If you’ve paid any attention to pandemic-era news, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the Great Resignation. This phenomenon stems from employees being more willing than ever to quit jobs they don’t like. Fret not, however ― small business owners have the power to create better working conditions for their teams. Boosting employee satisfaction starts with identifying miserable employees and taking proactive steps to help them feel happier at work.
Below are three critical signs of an unhappy workforce.
Unhappy employees tend to leave their organizations ― but the mass exodus can be quiet. To determine if you’re leaking employees at a high rate, check your human resources data. Quantitative data is more effective than anecdotal evidence for accurately identifying employee turnover.
“This idea that employees are going to show up and be so disgruntled all the time is ridiculous,” said Kim Crowder, founder and chief executive officer of Kim Crowder Consulting. “These are folks who have to make a living … so they may be showing up a certain way, but they also may be going home every night and looking for a way out of the organization.”
Although remote work has become more widespread, it comes with challenges like asynchronous communication and virtual meetings. Miriam Groom ― leader, human capital management at KPMG Canada ― suggests paying attention to how employees show up to virtual meetings to assess their happiness.
“If you’re having a lot of people doing hybrid work, when you are checking in with them [via video conference], are they turning on their video when you’re speaking to them?” Groom asked.
While you shouldn’t pressure employees to turn on their video, you may have a problem if you never get face time with them. “If you don’t have any face-to-face interaction [and] they’re not turning their video on a lot of the time, that’s a sign they’re unhappy, that they’re probably looking for something else,” Groom noted. “People are genuinely honest and they don’t want to come eye to eye with their employer if they’re looking for another job.”
Occasional face-to-face interactions help employers get a read on their employees and better determine if someone isn’t happy.
If an employee regularly inquires about responsibility changes, career path progression and new opportunities, it could signal unhappiness.
“A huge flag [is] they’ll set up a meeting with you to talk about potentially adding more duties, changing duties, career progression, [or] career planning within the firm,” Groom explained. “It usually is a sign that they’re bored [or] not totally happy with the duties they’re doing now.”
Departmental change requests may also signal unhappiness ― but the problem may stem from a toxic working environment. Groom noted that employees might be reluctant to point fingers, so they reframe their unhappiness with a departmental transfer request. If a toxic workplace is the problem, you likely have many unhappy employees on your hands.
If the above unhappy employee indicators ring a bell, below are some steps you can take to keep employees happy and engaged with your organization.
But be aware that money may not be the actual issue. According to Laura Mills, head of early career insights at Forage, salary increases alone don’t always increase employee happiness. “We were raising salaries at a ridiculous rate in order to keep people,” Mills said about a former company. “In 60 percent of the cases when we raised salary, [the employee] left anyway, so the money wasn’t [the real issue].”
A great employee benefits plan is another way to invest in your employees’ livelihood. Offering health insurance, retirement plan options and other meaningful perks shows your care and consideration for the employee.
“When I look at a new employer, I look hard at what’s included in the benefits,” Mills noted. Unconventional cool job perks can also play a significant role in keeping employees happy. For example, Mills had an employee quit despite a sizable raise because the company’s health coverage didn’t cover egg freezing as a fertility treatment. The employee left for an employer that did offer this option.
Employees appreciate generous paid-time-off (PTO) policies, including vacation time, mental health days, paid sick leave and time off for other personal matters. Going beyond standard guidelines can create happier employees.
Mills used an example from her son’s life to explain this idea. “His fiance has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer,” Mills shared. “He wants to be able to take Fridays off with her and use [Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993] benefits to spend Fridays when she’s in chemo with her and support her. He’s not able to do that with his employer because they’re not yet married.” If her son’s employer expanded its time-off policies to cover nonspousal partner care, Mills said, her son would be less stressed and thus happier.
Sometimes, employees only know they’re unhappy ― a solution isn’t yet clear. You can work with these employees to determine what career path might make them happier. For example, consider offering professional development opportunities; the previously cited 2021 Pew survey identified a lack of career advancement as the second-most common reason people leave jobs.
Groom agrees that a career progression path can make employees happier, particularly employees just starting their careers. Additionally, employers can use psychometric testing to help their team members determine possible future roles.
“There’s the Personal Profile Analysis (PPA) … and you don’t need to be certified to do the analysis,” Groom explained. “It benchmarks the role they’re in, assesses them based on the role and says, ‘Are they a good fit for this role?’ If they’re not, do an assessment and figure out what they’re good at and what they should be. What’s their ideal career and can you progress them into that career at your company?”
The Pew study ranked a lack of respect at work as the third-most common reason employees leave jobs. Groom says providing a respectful, psychologically safe environment where employees can speak freely is crucial. “The first thing you need to do to make sure you’re retaining your staff [is] to start at a foundational level and make sure it’s a safe environment for people to express when there are issues leading them to want to leave,” Groom noted.
A big part of respecting employees is taking all their concerns seriously ― even those that seem unreasonable to you.
“It’s so easy to take one or two people who are more likely to express themselves either negatively or positively and dismiss their ideas as unusual,” Mills said. “Don’t discount them, because they’re often listening to their peers and speaking on behalf of them.”
There’s listening to your employees and then there’s actively seeking their opinions. Both pieces of the puzzle are crucial for keeping employees happy.
Mills recommends conducting employee surveys to gather information and identify problems in your work environment. However, understand that surveys have limitations and may not prove as insightful as real-life conversations.
“I don’t think [surveys] offer enough opportunity for freeform answers,” Mills said. “Having somebody fill out a multiple choice questionnaire or a Likert scale, it’s easy, it’s fast [and] you’ll check a box. But do you want this to be an exercise in compliance or do you want this to be something truly informative?”
Mills said seeking out employee opinions is always important but an especially critical step if you notice your retention rate declining. “It’s time for you to open your ears and your eyes more and go on an explicit listening campaign, talk to people, [and ask about their] experience,” Mills advised.
Let’s say you’re a midlevel manager. This means your organization’s C-suite trusts you to properly care for your team. But what if your version of “proper care” doesn’t align with what your team and leadership want?
Skip-level meetings ― meetings between a manager’s manager and their direct reports ― can help bridge this gap and lead to happier employees.
“I always asked the individual I was hosting the skip-level with to come with at least one or two agenda items,” Mills said. “I also asked that we purposely keep a part of the meeting for just discussion, and I would lean in and say not ‘how are you?’ but ‘how can I help you?’ to truly give this person an opportunity to ask for assistance or an adjustment.”
Mills noted that skip-level meetings are an opportunity to create a safe environment for people to share their feelings and potentially salvage employee relationships.
If your employees struggle to feel happy at work, it may be because you’re not leading them effectively. Even if you’re a good manager, improving your leadership skills can help you determine what changes to make to improve employee-management relations and boost employee happiness.
“Every leader needs some sort of continued learning experience, whether that be coaching or through learning experiences in a group, in a team and [making] that part of their strategy as a business,” Crowder said. “We cannot [make employees happy] until we have leaders that are equipped to do it or leaders with partners who can help them learn how to do it right.”
Not all employees are treated the same, even if the differences are subtle. Crowder says this differential treatment can be a form of subconscious bias that can lead to unhappy employees.
“Based on data, when we look at who moves into the C-suite at the highest rates, it’s white men across the board, then it’s white women,” Crowder said. Men of color and women of color come next. When employees feel left behind due to race, gender or background, dissatisfaction and unhappiness ensue.
Additionally, Crowder noted, “Women of color are six times more likely than white men … to receive job performance comments that are unactionable. It’s about their personality [and] things they can’t actually take and do something about.” This biased approach to performance reviews can lead to unhappy employees.
Biases also come into play with promotions. For example, a company may say it promotes from within, but if the workplace demographics and dominant culture are white people, there’s a problem. “We find [this] discriminatory, whether [organizations] mean for it to be or not and that is a major way to look at your policies and practices,” Crowder explained. “How do you decide who gets promoted [and] how they’re promoted?”
While some ways to improve employee happiness will work for most of your team, not every approach will work for everyone. Groom suggests customizing each employee’s experience to keep everyone as happy as possible.
“In order to personalize somebody’s work experience, you, as the employer, should take the onus to know your employees,” Groom said. “Some people like to have, every morning, a scrum meeting and [be told] exactly what to do that day. Other people will quit based on that.”
Customizing each employee’s experience to their wants and needs is far superior to a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
With the right attitude, nearly any manager or leader can transform a team that hates their jobs into a group full of morale and motivation. If anything, great management and leadership can make unexciting jobs more enjoyable. When your team knows they can get support, flexibility and compassion through your organization, they can more easily find joy in even tedious tasks.
Your employees might hate their jobs at the moment but, if you take the right steps, then over time, that might change.