unhappy employee

unhappy employee

We know the mantra – a happy employee is a productive employee. And knowing when an employee is happy at work usually doesn’t present much of a problem. However, when it comes to an unhappy employee, that is where things become a little tricky.

We need to ask ourselves if the employee is unhappy due to non-work-related personal reasons, or if the cause of their unhappiness is largely due to their job. Additionally, we need to determine whether the unhappiness is temporary, if it will pass, or if the underlying causes are such that the situation is unlikely to improve.

Many people will go to great lengths to hide their discontent. After all, being unhappy is not a quality that is likely to earn us any favor with our coworkers. It’s unlikely to lead to a promotion or yield any positive outcome. Sometimes, we conceal our emotions and try to battle through them as best we can on our own.

Identifying an unhappy employee early will greatly increase our chances of possibly remedying the situation. Or, if no remedy is available, it will allow us to mitigate the negative effects an unhappy employee can cause. 

When an employee hates their job there are actions to take before quitting. However, by that time, irrevocable damage might already have occurred. Unhappiness can often be contagious. It’s best to spot the signs early and take action while there’s still a chance to do something about it.

A Case of the Mondays

We’ve seen the memes, and we’ve heard the jokes about Mondays. It’s a day synonymous with the blues, with dread, and with unhappiness. It’s also the best day to get a sense of an employee’s level of happiness with their work.

Ideally, we would all return to work after a fun, relaxing, and rewarding weekend, ready to hit the ground running. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. Many employees dread returning to work. They don’t find their work rewarding or satisfying. And there is no clearer indication of this than when the workday is so closely juxtaposed against the non-work life of the weekend – Mondays.

Often, the lethargy and sadness that comes with returning to work on a Monday is not due to the employee’s unhappiness with their work. It may be that they spent their weekend partying and did not get the rest they need. Or perhaps the plans they had for the weekend failed to live up to their expectations or they had a particularly unpleasant experience over the weekend.

It’s important that we not let one punctual case of the Mondays cause us to jump to conclusions. If an employee is truly unhappy at work, it will be especially apparent on Mondays and over the course of several Mondays, not simply one isolated incident. 

Lack of Initiative

When an employee takes initiative – meaning they are proactive, they advance ideas or implement a decision without being prompted – this means that the employee, to a certain extent, is taking ownership of their role in the company. 

This is a very positive sign. We can infer by an employee’s initiative that he or she sees value in what they are doing, they are confident they can make a positive impact and they care enough about what they are doing to incur the risk of acting without explicit orders to do so.

It thus stands to reason that from an employee’s lack of initiative, we can generally infer that the opposite is true – the employee does not see value in what they do; they don’t believe they can make a positive impact, or they don’t care enough about their job or the company to incur the risk of acting without explicit instructions.

Before inferring that an employee is irrevocably unhappy with their job because they lack initiative, we need to eliminate other possible reasons that could be at play.

  • The employee is naturally timid
  • The employee is naturally subservient and thrives in a hierarchical, authoritarian environment 
  • The employee is unsure of their skill level and simply wishes to accrue more know-how and experience before acting independently

In these situations, the employee will hesitate to take initiative, however, we should not infer that they are unhappy but rather we can exercise patience with them or simply invite them to be more proactive when the timing is right.

On the other hand, an employee’s lack of initiative could be in reaction to a perceived flaw in management.

  • The consequences of a mistake are too severe and far outweigh the benefit of risking initiative
  • Shortcomings or failures are heavily criticized and are the employee feels it’s best not to expose themselves to any eventual misstep. 
  • There is poor communication in the workplace and any attempt to speak or act out will go unnoticed or will fall on deaf ears.
  • The employee doesn’t have a clear understanding of how their specific role fits in with the larger picture of what the company as a whole is doing, therefore, though they may want to, it is difficult to step beyond the specific instructions they are given.

In these situations, the employee might very well enjoy their job or enjoy carrying out the specific tasks assigned to them, but their lack of initiative is more of a result of poor management or poor communication. If this is the case, corrective actions should be looked into. It is unlikely that an employee who doesn’t take initiative will be happy at work for an extended period of time.

Initiative is a result of engagement. Increasing employee engagement sometimes requires a bit of creativity on the part of management. If you are struggling with employee engagement, check out this article for employee engagement ideas. And for more tech-minded employees, check out this article on enhancing employee engagement digitally

Lack of Ownership

A happy employee not only enjoys the work they are doing, but they feel a sense of pride in the value they bring. They will take ownership of an idea or an action, gladly sign their name – figuratively or literally – to a project, product, or service.

Conversely, when an employee seeks to put distance between themselves and the work they are doing or the project they are working on, this is likely a sign of their unhappiness.

It’s worth pointing out, that an employee might refuse ownership of an idea, action, product, or service, preferring rather give credit to the team as a whole. While teamwork should be encouraged, if this kind of distancing is recurring behavior, you may want to consider probing deeper. Find a specific contribution to the project or product they are willing to take ownership of. 

An employee who frequently seeks to distance themselves from the work they are doing clearly does not see the value of their work and in consequence, is most likely an unhappy employee.

Takeaway

A happy employee is a productive employee. On the other hand, an unhappy employee can potentially spread discontent and division through a whole team. Our chances of taking effective actions to either reverse the trend or mitigate its consequences are greatly increased if we can spot the unhappiness early.

Employees don’t always scream their unhappiness from the rooftops. Look for the subtle signs. Spot them while there’s still a chance to do something about it. 

Photo by Doug Kelley on Unsplash

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