The tough job market of the past two years has made life very difficult for those who are either unemployed or underemployed. And so you might think that your employees, because they have jobs, would be ecstatic. They aren't. While no doubt grateful for a paycheck, U.S. workers are actually less satisfied than they've been in many years.

A November 2003 survey by CareerBuilder, a leading job-search Web site, documents the extent of this dissatisfaction. The survey found that nearly one in four workers are now dissatisfied with their jobs, a 20 percent increase over 2001 levels, with some six out of ten workers planning to leave their current employer for other pursuits within the next two years. A similar survey by the Society for Human Resource Professionals revealed that more than eight out of ten workers intend to look for a new job when the economy heats up.

As an employer, you have good reason to be concerned about findings like these. A recent Ernst & Young survey calculated that the cost of replacing a high-level employee may be as much as 150 percent of that departing employee's salary. And matters could become worse very quickly. While the economy continues to rebound, existing workers will find job-hopping an increasingly viable option. And if predictions of widespread worker shortages by the latter half of the decade come true, these conditions will only be exacerbated.

How should you respond to this impending exodus of valuable workers?

First, it's important to understand why your employees might be dissatisfied. Over the past two years, as business budgets have tightened and remaining employees have been forced to take on larger workloads, employees have experienced significantly added stress without receiving compensatory rewards.

The longer-term issue, however, is simply that employees appear to want more in their lives than just work. As Tom Silveri, president of strategic HR solutions provider DBM, says, "Let's face it, the era of dot-com craziness, 18-hour workdays, and perks like 'Bring Your Dog to Work Day' are gone. In fact, in a recent poll of human resources professionals, 66 percent indicated they had seen an increase in requests for flexible work schedules during the past 12 months."

Could it be that the 163-hour rise in average annual work hours over the past two decades has finally started to take its toll?

One solution is for you to implement what's typically called a "work/life balance program." And it doesn't have to be elaborate. Even simple changes will have your employees feeling a greater balance in their lives. Consider what happened recently at Hewlett-Packard's Customer Engineering division, which provides on-site hardware support for HP customers. To fulfill HP's promise of a rapid response, customer engineers were forced to wear pagers 24/7. No problem at first. But as customers' operating schedules increasingly broke the boundaries of the normal workday, HP's overtime costs soared and morale suffered, with employees typically losing sizable chunks of their evenings and weekends to service calls.

HP's response? Even without a formal policy, managers allowed employees to create their own work schedules. Some volunteered for three-day, 12-hour schedules, with four hours of work on Monday, enabling those employees to be involved in family and school activities during the week. This change allowed weekday customer engineers to make personal plans for the weekend, knowing that others were covering those shifts. The benefit to HP? Overtime costs fell by 36 percent, and the dozens of customer engineers who were thinking of leaving stayed on the job, holding recruitment and training costs down.

Flexible work hours aren't the only way to increase employee satisfaction. Here are some other steps you can take to boost your workers' loyalty and dedication while reducing turnover:

  • Provide workers with responsibility-and then let them use it. Most surveys show that the greatest source of employee pride and satisfaction is the feeling of accomplishment that comes from having-and exercising-responsibility. Yet many business owners, consumed by fears of a shrinking bottom line, have turned micromanagement into an art form. Unfortunately, few things employers do cause more employee dissatisfaction. Here's the real bottom line: If you can't trust your employees to be able to think and act on their own, you probably shouldn't have hired them in the first place.
  • Show respect. Frustrated by a faltering economy, diminishing markets and meddling investors, many business owners look close to home for someone to blame-all too often, that's their own employees. The result? A growing number of employees feel like they're being viewed as the enemy, not as loyal partners. It's little wonder so many workers seem ready to jump ship at the first sign of opportunity. On the other hand, companies that truly value their employees earn more than gratitude-they win enhanced dedication and productivity as well. So be sure to show your employees how much you respect and value them-tell them how much you appreciate them, throw them a pizza party, recognize an employee of the month, do anything you can to show them how much you care.
  • Recognize the whole person. Employees are more than 9-to-5 robots who turn off at night and can't wait until the starting bell rings the next morning. All workers have lives, interests, and friends and family outside the office-and most are constantly struggling to balance increasingly hectic schedules. While companies can't sacrifice unduly to the whims of a single individual, making concessions where possible-allowing a long lunch break to attend a child's school event, for instance, or permitting a sales executive to fly out on Monday morning instead of Sunday night-can pay huge dividends in the long run.
  • Mark out a clear path to growth. Some employees are content to remain where they are in an organization, but most want to grow in their careers over time. While annual performance reviews were originally designed to promote this goal, too often they have become empty, "Dilbertized" rituals, more embarrassing than ennobling. By contrast, business owners who wish to increase worker satisfaction tend to look past formalities and establish genuine growth paths for all their employees, not just their senior executives.

When implemented throughout an organization, common sense practices like these can have profound effects. Ernst & Young, for example, realized savings of more than $40 million over several years from reduced turnover. First Tennessee Bank boosted profits by $106 million within just two years and, in one division, increased productivity by 50 percent. And a survey of technology companies by business consulting firm inMomentum found that more accommodating business cultures helped propel annual average sales growth of more than 140 percent, compared to 10 percent in less accommodating cultures.

The bottom line is this: Trends toward increasing job dissatisfaction can be reversed, and even employees with low morale can become motivated and enthusiastic again. But it takes work-and creativity-on the employer's part. According to Jill Casner-Lotto, vice president of the Work in America Institute, for work/life programs to succeed, there must be both bottom-up and top-down support. "[Support from the top] is critical-senior-level management sets the tone, creates the environment in which these initiatives can happen, and then provides the resources," says Casner-Lotto. "But this top-level commitment must be combined with mid-level and front-line managerial support and grassroots employee involvement if it is to be truly successful."

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