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For the people leaders out there, here is a simple thought experiment:

Imagine you are running a big household. It could be a nuclear family, a multigenerational one, any combination of loved ones. At some point, you find out that two out of five – 40 per cent of the household – do not feel valued as part of the family. If nearly half your family felt undervalued, you would know you had a big problem and would do something about it.

Now think about this: in survey research Morneau Shepell recently conducted across Canada, almost four out of 10 employees who responded – said they don’t feel valued at work. Consider your organization. Should you respond? How should you respond?

In today’s intensely competitive economy, many companies are trying to create conditions to ensure their work force is high-performing. But given the accelerated pace of work today, the simple and often subtle actions that show you value an employee may get lost. Our research also shows a correlation between a person feeling undervalued – or lacking in recognition – and higher work stress, sleep issues, and taking time off work. These factors are critical for employee well-being and are also consequential in the productivity of your business. Further, 67 per cent of employees in companies with high rates of employee health report that recognition is directly related to their success at work, versus 39 per cent of employees with lower employee health scores.

So now, the burning questions are: How can we address this feeling people have of being undervalued? How can we create a culture of recognition at work? How can we do this in our fast-paced workplace where employees and people leaders may not even work side-by-side?

Understand any specific challenges

Consider the fact that 45 per cent of respondents to Morneau Shepell’s most recent Mental Health Priorities survey indicated that the mental demands of their job increased over the past two years. With these increasing demands, people need increased support and recognition, including more frequent assurances that they and their contributions are valued.

Another factor to consider is whether remote work is increasing. Are teams in your organization more dispersed today? If so, you may need to adapt your recognition strategies and leverage the digital means to provide it. When you are not face-to-face with people, all communication needs to be clearer and all intents need to be more obvious. Personal and, ideally, public recognition through e-mail or a digital platform can provide that virtual “pat on the back” everyone needs once in a while.

When everything is moving so fast, it’s all too easy to focus on tasks and problems, the negatives and neutrals. This can create a lop-sided experience for employees. Think of this: It typically takes five positive interactions to balance a negative one. Do you have that balance in your organization?

Get personal to be meaningful

Feeling valued is not just related to the value of what you actually do. It is about being accepted as a person and feeling that your well-being is seen and respected. Do your ideas matter? Does your life outside of work matter? Are you encouraged to do what you need to do to manage stress? The important thing here is that showing someone you value them means recognizing that you value them as a person, not just the tasks they complete.

Recognize the invisible not just the visible

Very often corporate recognition strategies emphasize the bigger success stories and the heroes who can be widely promoted as role models. Beware of unintended consequences that derive from the axiom – what gets seen, gets recognized. Of course, celebrate the home-run accomplishments. But go deeper. Recognize those who do the thankless, less glamorous work in the trenches, they add value, so they should feel valued. There is a wide-reaching effect from celebrating the less visible champions. It helps to build a reputation with your people, and with recruits, as an organization known for recognizing all work. So, yes, still give the team captain a trophy but do not forget the truck drivers, admin assistants and the cleaning staff who also give their best. Equal recognition for equal work, not just the most visible work.

Timing is everything, so is authenticity

Our wiring as humans make it more likely we will sustain – or modify – a pattern of behaviour if the reward, or consequence follows on the heels of something we have done when it’s still fresh in our hearts and minds. Annual recognition programs are good. But for maximum impact, give recognition in real time and authentically. This sends a message to your work force that recognition is truly part of your culture not a formal duty carried out at specific intervals. The more the recognition feels authentic or heartfelt, the better. A text with spelling mistakes sent today is just as good as, if not better than, the reward plaque and lapel pin that comes a year later.

Bottom line: know your people

Employee engagement surveys are excellent tools for gaining insight into the recognition challenge, as lagging indicators. But every people leader, regardless of how senior, should open up multiple pathways for developing insight about how people are really feeling and whether they feel appreciated enough.

The best leaders are always out there, engaging people in whatever way possible. How well you understand your people is the main factor in determining the relevance and impact of the recognition. By recognizing that, you will be on the right path to a happier, healthier, more engaged and productive work force.

Paula Allen is the senior vice-president of research, analytics and innovation at Morneau Shepell

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

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