial Massage.