How to Detect & Correct Low Morale in the Workplace

Businesswomen colleagues disputing at corporate office meeting,

Low morale is contagious, and it can spread through a company like a virus, killing productivity and ultimately turning your office into a terrible place to work. Even in a remote work environment, low morale can become an issue. In fact, without being able to see employees and feel the negativity, low morale can quickly get out of control.

So how do you know if morale is slipping, and what can you do to get it back on track? Here are 5 warning signs, along with simple strategies to help correct it.

5 Warnings Signs of Low Morale

In every workplace, employees are going to become frustrated or discouraged on occasion, but low morale is a deeper, more persistent negativity that often manifests in one or more of these 5 ways.

1. Poor Performance or Work Quality

Companies suffering from low morale may notice that productivity is declining, or experience an increase in customer complaints. Employees may be missing deadlines or making more mistakes. This can happen when employees have too much on their plates, or they lack proper training. Conversely, employees may simply be bored, or feel their assignments don’t make the best use of their skills. And, sometimes, low morale and poor performance are simply the result of employees feeling unappreciated and undercompensated.

How to Correct It: First you’ll need to get to the root cause. The solution may involve better managing workloads, or shifting projects to suit each individual’s strengths and preferences. It may mean developing a better onboarding and training process, or offering employee recognition, low-cost awards, and bonuses for their achievements.

2. Emotional Outbursts or Frequent Sick Days

An increase in absenteeism or noticeably angry or depressed employees is often a sign of low morale caused by stress. Overly stressed employees tend to have higher blood pressure, increased cortisol levels and decreased immune health. As a result, they take more sick days and are more likely to experience emotional outbursts, such as crying or yelling. They may also become impatient and complain frequently, even if only about seemingly mundane things, like the printer not working or the smell of a co-worker’s lunch.   

How to Correct It: Give employees more control over their time at work by offering flexible work hours. More importantly, analyze and manage workloads. Regularly check in with employees to make sure they aren’t feeling overwhelmed, and make adjustments if they are.

3. Lack of Participation or Enthusiasm

Employees suffering from low morale may be unwilling to commit to new assignments or contribute to team discussions. They may not have as many ideas as they used to, and meetings may become eerily silent. Employees may wear chronically long faces, appear sluggish, apathetic, even zombie-like, and use phrases like “what’s the point” or “nobody cares”.

In this case, the underlying cause of low morale is either burnout, a lack of trust, or both. Employees with burnout may still love their jobs, but they’re too exhausted and overworked to stay engaged. Likewise, when employees feel their ideas are not respected, either due to criticism, inattention, or lack of adoption or change, they tend to stop sharing.

How to Correct It: Make sure employees can take a break and recharge when they need it. Offer employees ample holidays and paid time off and not only encourage them to take it, but make it easy for them to do so by ensuring their responsibilities are covered while they are out.

To make employees feel that they are being heard and that their ideas and opinions are respected, adopt a policy of “no bad ideas” to encourage openness, instead of criticism. Develop a feedback mechanism, such as a suggestion box or monthly Town Hall meetings, and address all feedback. Whether that means answering a question, making a plan and taking action, or explaining why a particular issue or suggestion cannot be resolved or implemented at this time.

4. Employee Conflicts or Jealousy

If you notice an uptick in co-worker fault finding, tattle-tailing, and complaints that team members aren’t carrying their load, this is another indication that the team is suffering from low morale. Employee arguments may even break out, or managers may notice an opposition to authority. This is usually caused by a lack of accountability.

How to Correct It: Clearly explain expectations, policies and procedures, and immediately address poor performance or lack of adherence to the established guidelines. Remember, accountability has a trickledown effect, so it’s important for managers to lead by example. Complete tasks assigned to you by the agreed upon deadline, be responsible for the success of your team and make the effort to support them if needed, and when you schedule meetings, respect everyone else’s time by showing up prepared and on time (and don’t cancel at the last minute.)

5. Gossip and Misinformation

When the rumor mill is running rampant and there’s a lot of misinformation circling, it usually means you’ve got low morale. This typically happens when businesses fail to communicate and share information proactively with employees. Management makes the mistake of thinking that they’ve got everything under control, and there’s no need to bother their employees with the details. When, in reality, employees want to be bothered with the details.

How to Correct It: Create a culture of transparency. Communicate more often, about more subjects, and remember that employees would rather tune out irrelevant information than constantly wonder what’s going on. Be quick to share pertinent updates and be honest with your workers about any changes that may impact their roles or the company. When employees have timely and accurate information, they’ll be less likely to fill in the blanks with their own imagination.

Other Ways to Boost Low Morale

It’s one thing for an employee to have a bad day, but when morale is low, there is often a persistent, negative attitude across an entire team or company. If left to fester, it can actually lead to employee turnover – another tell-tale sign that morale is bad.

For more ways to reduce employee turnover and boost office morale, check out these Employee Retention tips for Small Businesses and 8 Ways to Proactively Combat Low Morale.

Times of crisis (including 2020’s Coronavirus pandemic) can trigger bouts of low morale. These tips for leading effectively in times of crisis can be game changers if you feel your team is struggling.