Your trust's performance is improving, staff vacancies and turnover are low and absenteeism is going down. So why is morale still low? Blair McPherson looks at the factors that affect how staff see their jobs and their organisation

Morale in the public sector is not a straightforward matter. It is affected by changes imposed by central government and by whether budgets allow for growth or require cutbacks. It is also affected by the quality of leadership in the organisation and the people management skills of line managers.

However, in the health sector low morale does not necessarily stop staff from doing a good job for patients. This seems to be because their commitment is to the service user rather than the organisation. Staff may feel very positive about the work of their team or service but negative about the organisation they work for.

Improving staff morale

Perhaps the first mistake is to believe that as a senior manager the responsibility of improving staff morale lies solely with you. So many factors influence whether someone is happy at work, and many of them are outside of work, such as personal relationships, family and friends.

However, organisations can take measures to help create a positive work environment. These include communicating effectively with staff, employing a skilled workforce, ensuring roles and responsibilities are clear, and embedding a performance-orientated culture.

People are happier if they know what is expected of them and they feel they have the skills, knowledge and resources to deliver.

Improving morale in the public sector means removing obstacles that stand in the way of staff's efforts to help people, having good people management skills, and developing an organisational culture that manages major changes carefully.

One way of removing obstacles is by reducing paperwork, streamlining processes and delegating decisions closer to the front line. Senior managers need to work hard to establishing a safe environment where staff can say what they are really thinking. The challenge is to talk more about values and less about strategies and to have discussions, not lectures.

Recognising progress

The annual staff survey is a blunt instrument for measuring staff morale and improved performance does not necessarily mean happier staff. Simply asking staff to rate their level of satisfaction is not enough.

Other measures are required to determine the extent to which staff feel engaged with the organisation. How much confidence and trust do they have in their line manager? How much confidence do they have in the organisation's process for dealing with complaints against managers? How much faith do they have in the organisation's commitment to equal opportunity? How safe do they feel in expressing dissenting views?

Ultimately, the challenge is to get staff to a position were they are prepared to come up with ways of making things work rather than putting their energy into criticising decisions and those who make them.