How to Recognize — and Fix — Low Employee Morale

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We've all seen the studies on how low employee morale impacts a business, from reduced productivity to increased turnover. Granted, it's a complex problem, with some factors that cause dissatisfaction — such as the current pandemic — beyond the employer's control.

However, there are plenty of things you can do to boost positivity and mitigate negativity within the company. And many don't cost a dime.

Step 1 is reading the warning signs. Step 2 is implementing corrective action.

The sign: They call in sick a lot

Whether due to physical stress or mental burnout, rising absenteeism is a serious concern. Gallup studies have shown that people with low well-being scores can cost a company up to $28,000 a year, compared to only $840 for happy and engaged workers.


Overwork is the number one reason for physical/mental stress-related ailments (which can range from depression and anger to cardiovascular illnesses). Analyze your operations to identify sources of work overload:

  • Staff reductions force the remaining employees to absorb additional duties
  • Employees expected to be on call after hours, especially those working from home
  • An overly demanding manager
  • People afraid to take vacation in case it puts them on the next layoff list
  • Inefficient procedures, inadequate or broken equipment


Take steps to reduce the causes of overwork, such as setting limits on overtime or making productivity quotas more realistic. Other ways to reduce burnout in the workplace include:

  • Flexible leisure hours
  • Training in more efficient work methods or time management
  • Wellness coaching


The sign: They're not cooperative

These behaviors may be as subtle as talking less in meetings, or as blatant as angrily criticizing every decision. Whatever the outward signs, the root of the problem is a lack of interest or engagement in the job. Work that does get turned in is often late and subpar.


Lack of interest in the tasks at hand can stem from a variety of causes:

  • The employee doesn't know what's going on in the company
  • An employee feels like a robot doing the same thing every day
  • No opportunity for growth or advancement within the company
  • Little or no mutual support among team members


You'll probably need to get feedback from employees themselves to determine which condition(s) are negatively influencing morale. Private conversations, company-wide surveys, and even exit interviews are ways to gather this information. Then plan your corrective strategies:

  • More transparency from leadership about company issues and goals
  • More availability of learning and promotion opportunities
  • Team building events


The sign: They lack initiative

If just one or two employees seem to be unwilling to contribute ideas or develop projects without being told what to do every step of the way, you can conclude that the problem is with those individual personalities. However, if you see it throughout a department or the entire organization, it's time to look at management's role.


Demotivation is often the result of a supervisor's micromanagement or discouragement of suggestions. Employees lose all autonomy, with a corresponding reduction in innovation and self-activation.

To restore employee autonomy, a manager can:

  • Check up on employees less
  • Invite employee input in brainstorming ideas and making decisions
  • Emphasize the process rather than the production goal
  • Be more flexible with work schedules or locations


The sign: The team isn't working well together

Beyond the disengagement discussed above, there may be other reasons for lack of communication — or outright dissension — within a team.

One of the biggest is an insufficiently inclusive corporate culture. Allowing discrimination against one team member damages the effectiveness of the entire team. Incidents of bigotry and harassment against POC, LGBTQ, and other minority individuals will obviously be addressed according to company policies. However, you might miss subtler signs that this is happening:

  • Left out of conversations
  • Ideas put forth in meetings consistently ridiculed
  • Passed over for promotion



There's a significant gap between what people say and what they actually do about workplace inclusion, as a Deloitte study found. Your company may need to engage in additional diversity training (including management), as well as modify hiring and team-building protocols.

Low morale is not something you can fix overnight — not least because it may take a while for employees to trust you again. But if you stick with it, you will be rewarded with a more motivated, productive workforce.


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