With the economy coming back, employers are increasingly worried about retaining stressed-out employees who survived cutbacks, pay and benefit reductions, and increased workloads, experts say.

Some employers are taking the opportunity to review their workplace cultures and how they recognize employees, re-examining everything from telecommuting to the structure of rewards programs and charity participation. The major challenge: doing it on a budget.

“Companies are not going to want to spend any money,” said Hank Stringer, principal at Stringer Executive Search of Austin and co-author of “Talent Force: A New Manifesto for the Human Side of Business.”

Twenty-eight percent of workers in a CareerBuilder survey this year said they expected to switch fields in the next two years, looking for more interesting work, pay, chances for advancement or stability.

“Employee satisfaction is really poor, and when job creation starts there’s going to be churn,” said Jimmy Taylor, chief operating officer for Novotus, a Texas employment services firm. “I think most companies just really haven’t started taking that into account yet.”

Restoring pay and benefits might be difficult. “These cuts are down to what the market rate is for today’s environment,” he said.

Minimally, employers should “be talking to employees,” Taylor said.”It’s real critical to keep an open line of communication, find out what the struggles are, address them if they can, and look for solutions: salary, workload,” he said.

Companies most actively engaging employees tend to be ones that already are recognized as attractive workplaces, experts say.

MANAGERS TAG ALONG

At Coca-Cola Enterprises, the bottler and distributor of Coke products, some managers recently spent a week working with employees in the warehouse, on truck routes, and in merchandising and accounts.

The company has always sent managers to work alongside employees, but this year marked the first time it carved out a “shoulder to shoulder” week for all units, said Dani Dahlburg, human resources director for the North Texas region.

Dahlburg, who participated, started her days at 6 a.m. delivering soft drinks with a driver. She then switched to merchandising and stocking shelves, and, finally, working in the warehouse. Workers asked her about their benefit plans; Dahlburg asked them about their jobs.

At Rent A Frog Valet in Fort Worth, schedule flexibility is a key part of the retention equation.

Owner Warren Prescott, 37, has seen his work force shift in the last two or three years from a majority of college students. These days, given the economy, it’s not unusual to find lawyers, accountants and ministers among his 400 valets.

Prescott prefers to hire people he recruited personally or who have been referred to him by other employees.

He lets his employees set their own schedules online. “Once you’re hired, your schedule is never dictated to you,” he said.

Longer-term employees get paid more. And he’s known for bumping up workers’ pay to fill in for bad days. Including tips, his workers can make $12-$20 per hour.

TRYING NEW INCENTIVES

Stringer, the Austin headhunter, already sees companies trying new tactics to retain employees.

More companies are trying incentive-laden compensation packages, once reserved for salespeople, in other parts of their business, Stringer said. Customer service agents who record a high level of satisfaction, for example, might be in for a bonus.

“We’re going to see a lot more of that,” he said.

Some companies are also experimenting with health care coverage, long used as a recruitment tool. For example, one established, growing Austin company provides at-home health care services through nurse practitioners for small monthly fees outside health insurance, Stringer said.

It’s an approach that employers can offer “if they can’t invest as much in insurance,” Stringer said. It could lower an employer’s insurance costs.

And, for the employee, “it’s a great solution for younger people who typically don’t need the kind of insurance older people need,” he said.

Such cultural changes often don’t cost employers more money, Stringer said.

“It’s more of an organizational process that doesn’t require a lot of money being spent,” he said.

Firms that design employee recognition and reward systems report an upswing in business in recent months.

At one such firm, The Miller Co. in Colleyville, Texas,, principal Tom Miller saw clients struggle after cutting recognition programs and holding off raises and bonuses during the downturn, while simultaneously worrying about employees and performance.

One client, a defense contractor, recently audited its recognition programs and found “60 different little pocket programs, little pieces of recognition that were in the organization,” Miller said. “They literally had no clue what they were getting” for the seven-digit figure the company was spending.

“It forces them to do a bit of a cultural audit: As a company, what are we looking for?” Miller said, adding that the client isn’t necessarily looking to cut its recognition budget.

He sees employers as having entered an “engagement era.”

“Companies are working very hard to be engaging places to work,” he said.