Improve morale in times of austerity

Strategic HR Review

ISSN: 1475-4398

Article publication date: 1 January 2012


Flint-Taylor, J. (2012), "Improve morale in times of austerity", Strategic HR Review, Vol. 11 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Improve morale in times of austerity

Article Type: How to … From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 11, Issue 1

Practical advice for HR professionals

Achieving high levels of morale among employees is never easy. It is particularly challenging in times of austerity, and yet this is when employee morale is all the more critical because of its direct link to business performance. Here are a few pointers.

1. Understand the factors involved

It’s not necessarily the austerity itself that damages morale – in some situations hard times create a sense of purpose and having to pull together that actually increases morale. This means it is very important to understand the factors that directly impact on morale, so that these can be specifically targeted and actively managed – for the sake of health, happiness and success for all. Our research on psychological well-being in the workplace has identified the following six factors:

  1. 1.

    Resources and communication.

  2. 2.


  3. 3.

    Work life balance/workload.

  4. 4.

    Job security and change.

  5. 5.

    Work relationships.

  6. 6.

    Job conditions (pay, rewards, interesting work, etc.).

These are the “6 Essentials” that leaders, managers and individual employees need to manage actively in order to create the right conditions for high morale – in other words, for people to feel positive, motivated and engaged with the objectives of their jobs and the goals of the organization. Poor management of these six factors, on the other hand, creates a situation where employees are demoralized, stressed and disengaged (Faragher et al., 2004).

2. Make leaders aware

It may seem simple, but there is a major benefit to be gained from ensuring that your leaders and managers understand the six essential factors and the impact they have on employee morale. This understanding helps a leader or manager to analyze and “chunk” the problem, breaking it up into definable categories, which in turn makes it more manageable to tackle.

So, for example, a leader whose team is at risk of redundancies might identify the main risk to morale as the lack of control over events that people experience in such situations. Most likely there will be little the leader can do to provide greater certainty or security, but there may be other ways of giving people back a sense of control – for example, by providing information about plans and opportunities in other parts of the business.

Once the leader has considered what can be done about the issue of control, they can then turn their attention to the other factors. All too often we focus on the hardest problem and give up when we feel there’s little we can do to fix it. In the case of morale, however, you can always find something that will make a difference if you study each factor in turn. When resources are tight, strong work relationships can be a powerful source of support; when pay is squeezed then praise and other rewards are more important than ever; when the future is uncertain, providing clarity and focus on specific job goals can be surprisingly effective; and so on.

3. Help employees take responsibility

You also need to help employees take responsibility for identifying and managing the pressures in the work situation that affect their morale. Each person has their own specific risks and strengths in this regard. For example, some people quickly become demoralized when things go wrong with their work relationships, while others might be more affected by workload pressures. There are various ways in which you can support employees in identifying and managing their individual work situation to ensure high levels of psychological well-being. Self-awareness profiling and resilience training are particularly effective for this purpose, especially if structured around the “6 Essentials” framework.

4. Make it a continuous process

Drawing on this approach, following are tips to help leaders continue to build morale in times of austerity:

  • Remember that those who report to you are often less “in the know” than you are, and this can leave them feeling out of control especially in times of uncertainty and change. Provide as much information as you can, or you may lose the people you wanted to keep – because they are proactive, marketable and quick to preserve their own morale by moving to another job.

  • If resources are tight and there’s little you can do about this, make sure work demands are fairly distributed and performance is well managed, or you risk the team’s morale being doubly impacted by deteriorating work relationships.

  • When pay and bonus opportunities are restricted, take extra care to understand what else is motivating for the individuals in your team – do not make assumptions about what this might be and remember each person is different.

  • And above all – communicate, communicate, communicate.

You’ll be surprised how much you can do to improve morale – and with it engagement, attendance, retention and productivity – even in the toughest times.

Jill Flint-Taylor and Ivan RobertsonBased at Robertson Cooper Ltd.

About the authors

Jill Flint-Taylor is a chartered occupational psychologist, executive coach and Director at Robertson Cooper Ltd. She has extensive experience of working with government departments and blue chip companies in the areas of talent management, leadership development and well-being. Jill Flint-Taylor can be contacted at:

Ivan Robertson is Director and founder of Robertson Cooper. He has published over 35 books in the arena of occupational psychology and is an internationally recognized industry expert in the areas of well-being, employee engagement, personnel selection, assessment and leadership development. He is Professor of Organizational Psychology at Leeds University Business School, a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and Emeritus Professor at the University of Manchester. Ivan Robertson can be contacted at:


Faragher, E.B., Cooper, C.L. and Cartwright, S. (2004), “A shortened stress evaluation tool (ASSET)”, Stress and Health, Vol. 20 No. 4, pp. 189–201