Low employee morale is a silent killer of workplace productivity and performance. When employees feel down and disengaged, they might meet deadlines, but the work will be subpar, uninspired, and lacking innovation. What’s more, low employee morale is contagious. Reporting on Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, a book by psychologist Daniel Goleman, Quartz writes:
“One person with a poor work ethic can introduce a kind of social virus to an otherwise cohesive and well-functioning system.”
In other words, one negative teammate can pull down the entire team.
So what do you do when low employee morale strikes? Low morale can be overwhelming to deal with and hard to detect. That’s why we created this guide. Below we’ll walk through the signs that indicate low morale, explore some underlying causes of the issue, and suggest solutions to eliminate the problem before it spreads from just one person to an entire team—or your entire company.
Sign 1: Lack of attendance and engagement
Underlying cause of low morale: no “why” behind the work
Employees do the same things day after day. A project that once inspired someone because of its apparent significance to the company, and maybe even to the world, becomes a series of to-dos that just need to be scratched off before the weekend. Projects turn into rote tasks, and eventually, the reason behind the work fades, taking motivation with it. When this happens, employees don’t engage with work, and sometimes they don’t even show up, because…well, what’s the point?
Inspire them to rekindle the motivation.
It’s never too late to help employees remember why they do what they do, even if you suspect someone might have started the transition to “task-driven automaton.” If you don’t already have a weekly meeting with each person on your team, then set them up. Find out each employee’s key goals for the week and then ask about the reason behind those goals, the “why” driving the “how.”
Ask employees to be honest; explain that you’re not administering a test—you just want to find out how to keep them happy. If the conversation leads to a dead end, and your employee really has a list of items “someone just has to do,” then try to figure out some side projects to reignite passion for the company mission. One remarkable project can wipe out the negative feelings associated with a whole list of brain drainers.
Sign 2: Emotional outbursts or frequent sick days
Underlying cause of low morale: stress
Stressed workers experience an overall reduced sense of wellbeing. This can result in anger, depression, and spikes in cortisol, which can result in high blood pressure and poor immune function. Naturally, unhappy, unwell workers take more sick days than happy workers. Studies have found that people with low wellbeing scores can cost a company up to $28,000 a year in sick-day expenses and lost productivity. Happy and engaged workers, on the other hand, cost only about $840 a year. Plus, additional research demonstrates that people with high-to-medium job strain visit doctors more frequently than less-stressed employees.
Give employees control over their schedules.
To counteract low employee morale resulting from stress, the American Psychological Association recommends giving employees more control over their time at work and even providing the opportunity to set flexible hours. Empowering team members the freedom to set their own hours represents a major morale opportunity. In our recent State of Company Culture Report, we found that “flexible work hours” was rated the third most important perk (87% of respondents said it is “important” or “very important” to them), yet only 46% of respondents said that this perk is available to them.
Sign 3: High turnover
Underlying cause of low morale: lack of reasons to stay
When employees quit, it’s usually because something that once kept them working is, well…no longer working. They’re not having fun, they’re not inspired, and they’re not developing valuable relationships with their coworkers because every day is a struggle.
Unfortunately, turnover, like negativity, can spread through a company like a virus. Once a few employees put in their notice, more employees will likely follow suit.
Focus on teamwork.
Implement some easy tools and strategies to build teamwork in your office, and your employees might just stick around longer. According to a Globoforce survey, workplace friendships retain employees. Most (62%) respondents who reported having 1-5 work friends would turn down an external job offer. Gallup also found that having a “best friend at work” is a leading indicator of engagement.
Sign 4: Dwindling productivity
Underlying cause of low morale: overly involved bosses
When bosses turn into taskmasters, employees often lose any motivation they once had to complete the task. It becomes an eye-roll worthy obligation instead of part of a fulfilling career. When bosses try too hard to make sure everyone does what they’re supposed to, a funny thing happens: people stop doing what they’re supposed to do and productivity drops. A report from the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan suggests that the most productive workers are those under the least supervision.
The same report mentioned above has some additional insights for counteracting the loss of morale caused by too much supervision. Here’s a sampling of findings that suggest the most productive teams:
- Place less direct emphasis upon production as the goal
- Encourage employee participation in the making of decisions
- Are more employee-centered
- Feel that they know where they stand with the company
So to restore morale, discuss new strategies with your company’s team of managers and supervisors. Think of ways to give some autonomy back to employees by involving them in key decisions, checking in less, and focusing on process over product.
Sign 5: Sluggish and apathetic employees
Underlying cause of low morale: burnout
The Office of Recreation & Park Resources, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign isolated three main aspects of burnout:
- Emotional exhaustion
- Reduced personal accomplishment
Employees with burnout might still love their jobs, but they’re so exhausted and overworked that morale plummets.
Address the burnout.
Our friends from Illinois also called out a few potential ways to reduce burnout. Here are some key takeaways on techniques you can use to battle burnout.
- Practice problem-focused coping centered around the time-management aspect of burnout. To implement this approach, discuss the burnout with employees and think of some ways to replace schedule chaos with control.
- Practice emotion-focused coping centered around dealing with the emotions the problem creates. The strategy aims to change the reaction to the problem, making it easier to manage. To implement this approach, ask employees how the burnout makes them feel and work from there.
- Practice relationship-focused coping centered around building relationships to reduce conflict and ease the underlying problem. To implement this approach, pair stressed employees with balanced mentors or buddies to offer support.
- Practice lifestyle-copying focused on improving employee wellbeing and energy levels, thus reducing burnout. To implement this approach, offer meditation classes, wellness coaching, flexible leisure hours, and other similar benefits.
Bonus: This episode of NPR’s Planet Money does a great job explaining the origins of the term burnout in psychology, and how one company has helped reduce it for their employees.
Sign 6: They don’t know what’s going on
Underlying cause of low morale: lack of communication
Sometimes bosses know they have everything under control, and they see no reason to trouble their employees with the details, but often, employees want to be troubled with the details. Employees want to feel like they are “in the know,” and eel they are part of the big company picture.
Create a culture of transparency.
Communicate more often and about more subjects. Most employees would rather tune out irrelevant information than constantly wonder what’s going on. In fact, a TinyPulse engagement survey revealed transparency as the number one factor in employee happiness.
Sign 7: They feel left out
Underlying cause of low morale: you’re not as inclusive as you think
One Deloitte study uncovered a reality gap in workplace inclusion and diversity: While most employers desire an “inclusive” culture, their true inclusive maturity levels remained low according to Deloitte’s model.
The experts at Deloitte also say that the global political climate has more employees thinking about inclusion and considering it a priority. Fairness, engagement, and social justice now cross the average employee’s mind more than ever before.
Use technology to find out, objectively, where you stand on inclusion and diversity.
Deloitte recommends using technology to give the inclusion and diversity culture in your office a deep dive. Tools, such as Diverst, allow companies to track efforts, create talent pool segments to heighten diversity, and provide invaluable empirical insights on workplace diversity.
Sign 8: They don’t have as many ideas as they used to
Underlying cause of low morale: lack of trust and comfort
When employees feel their ideas are not respected, they’ll stop sharing. A lack of respect in ideas can come in many forms, including criticism, inattention, lack of adoption, and ruthless competition during meetings.
Foster a trusting, open environment.
The American Management Association recommends adopting a company-wide philosophy that “there are no bad ideas, only undeveloped ones.” Talk to your managers so they can discuss a new “soft policy” with their teams. As more employees get used to responding to all ideas with openness instead of criticism, the policy will spread, inspiring respect and engagement throughout the company.
Sign 9: Managers take a one-size-fits-all approach.
Underlying cause of low morale: company management is a “strategy” instead of a “person”
After a few years of experience, many managers fall into a management “style” they feel works for them. This style can be helpful in many situations, but it can also cause problems when style becomes dogma. This happens when managers adhere so firmly to a set of established principles that they fail to pay attention to unique people and situations. When managers adopt a cookie-cutter approach, their people can feel neglected and misguided.
Learn the principles of task relevant maturity.
Task relevant maturity entered management vocabulary thanks to Andy Grove, a cofounder of Intel. When employees take a task relevant approach, they evaluate tasks and employees on a case-by-base basis, applying different principles in each scenario.
Here’s a summary of the task relevant management levels Grove outlines in his book, High Output Management.
- If an employee’s experience with a task is low, then managers should provide complete direction, including what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.
- If an employee’s experience with a task is medium, then managers should offer only support so the employee can access help if needed.
- If an employee’s experience with a task is high, then managers should communicate objectives and then stay out of the way.
Grove cautions managers to consider the employee’s experience with the task at hand and not the employee’s overall experience level, as the two may be incongruent. For example, a third-year administrative assistant may be proficient in event planning while a tenth-year designer may not even know how to analyze a vendor contract.
Sign 10: You never hear from employees
Underlying cause of low morale: you’re not seeking their input
If you have no idea how your employees are feeling, then you could be missing the signs of low morale and the insights necessary to improve it. Plus, employees love being heard, so if you’re not even doing a simple survey, then employees might assume you don’t care about their opinions.
Develop a feedback mechanism.
Work with your Human Resource and Communications teams to develop a survey, a suggestion box, and maybe even a Q&A town hall format where employees can ask questions and state their opinions about important company happenings.
Sign 11: Everyone is working longer hours
Underlying cause of low morale: employees feel overworked
When employees put in extra hours, it’s not necessarily a sign of engagement. It could be a sign that you’re giving them too much work and they feel unable to handle it. Furthermore, if employees feel unable to handle their workloads and you don’t realize it, then that means they don’t feel comfortable, or secure enough, to express their concerns. To summarize, if too many people are working too many hours too often, then employee morale could be rapidly sinking.
Analyze workloads and take appropriate action.
Take a deeper look at workloads if employees constantly work long hours. Evaluate what everyone has on their plates according to task urgency and complexity. Can you rearrange due dates and allow more time for the most intricate processes? Plan some time to have candid conversations with employees who put in the most overtime to find out why they’re working so hard. It could have nothing to do with the actual work. For example, the employee might be distracted by noise in an open floor plan, only getting things done when everyone else leaves for the night.
Analyzing workloads might also reveal potential training opportunities. Training takes time away from work in the short term but ultimately helps employees work faster and better. Overtime might be a result of missing technical fluency in a time-saving software or application.
Ballooning workloads can be caused by a number of different factors, but they can be addressed only after an extensive deep dive pinpoints precisely what they are.
Low morale can take time to spot and boost, so don’t get discouraged if your efforts don’t yield instant results. Persistence and constant monitoring will become your best friends in the mission to improve happiness in your office.
How do you prevent low morale at your workplace? Let us know in the comment section below.