3 Signs of Low Employee Morale and How to Counteract Them

By Robert Half on April 7, 2020 at 12:30pm

When employee morale — aka the mood in your workplace — is running high, it can seem like there’s nothing your team can’t accomplish. Your workers are super-productive, they have a positive outlook and their work quality is stellar. But when employee morale is low, work output and outcomes can suffer, and trying to motivate your staff members can feel like pushing boulders uphill.

Low morale in the workplace isn’t necessarily a byproduct of a lackluster or toxic office environment. Unexpected, dramatic change is often a factor for a downturn in employee morale. Take the COVID-19 outbreak, for example, which has been extremely disruptive for businesses and their workers. Many companies have had to turn their workforces into all-remote teams with little notice — and without a clear timeline for when normal business practices might resume.

Obviously, many workers are feeling uncertain about the future right now, and that can make it difficult for them to focus on their jobs. If they’re trying to navigate a new remote work situation while also juggling personal demands, like caring for children, it can be even harder to stay engaged in, and upbeat about, work.

For managers, bolstering employees’ confidence and mood can be a daunting task in the current climate, especially if you are managing a remote team. However, it’s critical to meet the challenge of low employee morale head-on. That’s not only because current projects could be at risk of falling below the quality bar or by the wayside. There’s a longer game to consider: Low morale, if left to fester, could lead to top talent leaving your organization right when your business needs all hands on deck.

Strategies to keep up morale in the workplace

How do you know if employee morale is sliding? Here’s a quick look at three telltale signs to watch for in your team members — along with some simple strategies for counteracting these issues. Again, keep in mind that many of these signs may be rising due to the COVID-19 situation, and not because your workers are truly dissatisfied with their jobs or with the organization. But it’s still important to acknowledge any employee morale issues promptly, just as you would under normal work conditions.

Telltale sign #1: A persistent, negative attitude

Sometimes, it’s hard for employees to conceal a foul mood after they’ve had a bad day at work. And even normal levels of work-related stress can give rise to frustration and discouragement. These are typical reactions to temporary problems. But a persistent, negative attitude — especially from someone who has otherwise been a positive force in your workplace — is a big red flag signaling severely deflated morale. A lack of willingness to cooperate with teammates or commit to new assignments is another clear warning sign of trouble.

How to address it: The issue dragging down an employee’s morale may be simple or complex, but the road to addressing it starts at the same place: identifying what the problem is. Set up a time to talk one-to-one with your staff member. If you’re working remotely, schedule a video call so that the discussion is face-to-face. Ask your employee if the problem weighing them down is work-related or personal. If it’s the first, you can then suggest strategies for mitigating the issue. If it’s the latter, encourage your employee to take the time necessary to address the problem. Then, make arrangements to ensure their responsibilities are covered in the interim.

Telltale sign #2: Poor work performance and quality

Low morale can impact an employee’s — or an entire team’s — work performance and quality. Missed deadlines, a high number of mistakes, or a decline in service levels can all be side effects of low morale in the workplace. Early signals that work performance and quality may be at risk include employees’ waning enthusiasm for or interest in their assignments.

Boredom is often a factor for a lack of initiative that can lead to poor work outcomes and dent morale. Your employees may be eager for new challenges. Or, on the other side of the coin, they may be feeling overwhelmed. Workers who have been thrust into a new remote work situation may be having trouble adapting, for example. They might be feeling distracted or unmotivated while working at home, and thus, are struggling to meet their usual work standards.

How to address it: Foster an ownership environment in which employees know they are expected to take the initiative to solve problems in creative ways and demonstrate leadership. This is a vision you need to communicate clearly to your staff, as it is not likely to happen without you setting an example and providing guidance. That’s especially true if your team is working remotely.

Have regular one-to-one meetings with your team members to gauge how they feel about the type and amount of work they are being asked to manage. Do they feel burdened by their workload? Or do they feel their assignments aren’t making the best use of their skills? Once you know what your employees need to be successful, and which projects appeal to them most, you can make adjustments.

Employee recognition is another way to drive high work performance and quality. Offer your staff members timely praise, low-cost awards and, if possible, spot bonuses for their achievements. It’s easy to forget to express your sincere appreciation to your employees when stress and workloads are running high, and you’re operating in an uncertain environment. But rest assured, such recognition can go a long way toward raising the needle on morale in the workplace.

Telltale sign #3: An overactive grapevine

Communication is always essential for successful staff management — and for bolstering employee morale during times of change. If you do not take a proactive, thoughtful and strategic approach to sharing information with your staff, you risk letting the grapevine for gossip run wild. Don’t think that the grapevine won’t run rampant in a remote work environment. In fact, misinformation could spread even faster. And, before you know it, employee morale has taken a hit.

How to address it: Be quick to share pertinent updates with your team members, and make sure all employees who need to be in the loop on key announcements hear from you firsthand. Also, be honest with your workers about any changes that may impact their roles or the company. Armed with timely and accurate information, employees will be less inclined to fill in the blanks with their imagination. To help keep communication flowing, institute an open-door policy (a virtual one, if needed). Let staff members know they can approach you at any time to ask questions or express their concerns.

It’s more important than ever for managers to monitor the level of morale in the workplace. Addressing problems promptly, and effectively, will help ensure your workers maintain a positive outlook and remain as productive as possible during this uncertain time. The attention you give to buoying employee morale can help you fortify relationships with your staff and improve retention, too.

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