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Managing Unhappy Employees: 10 Questions Managers Need to Ask

According to recent research, nearly a fifth of UK adults are unhappy in their jobs. Surprising though this might sound, this statistic may even be modest, given that another source claims half of all British employees are unhappy. These same employees say they can recall an event from the past month that has made them feel less than positive about their working lives. Enthusiasm is down, efficiency is down — and it’s all having a serious impact on productivity and performance.

The relationship between a manager and an employee has a profound bearing on employee engagement and — ultimately — employee happiness. If managers see employees are struggling with poor morale, they need to intervene. Not only can low levels of happiness impact employee engagement and performance; unhappiness can also cause promising, high-potential employees to jump ship for a competitor. Not to mention, increasingly, employees are expecting their companies to take more of an active interest in their wellness and general state of mind — as Josh Bersin states, modern organisations need to act as social enterprises and demonstrate they are there to help their employees.

As annual performance appraisals decline, more and more managers are holding frequent performance discussions to keep an eye on goal completion and progress. Such meetings also offer managers the opportunity to monitor overall happiness. When managers notice employees are unhappy, below is a list of ten simple questions they can ask to get to the bottom of this low morale, so that they can take relevant action.

1) I’ve Noticed You’ve Been Down Lately — Is Everything Okay?

This simple and straight-forward question addresses any issues head-on and shows your employees you are there for them. Employees should feel free to air their grievances and concerns. This is a great way to start an open and transparent dialogue.

Perhaps your employee is generally okay and they are just experiencing a few minor stresses or pressures. But if there is something more substantial going on, you need to know — whether or not it is business-related. If your employees are having issues at home, they need time and flexibility to sort out — and you need to address the practicalities of this. If your employee seems reluctant to talk, don’t pressure them, but let them know that they can always come to you for a non-judgemental, constructive talk. Doing so will begin to build a culture of authenticity and trust.

2) How Do You Feel about Your Current SMART Objectives?

If employees are unhappy, stressed out and generally disengaged with their work, ill-thought-out objectives could play a major role. The Financial Times points out that unrealistic expectations in the workplace put employees at risk of burnout. This question is the first step to getting employees involved in the goal-setting process.

Collaboration is crucial when it comes to SMART objectives. When we have a say in our own goals, we are happier with them and we are more likely to accomplish them. Employees should feel a sense of ownership over their goals. If they think they have been allocated unreasonable, irrelevant targets, they will eventually lose interest in them, leading to actively disengaged employees.on e

3) Are You Able to Use Your Skills and Strengths in Your Role?

If employees engage with their companies, they will want to do all they can to contribute to its success. That being the case, they will want to bring their strengths and skills to the table. If employees feel they aren’t able to contribute in a meaningful way as their talents aren’t being utilised, it’s easy to see how their happiness will be affected.

Take the time to find out where your employees’ strengths and interests lie. Do they have any ideas of how they can use their talents to help progress company objectives? Establishing employee strengths and passions will benefit everyone. Companies benefit from more enthused employees and employees experienced increased satisfaction from work.

4) Are You Being Challenged?

If you hire the right employees, you will have a team of ambitious, motivated people who are eager to progress. They want to learn new skills and develop existing ones. So, don’t let your employees get bored. During your one-on-ones, discuss training needs and opportunities. Take the time to write out personal development objectives. Explore opportunities for progression and steps the individual needs to taken to advance. Ambitious employees don’t want to remain stagnant for too long — this will lead to general unhappiness and the need to explore opportunities elsewhere.

5) Are There Any Workplace Processes, Systems or Software That Is Causing You Stress?

Asking this question demonstrates how seriously you take employee feedback. It might be that a given process is ineffective, or perhaps the software you are using is overly complex and frustrating to navigate. Remember, the technological environment is one of the pillars of the employee experience. The first step is to get to the bottom of what processes, systems or technology is causing the employee to be unhappy with the company. The next step is to make the necessary changes. Show your employees that their feedback isn’t falling on deaf ears and that you want to make their environment as comfortable and motivational as possible.

6) Do You Feel You Have Enough Autonomy?

More than money and financial perks, what employees want from work is increased autonomy. When employees have more flexibility and freedom over their work, they have more ownership over their roles and they are — on the whole — happier. Take this opportunity to discuss whether your employee is satisfied with the level of autonomy they have and, if not, explore where you can grant more — whether it be goal-setting or the ability to decide their working hours.

7) How Do You Get along with Your Coworkers?

Workplace relationships can make or break employee experience.  When employees have solid friendships and authentic communication at work, they feel supported. They feel part of a cohesive team. If, on the other hand, employees feel bullied or that they are the victims of workplace incivility, this can have a hugely negative impact on employee engagement. If this is the case, it is something you need to address head-on.

8) Do You Feel Rewarded and Recognised for Your Work and Effort?

If you have an unhappy employee on your hands, it may be because they don’t feel valued or appreciated for the work and effort they put in. It’s rare to find a modern employee who works for a paycheck alone. Employees these days want to find meaning in their work. Equally, they want to know that their work means something to their organisation. It can be hugely demotivating for an employee to work hard for months without a small demonstration of appreciation.

Employee appreciation doesn’t have to cost a lot. A small “thank you” can do wonders for an individual’s morale. If you’re looking for inspiration, here is a whole host of employee appreciation ideas to explore.

9) Do You Feel Connected to the Company and Its Values?

A study into employee retention found that people tend to remain at companies for long periods for an important reason — cultural fit. They stay because their values align with their organisation’s. Take the time to communicate company objectives with your employees. Do they understand how their work supports and feeds into these objectives? Are they clear on the company’s culture and values? If there is a disconnect, this is something that requires immediate action.

10) What Can I Do to Help?

Similar to question one, this question demonstrates you are there for your employee and you are willing to help in any way you can. You can even be proactive and offer specific suggestions on how you can help improve their work life. This will go a long way to showing your employee that you care about them and their happiness — and that you want them to remain with your company for the long-term.

About the Author: Stuart Hearn is CEO & Founder of Clear Review, an intuitive and simple performance management software. Stuart has been in HR for over twenty years and helps companies develop healthier, happier and more productive relationships through technology.