Employee morale: One-third unhappy

By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/24/2003

Been getting the feeling morale is low at work? Way low? Well, here’s a study that found one-third of employees are unhappy at their work.

And they’re not unhappy in the ho-hum or blasé sense either. People feel intensely about work, according to the study of 1,100 employees by Towers Perrin and market researcher Gang and Gang.

“They feel there are barriers in the workplace that prevent them from doing the kinds of jobs that they want to do,” said Bruce Near, managing director of Towers Perrin in Canada.

“Part of it is the heavy workload as organizations have downsized. But it goes beyond that. It’s the sense of lack of control over their environment. It’s arbitrary deadlines. It’s boring work. In some cases, it’s the interaction that they have with their immediate supervisors.”

The study noted 40 to 45 per cent of the workforce is “at risk” of leaving for another job when the economy turns around. They’re likely just doing the minimum until that opportunity comes along, according to the study. Of this discontented group, 28 per cent are actively looking for a new job or planning to leave.

“Equally disturbing,” said the report, is the finding that a quarter of the discontented plan to remain with the current employer. This would suggest that “a company could have a segment of disaffected workers just ‘hanging on’ to their jobs and, potentially, adversely affecting others with their negative attitudes.”

The survey not only identified the areas people are unhappy about, it also asked respondents to quantify the importance of each of these areas. By far, the most negative aspect of the job is workload. The next four negative areas are insufficient support by management, concerns about the future, a lack of challenge, and insufficient recognition.

The survey also asked workers to identify areas that are important to them in an ideal work environment. The results show employees put the most value on a sense of self-worth, the results of their work, the people they work for and work with, the rewards for their contribution, and the level of stimulation in their work environment.

Employers are aware of the negative mood of their workforce, but they often don’t understand the reasons behind employees’ disengagement.

“I think in the past, some employers have frankly put their attention on the wrong things. They’ve proceeded with some of the programs and initiatives on the basis of what they think employees are looking for. For example, when we talk to senior executives, they tend to over-emphasize senior management, whereas employees put emphasis on their interaction with immediate managers.

“Executives tend to underestimate the importance of recognition, relative to what employees said was important to them. And it’s not about pay. It’s about plain old recognition. The day-to-day feedback on the work that they’re doing. The odd pat on the back. The honest and open negative feedback where there’s room for improvement.”

However, nowhere in the study would one find a recommendation for employers to address the workload problem. Referring to this omission, Towers Perrin’s global practice leader Charlie Watts said reducing workload is not feasible advice for employers.

“Given the economic challenges and the competitive pressures, it’s unlikely that most companies can simply take work away. The reality is everyone is being asked to do more with less. We’re reluctant to announce a finding that companies should give less work to their employees to make work a less negative experience,” said Watts.

“Since that’s impossible, we look instead at the other factors that drove positive emotions. Things like self-development, connecting employees with the results they achieve — those are things that we feel companies can influence.”

Best-selling author and HR consultant Barbara Moses, however, noted employers can’t ignore workload concerns and still hope for an emotionally engaged workforce.

“The highly skilled are going to say, ‘I’m renting you my skills, I’m not selling you my soul. And if you’re not going to respect me as a human being, I’m going to walk,’” she said.

“And respecting employees as human beings means giving them recognition when it’s warranted. It means not giving them unreasonable amounts of work so that they can have a life outside of work.”

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