More gloomy predictions about the economy this week, with figures showing that people in the UK are borrowing more on credit cards, overdrafts and loans than at the height of the 2009 recession.

According to the Bank of England, household debt has risen by more than five billion as people increasingly borrow money simply to fund their day-to-day living. Rising petrol, energy and food prices are of course at the root of the problem. The Daily Telegraph reports that British consumers have seen the price of their weekly food bill increase by 6.4 per cent as well as energy prices shooting up by a fifth within the past year.

Research from ASDA suggests this has led to the average family’s spending power dipping by more than £700 a year. As if this wasn’t enough, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) has piled on even more woe today with a warning that unless prompt action is taken on the Eurozone crisis, there’s a 70 per cent chance the UK will head straight back into recession.

So bad news all round then for both individuals and businesses – but also a challenge for SMEs who will have to find new and more creative ways of keeping employees motivated at a time when budgets are under pressure and belts are tightening.

Now it’s probably fair to say that extra cash in their pocket may well be top of the list for employees who are struggling to make ends meet – but most people will by now have taken a reality check and realised that their chances of a Christmas bonus or imminent pay rise are pretty slim.

So, how else can you ensure people feel appreciated for their efforts and are willing to go the extra mile at a time when the business needs everyone to be pulling their weight and performing better?

There are of course many voucher schemes on the market for motivating employees that offer companies a cost effective way of recognising staff achievement. These generally involve rewarding employees with retail or leisure vouchers that they can use to treat the family or put towards the weekly food shopping bill. The amounts of money involved don’t have to be huge and employees generally appreciate anything that makes the family budget stretch a bit further.

But I particularly liked some of the low or no-cost ideas for rewarding and motivating staff highlighted by management consultant Leslie Allan in this week’s edition of the online magazine HRZone.

It may only sound like a small gesture, but a sincere, handwritten note of thanks for a job well done can go a very long way. Employees will appreciate the fact you have taken the time and trouble to put pen to paper and will feel that their efforts have been appreciated. Ditto a more official letter of appreciation which can be copied to senior managers in the business and placed on the employees personnel file.

Awarding certificates at staff meetings, for successful completion of a project or achievement of a target, is another idea worth considering. It will make the recipient feel valued, provides public recognition of their achievements and gives others something to strive for.

Allan also suggests organising lunch with the boss or the occasional team dinner to celebrate a successful achievement and give everyone a nice warm glow.

Of course what all these suggestions boil down to really is the simple but effective motivational technique of saying ‘thank you’. Widely under-used by managers everywhere, but generally greatly appreciated by employees and guaranteed to get them coming into work with a smile on their face, geared up for the next challenge.

So what low-cost techniques have you come up with for keeping employees motivated when times are hard? And how many times have you said thank you today?

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Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.