Home: Issue 5 2008 Lead Story › INCREASING EMPLOYEE MORALE



15/10/2008 | Channel: Human Resourses

Jessica Pryce-Jones argues that improving workplace happiness should feature higher on the business agenda

Like many other sectors, the current economic downturn is placing increased pressure and a sharpened spotlight on the building and construction industry. Amongst falling share prices and growing fears in the housing market over recent weeks, businesses are having to balance short-term survival with running their companies in the long-term interests of shareholders. Projects and operations are being scaled back and redundancies are on the rise. These pressures, combined with skill shortages, failing risk management, escalating costs, strained relationships with suppliers and tough new environmental standards, are inevitably impacting employee morale at all levels.

Perhaps it is not particularly surprising then that the fifth annual City and Guilds Happiness Index recently found building and construction to be the least happy professions, along with nursing, IT and finance. The results suggested that financial rewards are not the key to job satisfaction. Only 44 per cent of those polled said they remained in their job as a direct result of salary, while 57 per cent said they remained with their employer because they were strongly interested in their job.

So what happens when employees are unhappy and lose interest in their job? Generally unmotivated workers become less productive, less creative, more unable to solve problems, more ill, and ultimately of course they quit their jobs. In the construction sector where skills shortages are a constant threat, losing employees to the competition can have an impact not just on build programmes but on a company’s long-term growth and success. KPMG’s annual global construction survey reveals that 50 per cent of major contractors see skills shortages as a critical issue with nearly three quarters concerned about a lack of site and project managers, yet most say the industry is doing little to address the issue.

Research has shown us that there are a number of areas that influence employee happiness. These include being good at your job, feeling part of the team, having a variety of tasks, being treated fairly by your boss and knowing what’s expected of you.

In tough market conditions, when there is a financial squeeze, people perceive a lot of negatives and morale can be more deeply affected. Figures from the Insolvency Service, for example, reveal that a construction company is going bust every four hours.

The situation is often exacerbated further by increasing job pressure and longer hours, as managers struggle to deliver more for less. The Quality of Working Life Report published this Spring by The Chartered Management Institute revealed that the average manager in the construction sector works one hour 18 minutes over contract each day, equivalent to around 40 days a year. Nearly half of those in the construction sector (47 per cent) said that the culture of long hours was affecting their productivity, and 38 per cent said it hits morale.

All this adds up to a sense of losing control for the individual. The knock on result is that people feel that they are no longer able to do their job well - the number one issue impacting happiness in the workplace.


So how can you spot the first signs of declining morale? Signs to look out for are more tiredness and less energy as well as more doubts about personal capability – people starting to feel that they cannot or do not know how to do new things or tasks that stretch them. Look out for people becoming more introverted, less willing to share ideas, and confused about what their role entails.

Another giveaway is less eye contact when you are asking for commitment together with more ‘yes, but...’ statements. Other common-sense things to keep a careful eye on are more grumbling, more negative language and negative gossip on site and around the office.

Increasing sickness levels are a sure sign that employers need to focus on improving the working environment. According to The Confederation of British Industry (CBI), absence from work cost the UK economy £13.2 billion last year, with the average employee in the private sector taking almost six days off sick.

Our research has proven that there are some hard measures behind what some businesses perceive as a soft subject. Happier employees are healthier and take on average only 1.5 days off a year. They also want to stay in their jobs longer, in the region of one to three years instead of six to 12 months.

So how should organisations address happiness in the workplace given that there are serious implications for those who choose to doing nothing about it. First of all, it is worth noting that there are three parts to happiness – not all of which we can change. First there is the part we are born with – the inherent levels we have whatever our working environment. This accounts for about 50 per cent of our overall happiness and explains why some people at work are more cheerful than others.

Then there is the context we find ourselves in. People often think this is more important than it really is – interestingly, it is only worth about 15 per cent of our overall happiness. The biggest area where we can make a positive change is our ability to take practical actions. This accounts for a staggering 35 per cent of overall happiness levels.

Making a positive change needs to be addressed from the top down. It is no surprise that happier managers are better leaders. Strong leadership is particularly important in hard times when people need more attention, support and recognition that they have to deal with tough issues, and when negative issues need to be turned into positives.

So here are just some of the areas where management can take practical steps to improve morale. First and foremost, communication is key. If you are making changes make sure you communicate a clear vision so that everybody in your team knows what is expected from them. Try to foster hope, because if you can increase hope you will increase action. Thank people when they have done something tough – show your team that you value their expertise. Remember, people respond much better to positive than negative feedback: 3:1 is thought to be the optimal ratio so try to deliver this.

Encourage team members to network as widely across the comorganisation as possible. This will give individuals a better understanding of how their work affects others and will help promote stronger teamwork. Consider job rotation schemes if appropriate to give you employees a bit more variety in their work. Delegate and allow people to control, influence and decide as much as they can – respect their judgement and try not to seize the reins as this will quickly demotivate.

If organisations are going to win through these difficult times and ensure they attract and retain the best talent in today’s globally competitive marketplace, then workplace happiness needs to feature higher on the business agenda.

And given it has a fundamental impact on the bottom line, now is the time to take action as a positive impact on happiness levels can be realised in just a few days. Doing nothing is not an option.

Jessica Pryce-Jones is a joint founder and partner of iOpener. iOpener is a consultancy based in Oxford that enables organisations to implement strategy and deliver key results by focusing on happiness at work. For further information contact jess.prycejones@iopener.co.uk or visit