Quiet vs. unhappy employees: Why you should worry about your silent staff

Phil Kendall, Clea Grady & Anna Roberts

Jul 2022 ⋅ 6 min read

Woman with long hair sitting on a bench against a wall and looking down at her feet in black sandals

Some people are better than others at expressing their feelings at work, and have developed communication methods to let off steam in the right way.

But many struggle to speak up when something is bothering them and internalise it instead. And when an employee goes silent, it can spell trouble.

With that in mind, we're taking a closer look at the subject of quiet employees — exploring the reasons why staff might not want to talk about their frustrations or concerns, and the impact this could have on your business.

Why staff stay quiet

A pug wrapped in a blanket looking straight at the camera

In an ideal world, every single one of your staff would show up for work with smiles on their faces.

But in reality, things are rarely that simple. Personalities clash. Something goes wrong at work. People have problems at home. But what if they don’t tell you what’s going on?

After all, you can't fix a problem that you were never made aware of to begin with.

There are many reasons why an employee might choose to keep their problems to themselves rather than approaching a manager or someone from HR. Let's take a look at what they might be:

Lack of trust

The employee's reluctance to bring their problem to their boss or manager could be an indication that they simply don't know or trust them enough to open up about it.

Lack of confidence

Although the employee trusts their manager enough to raise an issue with them, they question whether doing so will make any difference. They may lack confidence in themselves and in the validity of their feelings, they may lack confidence in their manager, or they may believe the company's hierarchy limits their manager's power to act.

An unapproachable boss

The employee finds it difficult to speak openly with their manager, either because they find them intimidating or because they anticipate a prickly or unsympathetic response. Employees are often reluctant to take their problems to their boss for fear that doing so will reflect badly on them. They may also think that their boss likes a quiet employee.

Ignorance of procedure

Staff don't know how or where to raise a problem. This is arguably more common in larger organisations with multiple levels of management, or when complaints procedures aren't made clear to employees.

It's personal

Or it could simply be that an employee doesn’t wish to discuss personal problems at work. Even if the cause of the problem came as the result of an unanticipated crossover, there are times when staff would rather keep their work and private lives separate.

At a distance

A good HR manager will offer their staff a friendly ear regardless of whether their problem is personal or work-related. But that sort of pastoral support is not as easy to offer as it once was, as there are now remote and hybrid working staff across many sectors. And from both an employee and employer perspective, there are more challenges when it comes to raising issues.

The fact that a lot of people are no longer face-to-face with their line manager, or are infrequently so, adds further complication and hesitation for employees when it comes to speaking up about grievances or worries. It can be equally difficult for managers — you can no longer have an informal chat in the kitchen, for example, where it’s easier and more natural to ask how things are going at home. Having to schedule video calls and approach almost all conversations in a structured and formal manner can make it more awkward for everyone involved.

There's no real solution to this as yet. HR managers and coordinators are having to find creative ways to accommodate hybrid working, and ensure that everyone is heard and has the chance to speak openly. But it’s a new layer of complexity that further compounds the issue of quiet staff, and one that line and HR managers must take into account.

Why you should worry about silent staff

Person holding a sheet of red paper with a sad face drawn on it in front of their face

If an employee is intent on keeping their work-related frustrations under wraps, then you might wonder whether there's any point worrying about them

But those same employees could have a real impact on your business. Here's why:

They might quit

The most obvious potential outcome is that an employee becomes so unhappy that they look for another job.

The thought of taking up a new position — with new possibilities for growth and new people to work with — can be tempting even when you're not experiencing difficulties at work. When you're unhappy, however, a new job can seem like the answer to all your problems.

If an employee has been sitting on a problem for months, the likelihood is that they're already looking for something else. If the first thing you hear about their problem comes when they're handing in their notice, it's already too late.

Their problems could be serious

The type of problems that staff are reluctant to discuss can be serious ones.

As well as tending to affect more introverted employees, subjects like bullying in the workplace can also be difficult for quieter employees to broach with their manager.

Problems of this kind can have an enormous effect on both an employee's work and their overall happiness, and could even result in them resigning or, if the problem persists for long enough, taking legal action.

Unchecked problems grow bigger

Whether it's a dispute with a coworker or a general lack of motivation at work, by keeping their problems to themselves, a disgruntled employee is more likely to stew on them.

When this happens, issues that could once have been dealt with quite easily become a major sticking point, tainting the employee’s view of the entire company and impacting their workplace relationships.

It could affect their health

As well as being generally less engaged in their work, people who routinely bottle up their feelings tend to be more irritable towards their coworkers (compounding the notion that work itself is the cause) and may even have trouble sleeping.

Some studies have even suggested that emotional suppression can render an individual more susceptible to physical illness, leading to frequent use of sick days and causing the employee to think even more negatively about their job.

What to do about unhappy employees who stay quiet

Close-up photo of a woman resting her head in her hands looking pensive

Put procedures in place

The most obvious thing to do is ensure that you have proper procedures for employees to make complaints or air grievances — and that all staff are aware of them.

- Do your staff know who to report work-related problems to?

- Do they have regular contact with this person or are they easy to get hold of?

- If the problem is with the person they’re supposed to report to, is there someone else they can talk to?

Make the act of reporting problems and making complaints a part of your employee onboarding process so that all staff know who they can turn to should they experience difficulties at work.

Most importantly of all, make sure that there are both verbal and non-verbal channels that staff can use to report problems. You could even consider using services like TINYpulse, which allows employees to give anonymous feedback and provides managers with actionable data based upon it.

Regular reviews

Of course, the problems employees experience aren't always the result of workplace conflicts.

Your staff might simply be feeling overwhelmed or, having been in the same position for years, be lacking in motivation and starting to tune out.

It's best to nip problems of this kind in the bud rather than letting them grow too big.

To do that, you need to provide your staff with regular opportunities to share their thoughts — both good and bad. This can be through weekly meetings or one-to-ones, or less formal catch-up chats over coffee if reviews don't work for your business. Being in regular, open contact with their line manager should help employees air and resolve issues before they become insurmountable.

You should also keep track of things like lateness, use of sick days, and ability to meet targets, as these can all be useful indicators as to an employee's happiness and wellbeing in the workplace and will help you spot problems early.

Final thoughts

When you consider the impact an employee who keeps problems to themselves can have on your business, the staff who frequently come to you with feedback can suddenly feel like blessings in disguise.

We tend to devote a lot of time to talking about how to resolve issues in the workplace, but spotting a problem when the person experiencing it is reluctant to discuss it can be more of a challenge.

Your staff may share workspaces, projects and even job titles, but their personalities will always differ, so it's essential that you provide more than one way talk through any concerns.

It takes time and effort to set up multiple channels of communication and establish opportunities for even the most introverted employee to make their feelings known. But if you can, you'll likely avoid a lot of headaches in the future.

Want more tips on how to identify and resolve problems in the workplace? Check out our in-depth guide to managing unhappy employees.

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