How to tell when your workers are unhappy with their lot

Excessive personal web browsing is one of the many signs that an employee is unhappy at work. So is petty theft and serious sabotage.

Excessive personal web browsing is one of the many signs that an employee is unhappy at work. So is petty theft and serious sabotage.

It's a difficult balancing act trying to keep staff content without being walked over. You might be glad someone is on their way out, but that period beforehand is costly for all.

You're not a mind reader, but you can read the signs.

Organisational psychologist Dr Michelle Pizer says it is important to "trust your gut" when it comes to gauging whether an employee is unhappy at work. Pizer says some of the indicators include:

They avoid you.

They don't smile any more.

They stop speaking up or contributing and they just agree with you and follow your instructions.

They work to rule, such as starting and finishing right on time, or coming in late and leaving early.

They avoid small talk and only speak when they have to discuss work.

They miss deadlines, their productivity drops and they don't seem to care.

They take more sick days.

They take a lot of personal calls.

They take extra-long lunch breaks.

They use more internet bandwidth.

They only focus on the short term and are not interested in improvements or planning.

Your customers tell you standards have dropped.

Director of Inspirational Workplaces, organisational psychologist Helen Crossing, says signs that people are unhappy at work can range in seriousness, from general complaining to sabotage.

"They complain about what's wrong with the organisation, with systems, processes, or products, without providing constructive solutions or showing any willingness to be part of the solution," Crossing says. "If there is a discussion about their performance, they are likely to respond defensively and there is little change in their performance even if they agree to make changes."

Negative behaviour can escalate. "Sabotage and corporate fraud are also acts of unhappy, disgruntled employees," Crossing says. "People find ways to get back at their employer - from petty theft to substantive fraud."

Tim James, senior regional director at recruiting company Hays, says many people are affected when someone quits.

"When an employee leaves, there is the loss of not only valuable industry knowledge - which can contribute to your business's future success - but knowledge about your company, your customers, current projects and past history, which can take a long time to regain," James says.

Pizer says doing nothing affects everyone.

"Apart from the moral responsibility of caring that someone is unhappy at your workplace, it's expensive to have unhappy employees, and not just financial," she says.

Experts say employers should exercise caution when approaching disgruntled employees or, better yet, seek professional advice. The problem may be less about work and more about personal problems.

Pizer says begin by setting up a meeting. Think about your own attitude and the outcomes you're hoping for.

"Consider what you want to convey ... find out what future direction they'd like for themselves and lock in some development opportunities to help them get there," she says.

"Career-related hope is important for dignity and feeling good about work."

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