Is It Low Employee Engagement or Is It a Lack of Morale?

A focus on boosting team morale can lead to remarkable changes in engagement, productivity, and the organization’s overall success.

We are living in a fast-paced world with an ever-changing landscape of work. There has been so much unexpected change over the last three years that we have had to shift the ways in which we do our work dramatically. People are depleted. Teams have lost the momentum they once had. As a result, levels of engagement and productivity have been radically impacted. The constant “do more with less,” “be prepared for rapid change,” and “all hands on deck” approaches to our work have people working beyond their physical and emotional means.

We feel like we are stuck in a constant stress cycle with no way out. Workplaces are short-staffed. People are overworked and clearly under-rested. There are higher levels of burnout now than ever before. Things like productivity paranoia, quiet quitting, languishing, and mass resignation are becoming more common. This is concerning when we think about all the losses organizations are experiencing.

The reality is employees have lost faith in the meaningfulness and purpose of the work. People are not feeling supported, and trust has been broken as a result. It can be difficult to maintain faith when we know we are replaceable in every position, role, or job we hold. While many strategies can be implemented to address the low levels of employee engagement organizations are seeing right now, they are often only effective in the short term. This is something more deep-rooted.

Missing Morale

A component of employee engagement that often is overlooked is employee morale. Employee morale is the overall outlook, confidence, or belief that an individual or team has toward their organization. How an individual or team feels about their organization, the work they do, and their role in it is integral to the success of any organization across industries.

We know from the research that when morale is high, we see improved work performance and increased engagement, productivity, collaboration, and employee retention. Employees feel enthusiastic about their work and satisfied in the pursuit of collective goals, which is particularly important during challenging seasons and changes. They feel like valued members of a team and feel supported to show up as they are with the skills, talents, and gifts they possess. It is employee morale that can determine one’s level of engagement.

Currently, we are witnessing a lack of morale in organizations around the globe. People aren’t feeling connected to their teams, leaders, and organizations. Rather, they are feeling disengaged, unsatisfied, unmotivated, and without purpose. Low morale can even begin to spread and hurt the team as a whole.

There are actions leaders can take to address and respond to low levels of morale within their organizations.

Ways to Boost Employee Morale

1. Build relationships.

We spend a considerable amount of time at work. Our work environment and who we work with have a significant impact on our lives. Leaders can boost morale by building trust with their team. Leaders also can take time to build personal connections with employees through one-on-one meetings. Teambuilding activities are a great way for all members to get familiar with one another on a level that is not just transactional. Honesty and transparency about what is going on in the organization can help to mitigate unnecessary stress and conflict. Also, by truly listening and being receptive to feedback, leaders can better understand the goals and needs of their team and provide opportunities for growth and success. All professionals are still human beings underneath it all.

2. Create realistic workloads and expectations.

Leaders should be aware of the expectations and amount of pressure they are placing on their team. A heavy and unreasonable workload begins to take its toll both physically and emotionally over time. So many people have been stress cycling for too long, and it isn’t sustainable. If leaders are giving their team 15 priorities, then they have no priorities. To ensure that employees can thrive, leaders need to provide the right tools and resources that will allow them to get the job done successfully. Regular team meetings can help to determine roles and understand where extra support is needed, with leaders ready to step in to assist when necessary.

3. Treat employees like adults.

Treating employees as the competent, trustworthy, and responsible adults they are sounds straightforward. Yet when my team asked several groups what they needed most from their leaders, it was to be treated like an adult. Leaders need to hold faith in their team if they expect their team to have faith in them and their organization. There’s no need to micro-manage. Leaders can continue to communicate and provide clarity of what is expected (and within reasonable human limits), allow for autonomy in how the work gets done, and then trust them to do the work they were hired to do.

4. Foster psychological safety and a healthy work environment.

Leaders can foster environments of psychological safety where individuals have the freedom to be seen, heard, and respected as they are. An inclusive environment means everyone is safe from harm, reprisal, and rejection. Unfair treatment leads to a loss of trust in leadership, whereas a positive work culture promotes co-creation, team decisions, and collaboration. Employees don’t just have a seat at the table here, they have a voice at the table, too. Leaders create the space for open conversations and take time to reflect on feedback they receive.

5. Encourage life with work integration.

Life with work integration prioritizes living. So often, we spend too much of our time living outside of our values. We get stuck in the “when-then” trap, telling ourselves things like, “When this project is done, then I will take time for myself.” Instead, we need to be well to be able to do the good work. This involves finding ways to build boundaries and self-care into our workweeks. Leaders can model and encourage boundary setting and respecting the time of others. A healthy work-life balance is key to well-being.

6. Recognize and appreciate.

People need to hear they are doing a good job and their work matters. Yes, every person is replaceable in their role, yet we need to know the sacrifices we make daily count. We are more likely to stay in jobs for longer when we feel valued. Authentic recognition is motivating and can boost work performance. Celebrating successes—as an individual or team—provides a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment so many are missing. Leaders can create a space for team shoutouts in the team’s internal system or send out e-mails at the end of the week acknowledging work that’s been done and how it contributes to the success of the team. A little appreciation goes a long way when fostering a sense of purpose.

Laying the Foundation

Every organization and workplace will have its own unique needs, challenges, and difficult seasons, yet when leaders are proactive and put forth an ongoing effort to address and respond to the needs of their people, they lay the foundations for strong employee morale.

A focus on boosting team morale can lead to remarkable changes in engagement, productivity, and the organization’s overall success. At the end of the day, we are all human beings who want to know that we matter and our work matters. Being part of a workforce where we feel valued and believe in pursuing a shared goal can be instrumental. When leaders invest in their team, they invest in their organization. When team morale is high, loyalty is steadfast.

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe
Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe is a multi-award-winning education and psychology instructor, author, speaker, and resiliency expert. She specializes in resiliency, navigating stress and change, personal wellness in the workplace, and optimal performance - both personal and organizational. With more than 18 years of university teaching and research experience, and as a two-time TEDx Talk speaker, Dr. Hanley-Dafoe continues to create accessible and relatable materials while offering practical strategies that are realistic and sustainable. Dr. Hanley-Dafoe and her team have developed innovative programming and open educational resources that are readily shared across a multitude of industries. While working alongside some of the most influential organizations across the world, since March of 2020, she has delivered more than 750 keynotes and workshops. Dr. Hanley-Dafoe expands upon this work in her online community Anchor Labs, where leaders can learn strategies for resilience. Dr. Hanley-Dafoe was a 2022 Nautilus Award recipient with her debut book, "Calm Within the Storm: A Pathway to Everyday Resiliency." Her newest book, "Stress Wisely: How to Be Well in an Unwell World" was released June 20, 2023.