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Low morale at work: Who’s at risk and 4 steps to avoid it


Low morale at work can be a big problem, killing engagement and productivity, spreading negativity and nudging employees out the door. As business leaders, we want to address employees’ morale issues as early as possible before they escalate and harm the company.

An even better approach would be prevention of morale issues in the first place – if only you could know in advance which employee’s morale was going to take a dip. You could pay close, careful attention to at-risk employees and work with them to prevent any problems actually materializing.

Impossible, right?

Here’s the thing: this isn’t wishful thinking. Nor do you need a crystal ball. Experience has shown us which employees and teams are at the highest risk of low morale.

Revealed: Highest-risk employees for low morale

Regardless of an employee’s individual role and the type of work they do, the employees and teams that struggle the most with low morale have recently undergone – or are in the midst of – a significant change within the workplace.

The change could be abrupt or unexpected. Or, it could be something that has been planned for awhile, but just now has been implemented. The main point is the change has disrupted how the employee or team functions, or removes something from the work environment that an employee believed in, enjoyed or relied upon previously. There’s a palpable sense of loss.

Workplace scenarios that employees may perceive as negative and that could result in low morale include:

  • A manager or team member’s departure from the company (especially if a friendship existed)
  • Introduction of a new manager, perhaps one with an undesirable, ineffective leadership style, infrequent, opaque communication style or even lack of experience
  • Merger and acquisition
  • Reorganization of the team
  • Assignment to a new office
  • Modification of job responsibilities
  • Demotion
  • Change in remote work status (these days, usually a return-to-office mandate)
  • Other major policy or benefits changes
  • Layoffs
  • Implementation of a new technology or system that requires more knowledge and training that removes an employee from their comfort zone
  • Some other workplace-related crisis

These changes could impact your entire company or be limited to pockets within your company – specific departments or teams, or even certain individuals.

Both managers and employees are vulnerable to low morale. Although business leaders hope that they have the right people in charge – trained in change-management competencies and empowered to guide their teams through difficult periods – managers are human, too.

Low morale in managers is particularly worrisome because of their position of respect within and authority over the team. Among any group of co-workers, negativity tends to be contagious. The risk is that other employees will pay attention to their manager, whose feelings will trickle down to their team and impact the mindset of everyone.

The warning signs: What low morale at work looks like

Here’s what you should look for when you suspect an outbreak of low morale.

  • Former top performers seem to lose motivation  
  • Employees become quiet and reserved in meetings and withdraw from peers and managers in day-to-day interactions
  • Lack of enthusiasm, passion or “spark”
  • Lack of initiative
  • Negative change in behaviors, habits and temperament
  • Missed deadlines
  • Decreased quality of work
  • More frequent absenteeism

It just seems like they’re going through the motions and doing the bare minimum to get by each day – and don’t seem particularly happy about it and they’re certainly not putting forth their best effort. Depending on what’s going on with them personally or in the job market, these employees may be sheltering in job until a new opportunity arises.

Proactively preventing low morale at work: 4 steps

By the time you notice that an employee exhibits symptoms of low morale, it’s probably too late. You can salvage the situation and hopefully retain the employee, but at least some damage has been done.

But if you know which employees are at risk for low morale, you’re at a double advantage. You can:

  • Monitor and engage with those employees long before problems are apparent
  • Deploy strategies and best practices that maintain a positive workplace and help employees adopt a mindset of resilience despite changes

1. Rely on your company’s North Star

The North Star, which sits directly above the North Pole alongside Earth’s rotational axis, has long helped travelers and navigators in the Northern Hemisphere orient themselves and find their way – no matter how the conditions around them change.

Did you know your company has its own North Star, too? It’s called your:

  • Mission
  • Vision
  • Values
  • Culture

These things are created with intention and define your company’s identity. They shine above everything you do in your day-to-day work, showcasing the ideals that you want to exemplify each day. And they are the “constants” that guide your company and its peoples’ actions and keep you on course – despite inevitable changes that may unfold internally and externally.

Having a clear mission and vision, along with strong core values and a positive workplace culture, is the single biggest differentiator between companies that struggle with low morale versus those that don’t. Every company experiences changes and crises – but not every company has morale issues. What sets one company apart from another? Mission, vision, values and culture that don’t simply live on a poster, but are practiced and discussed daily.

During a significant change or crisis, your mission, vision, values and culture serve as a reminder to employees of why they’re really there, what’s really important, and what binds the team together. They instill a sense of teamwork and a higher, longer-term purpose despite the short-term challenges.

2. Understand your #1 priority as a business leader

Your people are your greatest asset. Keeping your people engaged and happy is your top priority, because there is a direct correlation between the success of your business and your employees:

  • Finding satisfaction in the work they do
  • Knowing they are supported by their company

So, checking in on employees isn’t something you do only when you suspect problems. It’s something you do regularly to let them know that you care, uncover those potential problems that you had no idea were brewing, and listen to their input.

Continually think about what you can do to enhance your culture, better engage employees and provide more support and resources to them. As a business leader, you are there to help them do the best work they can and facilitate getting them what they need.

Once an employee understands that you care through your actions, trust is established. As a result, open-door policies and meaningful, two-way communication are more likely to be feasible and successful. Meaning, employees are more likely to come to you with their concerns on their own initiative so you can effectively address them – as opposed to employees’ feelings of low morale festering internally until they reach a breaking point.

3. Communicate well and with intention

Whenever you announce a significant workplace change to employees, plan ahead and be intentional in what you say and do. This is a good, basic process to follow:

  • Get manager buy-in first. These are the people that you expect to lead teams through the disruption, so they need to get the right messaging first. If they’re not on board, no one else will be either.
  • Depending on the size of your business, number of employees and the nature of the change, select your method of delivery carefully. Most often, changes are best announced in person because:
    • It’s more personal and caring
    • You can better convey your desired tone
    • You can see employees’ reactions
    • You can answer their questions in real time
  • Clearly explain the change to managers and employees, along with the business rationale. Weave your company’s mission, vision, values and culture into the discussion, and explain how these changes align with your North Star. Describe what the impact of the change will be to the affected parties, along with any changes in expectations. Emphasize the benefits, too – you want to get employees on board and energized about the possibilities ahead. Focus on gains rather than losses.
  • Be transparent (which should be one of your core values that you practice daily). Admit when you don’t know a piece of information or can’t answer a question at that time. However, commit to finding out the answer and following up.
  • Demonstrate respect (another potential core value) and listen to employees. Answer their questions and solicit their feedback. Address their initial concerns.
  • Set employees up for success. Offer the support and resources they need to thrive in the new environment. Let them know where to go and who to talk to if they need to discuss the change further.

4. Periodically obtain feedback via a formal culture survey

At pre-determined, regular periods, formally issue a culture survey to your entire organization. You could also break employees up into focus groups for more in-depth discussion. Choose the interval of time that works best for your business, depending on its size, number of employees and how extensive your research methodology is, which impacts the length of time that the process takes.

Don’t wait until morale is at all-time lows to engage in this exercise – you know you’re going to get negative feedback in that scenario. Instead, disseminate the survey regularly so you obtain results that are truly reflective of the day-to-day experience at your company.

Find out if:

  • Employees’ average day aligns with mission, vision, values and culture
  • People agree on what the culture is and describe it similarly
  • There are opportunities for improvement

If you do uncover action items, determine what your company will do. How will you select, prioritize and implement these action items? From which stakeholders do you need buy-in? What is the timeline?

Always follow up with employees to talk through the survey results and the next steps. Explain why certain actions are being taken at the expense of others. Otherwise, you could make employees’ morale worse by giving the impression that you’re not really listening to them.

Summing it all up

The mystery behind the most common source of low morale at work has been cracked. Most cases of low morale at work are associated with employees or teams undergoing a significant change in the workplace, in which an employee or team views the situation negatively and feels as though they’ve lost something. Knowing this information is half the battle in combating low morale.

When changes inevitably happen, you can pay special attention and show greater care to these employees. Additionally, you can establish an anti-low morale workplace by taking proactive steps to prevent it from ever happening. Promote your mission, vision, values and culture; demonstrate care and support for employees, with their engagement and satisfaction being your top priority; practice good communication; and solicit feedback.

Want to take your efforts to banish low morale at work even further? Download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to employee engagement.