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How to Fix Apathy at Work and Re-engage Your Employees

Employee disengagement and apathy at work are huge problems. Learn more about them and discover how you can counter their negative effects
Written by: Penny Swift
apathy at work blog post
Published: May 3, 2024
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Apathy at work has been called a silent epidemic. Unlike the outbursts of frustration that are often associated with burnout, workplace apathy manifests as quiet disengagement that typically results in a slow decline in enthusiasm and motivation. It can be difficult for employees to fight the feelings of indifference, detachment, listlessness, and lethargy that go with apathy. However, there are positive steps that organizations can take to counteract apathy and the negative effects of a disengaged workforce.

The first step is to identify workplace apathy and disengagement. This disengagement can often stem from apathy, which is a feeling of indifference or lack of motivation that can significantly impact productivity and morale.

Since 2009, the global analytics and advisory firm, Gallup has been measuring global engagement. After declining in 2020, they stated that it reached a record high in 2022. But in January 2024, Chief Scientist of Workplace Management and Wellbeing at Gallup, Jim Harter, reported that engagement in the U.S. workplace was stagnating. The percentage of actively disengaged employees had declined to 16% in 2023, and only 33% were engaged. Those employees who weren’t engaged or who were actively disengaged had cost the U.S. economy an estimated $1.9 trillion in lost productivity.

Of course, everyone was hoping things would improve in 2024. But in April 2024, Jim Harter wrote U.S. Engagement Hits 11-Year Low. Alarmingly, 4.8 million fewer U.S. employees were engaged in the first three months of 2024. 

While apathy and disengagement are not the same thing, there is no doubt that workplace apathy can be a major driver of employee disengagement. With that in mind, we have developed a guide to help you spot apathy, understand its causes, and most importantly, reignite passion in your employees.

U.S. Employee Disengagement Challenges

Employee disengagement is part of a spectrum. At one end you have highly engaged employees who are enthusiastic and motivated. In the middle, you have neutral employees who might not be actively disengaged but aren’t particularly invested either. At the other end, you have employees experiencing apathy and high levels of disengagement. 

As mentioned above, apathy can be a cause of employee disengagement. This is, quite simply, because when employees feel apathetic, they lack the motivation, interest, or emotional connection to their work. This can lead to:

  • Going through the motions without putting in extra effort.
  • Low productivity and a decline in quality of work.
  • Feeling indifferent towards company goals and initiatives.
  • Increased absenteeism or presenteeism, which equates to being physically present but mentally disengaged.

In a February 2024 Gallup article, The New Challenges of Engaging Younger Workers, Jim Harter pointed out that engagement trends vary widely across age generations. While younger employees feel the most detached from their work and employers, baby boomers tend to remain engaged. 

Advice from Gallup is to:

  • Track global and U.S. engagement trends, and discover which elements of engagement employees need the most attention worldwide.
  • Learn more about engagement — what it is and how to improve it.
  • Equip managers to engage their teams by developing them in Boss to Coach, Gallup’s premiere manager development course.

What Is Apathy at Work?

Apathy is characterized by a general lack of interest, enthusiasm, or motivation. In the office, it shows up as employees:

  • Going through the motions: Employees complete tasks mechanically, with minimal effort or initiative.
  • Lacking a sense of purpose: They don’t see the bigger picture or how their work contributes to the organization’s goals.
  • Showing minimal emotional investment: They rarely express excitement or frustration and appear emotionally detached.

Some people identify workplace apathy with boredom. But they are not the same.

what is apathy at work

How to Distinguish Between Apathy, Boredom, and Burnout

While boredom can lead to apathy, it often stems from repetitive tasks. Bored employees might seek stimulation but still have a desire to contribute. Burnout, on the other hand, is caused by chronic stress and overwork. Burned-out employees might be exhausted and cynical, but they likely had an initial passion for their work.

The Singapore-based Aventis Centre for Wellness & Organizational Psychology identifies apathy as a more prolonged and “stable” state than boredom. “Unlike boredom, where emotions change, nothing excites, pleases, or interests an apathetic person.”

Furthermore, short-term boredom has its advantages.

“Studies have shown that a temporary lack of stimulation increases creativity and motivation. Being apathetic and passive, on the other hand, works against your self-interest.”


What Causes Apathy at Work?

Apathy can be a symptom of various issues, both personal or caused by work factors and/or issues that stem from within the organization. 

Work Factors

  • Lack of Challenge: Repetitive tasks or a feeling that their skills aren’t being fully utilized can lead to disengagement and apathy. 
  • Unclear Expectations: If employees don’t understand the “why” behind their work, it’s hard for them to stay motivated. They need to know what their roles and goals are, and how their work contributes to the bigger picture. If they don’t, it can lead to confusion, disengagement, and an overall sense of apathy. 
  • Lack of Recognition: According to the Reward Gateway/Edenred Workplace Wellbeing: Where to focus in 2024, two in every five people don’t remember being recognized by a manager or senior leader in the last 12 months. Additionally, 60% say they’d like to be recognized more by managers or senior leaders. This shows that feeling undervalued for their contributions can demotivate even the most dedicated employees. 
  • Feeling Undervalued: Employees who feel their contributions aren’t recognized or appreciated are less likely to put in extra effort.

Personal Factors

  • Disengagement with the Job: An employee might simply dislike the nature of their work or feel it doesn’t align with their values.
  • Low Motivation: A general lack of interest in the field can contribute to apathy.
  • Personal Issues: External factors like stress, health problems, or personal challenges can also contribute to workplace apathy.

Organizational Factors

  • Toxic Work Culture: A culture of negativity, gossip, or bullying can drain anyone’s enthusiasm.
  • Work-Life Imbalance: Feeling constantly overworked and overwhelmed can lead to apathy and disengagement that might develop into burnout.
  • Lack of Growth Opportunities: Feeling stuck in a dead-end job with no chance for advancement can be incredibly demotivating.
  • Poor Leadership: Ineffective leadership can leave employees feeling unsupported and unsure of their direction. More about this later! 
what causes apathy at work

The Impact of Apathy at Work

The consequences of a workplace filled with apathetic employees can be far-reaching:

  • Decreased Productivity and Quality of Work: Unmotivated employees complete tasks with minimal effort, leading to a drop in output and quality.
  • Low Morale and Employee Engagement: As mentioned earlier, disengaged employees cost US companies an estimated $1.9 trillion in lost productivity in 2023. The problem is that apathy is contagious. Seeing unmotivated colleagues can drag down the entire spirit of an organization or team within an organization. 
  • Increased Absenteeism and Turnover: Disengaged employees are more likely to miss work or actively seek new opportunities elsewhere.

Aventis Centre warns that chronic apathy at work isn’t just a drag on your mood. It’s a virus that spreads to every aspect of your well-being. It fuels stress, anxiety, and depression, crushes productivity, and turns your workplace toxic. And here’s the kicker — apathy clings to you, following you even if you switch careers. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a leadership role or in a baseline position in a company. 

impact of apathy at work

Role of Leadership to Counter Apathy

So, let’s talk about apathetic leadership and the devastating effect apathetic leaders can have. We’ve identified two authorities on the topic. 

Apathetic Leaders Are Killing Employee Engagement and Morale

Jason Compton, Environmental Health and Safety expert with Cardinal Health, pinpoints how a rise in apathetic leaders is killing employee morale and engagement. In an article posted on LinkedIn, he draws attention to the crucial role leaders play in driving the engagement of employees and boosting their morale. 

He identifies how great leaders cultivate a positive work environment, ignite team motivation, and steer everyone toward shared goals. Unfortunately, a worrying trend has emerged in the form of apathetic leadership. These leaders display indifference towards their own roles and, worse yet, the roles of their team members. This apathy has a ripple effect, eroding employee engagement, morale, safety, and ultimately, organizational productivity. The result? Increased internal and external risks to the company’s success.

“An apathetic leader is someone who lacks passion, empathy, and motivation in their leadership role. They show little interest or concern about things that used to matter to their organization or the goals that matter to those they work with daily. Although they may possess the necessary skills and knowledge to read a profit and loss statement, they lack the drive to inspire and engage their team.”

Jason Compton

His primary concern is that organizations must identify apathy in leaders to avoid the negative impact of apathetic leadership on employees. He recognizes that this is essential to create motivation and engagement.

What is the Role of Leadership in the Apathy Crisis?

Jessica Kriegel, Chief Scientist of Workplace Culture at Culture Partners, is also acutely aware of the apathy crisis and the role leadership has to play. In an article, The Apathy Crisis And The Role Of Leadership published on LinkedIn, she identifies the roles of leadership in different levels of organizations showing that a big problem is that many aren’t clear on their priorities. 

Examples she cites include tasks that people spend days doing that nobody will ever notice or read. She also highlights the fact that many stress, burnout, and mental health challenges are because of bad management. 

“If we clear up some of the priority hurdles inside organizations, we can get more clarity on who should be doing what, which makes the culture piece more logical and reduces some of the languishing and malaise.”

Jessica Kriegel 

4 Strategies for Managers to Re-Engage Employees

It’s not difficult, but it does take thought and effort to counter apathy and re-engage employees. Here are four broad strategies to help you combat apathy and reignite passion in your team.

  1. Enhance growth opportunities and improve job enrichment 
  2. Improve internal communication and feedback
  3. Recognize achievements and reward them
  4. Promote a work environment that is positive and supportive 

#1 Enhance Job Enrichment and Growth Opportunities

Apathy can be a real buzzkill in the workplace, leading to disengaged employees and a stagnant work environment. But don’t worry, it’s not a big problem! By focusing on job enrichment and growth opportunities, you can reignite employee passion and create a more fulfilling work experience.

Job enrichment initiatives

  • Variety and Challenge: Break up monotonous routines by adding new tasks, projects, or responsibilities. This helps employees utilize a wider range of skills and keeps things interesting.
  • Increased Autonomy: Empower employees with greater control over their work. Let them make decisions, solve problems, and manage their own time. This fosters ownership and a sense of accomplishment.
  • Recognition and Feedback: Acknowledge achievements and contributions regularly. Offer constructive feedback that helps employees improve and feel valued. Be aware that public recognition can be especially motivating.

Growth opportunities 

  • Skills Development: Invest in training programs, workshops, or conferences that help employees develop new skills relevant to their roles or future career aspirations.
  • Mentorship Programs: Pair experienced employees with newer team members for guidance and support. This fosters knowledge transfer and career development.
  • Internal Career Paths: Clearly define career progression opportunities within the company. Offer opportunities for internal promotions or lateral moves to keep employees engaged and motivated.

By implementing these initiatives and opportunities, you can transform mundane jobs into enriching experiences with clear growth paths. This not only combats apathy but also fosters a more engaged and productive workforce, ultimately benefiting both employees and the company.

#2 Improve Communication and Feedback

You can boost communication for engaged employees and transform feedback into a growth tool. Both of these approaches will help you to improve communication and feedback.

Boost communication

First, realize that apathy thrives in the dark. By fostering open and transparent communication, you can empower employees, address concerns, and reignite their interest.

  • Two-Way Communication: Move beyond top-down messaging. Encourage employee questions, feedback, and suggestions through regular meetings, surveys, or an anonymous suggestion box.
  • Focus on Transparency: Be open about company goals, challenges, and decisions. This builds trust and helps employees feel invested in the company’s success.
  • Regular Updates: Keep employees informed with timely updates on projects, company news, and changes that might affect their work. This prevents them from feeling out of the loop.

Then make sure that feedback doesn’t only point out mistakes. It should be a tool for growth and development. Here’s how to make it a positive force:

  • Focus on the “Why”: Don’t just highlight errors; explain the impact and desired outcome. This helps employees understand how their actions affect the bigger picture.
  • Provide Specific and Actionable Feedback: Be clear about what needs improvement and offer specific suggestions for how employees can develop.
  • Focus on Positive Reinforcement: Celebrate successes and acknowledge improvements alongside addressing challenges. This fosters a culture of learning and growth.
  • Make it a Two-Way Street: Encourage employees to actively seek and provide feedback to managers and colleagues. This fosters a collaborative and supportive environment.

By implementing these strategies, you can transform communication and feedback from sources of frustration to powerful tools for employee engagement. As employees feel heard, valued, and empowered to grow, apathy loses its grip, paving the way for a more motivated and productive workforce.

#3 Recognize and Reward Achievements

There are various ways to recognize and reward the achievements of employees at every level. 

Focus on recognition

  • Public Recognition: Highlight employee accomplishments in company-wide emails, newsletters, or team meetings. Public recognition increases a sense of pride and often inspires others.
  • Personalized Recognition: Take the time to acknowledge individual achievements privately with a handwritten note, a personal email, or a quick chat. It shows genuine appreciation and strengthens the employer-employee relationship.
  • Peer-to-Peer Recognition: Encourage employees to recognize and celebrate each other’s successes. This fosters a collaborative and supportive work environment.

Vary Rewards

  • Performance-Based Bonuses or Incentives: While financial rewards are a motivator, don’t rely on them solely. Consider offering other options like extra paid time off, flexible work arrangements, or gift cards for desired experiences.
  • Experiences Over Things: Sometimes, experiences like tickets to a game, a spa day, or a company outing provide a more memorable reward than a physical object.
  • Opportunities for Growth: Acknowledge high performers by offering opportunities for professional development, like attending conferences, leading projects, or participating in mentorship programs.

Make recognition meaningful 

  • Specificity Matters: Don’t just say “Good job.” Highlight the specific accomplishment and its impact on the team or company. This shows you pay attention and value their contributions.
  • Timely Recognition: The sooner you acknowledge an achievement, the stronger the impact. Don’t let great work go unnoticed.
  • Align Recognition with Values: Connect the achievement to the company’s core values. This reinforces the desired behaviors and shows how their work contributes to the bigger picture.

#4 Promote a Positive and Supportive Work Environment

Apathy thrives in negativity. But by cultivating a positive and supportive work environment, you can create a breeding ground for employee engagement and banish apathy once and for all. You can do this in many different ways.

Build trust and respect

  • Open Communication: Encourage open dialogue and two-way communication. Conduct regular meetings, town halls, or surveys to keep employees informed and engaged.
  • Psychological Safety: Foster an environment where employees feel safe to speak their minds, share ideas, and admit mistakes without fear of retribution.
  • Respectful Interactions: Promote respectful interactions between colleagues and leadership. Set clear expectations regarding professional conduct and address any instances of negativity or bullying promptly.

Encourage teamwork and collaboration

  • Embrace Collaboration: Create opportunities for teamwork on projects. This fosters a sense of shared responsibility, strengthens relationships, and promotes knowledge-sharing.
  • Healthy Competition: Encourage healthy competition within teams, rewarding collaboration and achieving shared goals. Avoid pitting individuals against each other, as it can breed resentment.
  • Celebrate Team Wins: Recognize and celebrate team accomplishments alongside individual achievements. This strengthens team spirit and motivates everyone to contribute.

Invest in employee wellbeing

  • Work-Life Balance: Promote healthy work-life balance by offering flexible work arrangements, encouraging breaks, and discouraging excessive overtime. Burnt-out employees are more susceptible to apathy.
  • Employee Wellness Programs: Offer programs that promote physical and mental well-being, such as on-site fitness classes, stress management workshops, or Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs).
  • Positive Work Environment: Create a physically comfortable and aesthetically pleasing work environment. Let employees personalize their workspace if possible.
4 strategies to re-engage employees

What’s Next

We all need to be aware of the dangers of employee apathy. An excellent way to identify the possibility that apathy at work is creeping into your workplace is to survey your employees and find out how they really feel. Cerkl’s employee engagement survey is designed to help you do exactly this. Give it a try. Once you identify the problem areas you’ll find it a lot easier to find productivity communication solutions


What is workplace apathy?

When employees suffer from workplace apathy, they lack motivation and enthusiasm and have little care for their work. Their apathy can manifest as going through the motions (without achieving), low productivity, and a general feeling of indifference.

What causes workplace apathy?

Workplace apathy has many potential causes. These include feeling undervalued, having a monotonous workload, unclear expectations, or a lack of growth opportunities. Apathy can also stem from poor company culture, bad leadership, or personal burnout.

How do you fix apathy at work?

You need a multi-pronged approach to fix workplace apathy. It is crucial to address the root causes of apathetic individuals and to ensure that it isn’t due to burnout or medical depression. If it isn’t, to promote job satisfaction consider offering recognition programs, promoting work-life balance, or providing opportunities for skill development to reignite engagement.

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