Thursday, 9 February 2012

Attrition in the army: why do so many leave during training?

Here's another report from the 2012 DOP conference.

The British army loses nearly one third of its recruits to attrition, many leaving during the first 14 weeks of training. Its size means reducing this figure by a percentage point could save almost £750,000. MOD psychologist Natalie Fisher investigated the nature of this early attrition, taking a multi-layered approach, speaking to recruits at various stages around the training period.

In a series of five focus groups, Fisher drilled deeply into the experiences of successful trainees. She found that the majority had considered leaving at one point or other, due to missing their families or dissatisfactions, such as over basic wage levels. The reasons for pushing on were diverse, but commonly included the desire to serve overseas and a sense of letting the family down.

The focus groups identified a critical period around week seven of training, which proved particularly challenging for leavers: this was the time when they were least likely to feel like a soldier or a sense of belonging. It's probably no coincidence that this period coincides with the weekend home and the chance to catch up with the world left behind...

Interviewing recruits who left during training, Fisher found negative reasons for joining up, such as ‘no career options’, were more frequent than for those who stayed through training. The latter group more often cited being driven by expectations and having family support. The interviews with leavers also identified they were much more likely to feel homesickness from the first week in training onward. Fisher pointed out that the psychological literature on this is problematic, as it focuses on students and children away at camp, and may not be generalisable. Certainly, some of the recommendations from that research, such as ‘get enough sleep’, aren’t entirely compatible with the training experience. However, the advice to establish solid routines and ensure access to someone to speak with are pertinent.

The study raises many questions: for instance, of those who were recruited but never even made it to training, some had concrete reasons, such as illness or family need, but one third simply changed their mind at the last minute. Why? And Fisher spoke to training instructors, who identified some perceived characteristics of those who left, such as a dislike of discipline, but conceded many exits were simply unpredictable. Were they not getting something they were looking for in the role?  Like most organisations, the British army want to warn off applicants who would be a poor fit, but also prevent avoidable attrition of people who could have ultimately been a success in the role. In such high-stakes positions, this is a true balancing act.


  1. Any chance you could post a reference and a link to the full study?

  2. Hi Anonymous - unfortunately this is part of our series from the DOP conference (this could be clearer so I've amended the start of the entry), so this work is currently unpublished.

    I will make sure readers find out when the work is available in some form of text, by linking from the site when that happens.