By Joyce M. Rosenberg, AP Business Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — In the early months of the recession, human resources consultants advised small business owners to take steps to boost their employees' morale, or risk losing them when the economy got better.

That advice still stands.

As the economy weakens, many small companies still aren't able to give out raises. Many are still increasing workloads instead of hiring new staffers. All this is certain to take a toll on employees' already sagging morale.

HR consultants say taking time to talk with your staff and listen to their concerns will go a long way toward helping you keep them. It might also help you make their jobs easier -- and make them more productive.

Talk is Not Cheap

Perhaps the most important thing you can do to help morale is "acknowledging the stresses and circumstances that your employees are feeling," says Arlene Vernon, president of HRx Inc, an Eden Prairie, Minn.-based HR consultancy.

That may sound familiar, because it's the sort of advice consultants were giving out during the financial crisis. They suggested company owners walk around the office, factory or selling floor and talk to workers. Ask them how things are going. Listen to them vent about the economy. See if they have questions about the company.

These chats may not seem important, but they do go a long way toward helping employees feel better. If workers have to sit on their feelings and just put on a bright face all the time, they're just bottling up unhappiness and that can be a big morale-buster.

Employees also need to feel that they're really being listened to, not patronized. That means you need to take in what your workers are saying, and if they are upset about their jobs, see what the problem is and what you can do to help.

Don't Forget the One-on-One Conversations

Owners also got this advice during the recession: Sit down with each of your workers and have a detailed talk about their jobs. If you have many employees, then your top manager needs to help you with these talks.

Some small business owners have fallen out of the habit of checking in with staffers. The excuse is often, "I don't have the time," says Beverly Kaye, an employee retention consultant in Sherman Oaks, Calif. She calls that a smokescreen for the fact that many owners are scared of these conversations.

"I'm afraid if I open the door and say, 'what's going on,' it will open up Pandora's box and problems that I won't be able to solve,'" is the fear many owners have, Kaye says. For example, an employee asks for a raise and there just isn't the money to give them. Just thinking about the conversation makes an owner uneasy.

In that case, Kaye says, an owner needs to ask, "is there anything else I can give you?" And keep asking until you can give staffers something they need or want, like flex-time or a promotion.

And don't forget exit interviews. When a staffer leaves, you need to have an honest discussion about why they're going. Vernon says that owners should be "paying attention to the emotions behind people leaving," learn from them and use that knowledge to be sure that other staffers aren't on the brink of quitting for the same reasons.

Work Overload?

Money isn't the only reason for morale problems at work. And, actually, many employees understand that raises are still hard to come by in this economy. The bigger problem may be that as you've had to cut back, you've asked your workers for more than they can reasonably get done. Even your hardest workers will feel bad if they can't get the work done well because there's too much of it.

Vernon says owners need to tell workers, "let's look at your job structure and see what we can do." And, to let them know how you would change their jobs when the economy does get better and you get more business.

Many companies have this problem: Staffers leave and their work is just handed over to their former co-workers. The boss often doesn't stop to think about how it's getting done, or the impact the workload is having not just on morale, but on the quality of the work and productivity.

"Start thinking about, how do you step back and evaluate your expectations so you're not burning out your employees -- and at the same time not compensating them for it," Vernon says.

Take Advantage of the Holidays

If the atmosphere in your company is depressed, you can also make things better for employees by acknowledging the holidays. If you haven't had Halloween, Thanksgiving and other holiday observances the last few years, you should plan some events. They don't have to be expensive. Many employees love the idea of pot-luck parties and will happily shop and cook for their co-workers. Getting everyone together to work at a charitable event and then taking them out for lunch or dinner is another idea that's growing in popularity.

There was a reason why families would gather around the piano and sing songs during the Great Depression: They liked to do things that took their minds off their money problems.

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