A recent Hay Group report reveals how thinly stretched the employee/employer contract is becoming as the effects of the recession linger in organisations.

The study from the Hay Group highlights that a large majority of employees are choosing to work longer hours, often without pay, to get the job done after teams have been decimated by layoffs. Some would hail these examples of increased, unpaid effort as proof of increased employee engagement, but it is not. Remember that truly engaged employees give additional discretionary effort to achieve strategic goals because of a deeply held belief in the company, its mission and their ability to contribute meaningfully and purposefully.

Further results from the study bear this out: Half of employees warn the current level of effort is not sustainable. Hay Group data shows employee engagement levels have dropped in this population by 13% with 36% saying they are unhappy in their role.

The bottom line is this: employees are choosing to work harder for no additional pay during this time of crisis. Employers must realise they are building a debt to employees for this work. Employees understand there may be no opportunity now to increase pay or staffing levels, but they also know sincere, authentic appreciation is always a cost-effective option to encourage and recognise employee efforts.

What’s the solution? As I’ve said frequently, communicate clearly and honestly with employees on status, plans and strategy and recognise them for what they are doing with specifics on how their efforts truly matter to the organisation in this time. These simple steps will foster an open and appreciative culture in which employees will want to engage for the long term, not just in times of crisis.