In today’s competitive business landscape, maintaining a committed and motivated workforce is a top priority for organizations. Employees who are engaged in their work contribute significantly towards the overall productivity and success of a company. However, employee disengagement, where a worker shows reduced enthusiasm and dedication to their roles and responsibilities, is becoming an increasingly prevalent issue, affecting not just staff morale, but also the bottom line of businesses.
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Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2023 Report indicates an alarming trend toward disengagement coupled with low employee engagement. By 2023, globally, only 23% of employees were engaged, meaning they were thriving at work.
The remaining 59% were not engaged. They are what Gallup terms “quiet quitting” — doing as little as possible, ”filling a seat and watching the clock”. Of those who were actively disengaged, 61% were looking for or actively seeking a new job.
The stats for North America (the U.S. and Canada) are slightly different, with 31% engaged, 52% not engaged, and 17% actively disengaged.
Our article seeks to explore the concept of employee disengagement, its signs, stages, impacts, and costs. We also consider effective strategies to mitigate disengagement.
What is Employee Disengagement?
Contrary to employee engagement, disengagement reflects an emotional, cognitive, and behavioral state of disconnect that exists when an employee fails to commit fully to their role, company culture, or the organization’s goals. It is generally viewed as an uncommitted, unencouraged, and unproductive state because it significantly affects the attitude and conduct of each disengaged employee. It’s opposed to efficiency, productivity, and workplace positivity, often leading to negative outcomes.
A 2022 research paper published in Human Resource Management Review talks about employee engagement as being “one of the most influential management ideas of recent decades.” While disengagement is a problem that must still be addressed, the authors present a core idea that is common to all current theories — “the distancing of oneself emotionally, cognitively, and physically from work.”
According to an article by Lian Parsons, Digital Content Producer at Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education, most employees start their jobs with high levels of engagement. However, over time, due to various reasons such as lack of appreciation, inability to see career progression prospects, toxic work culture, or waning interest, this enthusiasm can decrease, resulting in employee disengagement.
“Disengagement is contagious and can rapidly reduce productivity. Imagine one person with the flu coming into a room full of healthy people. Healthy people don’t make one sick person better; the sick person infects the healthy ones. This is similar to how disengagement works.”Lian Parsons
An employee who is “not engaged” mustn’t be confused with an employee who is “actively disengaged”. There is a fundamental difference between the two terms that Gallup quotes. While not engaged employees (who may be seen as disengaged) are less enthusiastic and give fewer contributions, actively disengaged employees deliberately tend to undermine the company’s progress and/or the accomplishments of those around them.
What is a Disengaged Employee?
According to Gallup, actively disengaged employees make up 18% of the workplace population. These employees are open about the fact that they dislike their jobs and let this be known. They commonly make negative comments about the workplace and speak negatively about it outside of the workplace.
A Gallup Workplace article by Jim Harter, chief scientist of Workplace Management and Wellbeing at Gallup, states that the ratio of engaged to actively disengaged workers in the U.S. was 1.8-to-1 in 2022, down from 2.1-to-1 in 2021 and 2.6-to-1 in 2020. This is the lowest ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees in the U.S. since 2013.
Cost of Employee Disengagement
Costs are a critical issue when it comes to disengagement that most businesses overlook. Actively disengaged employees can take a substantial toll on an organization’s financial health. They aren’t merely unproductive team members, but they often negatively influence their colleagues, generating a domino effect of plummeting morale and low employee engagement.
Data shows that disengagement can lead to absenteeism, reduced productivity, and a high turnover rate. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2023 Report also reveals that disengaged employees cost the world an unbelievable $8.8 trillion in lost productivity. This kind of number is alarming and illustrates the urgency needed to address the issue.
A disengaged employee can impact all aspects of the business, including customer satisfaction, reputation, and most importantly, the bottom line. Yet, it’s not just about the direct financial consequences. There are indirect costs too. These include recruitment expenses for replacing disengaged employees, resources spent on training new hires, and the potentially negative impact on company culture. Therefore, it’s crucial not to underestimate the cost of disengagement.
6 Signs of Employee Disengagement
Identifying signs of disengagement at an early stage is a challenge for the management of any organization. However, knowing what to look for can be advantageous when it comes to curbing disengagement. Here are six signs to look out for:
#1 Negative Attitude
Any change in attitude can be a key indicator that an employee is disengaged. They might express dissatisfaction, or pessimism, or display a significant drop in enthusiasm about their work or the organization.
#2 Decreased Productivity
Disengaged employees often show low productivity levels. As they lose interest in their roles, the quality and quantity of their work may decline.
#3 Withdrawal from Colleagues
Disengaged employees often distance themselves from team members and work conversations. This lack of social engagement can adversely impact the team’s morale and collaboration. It may also be an indication of an increasingly negative attitude to the company.
#4 Lack of Initiative
Unwillingness to take up new tasks beyond their regular job description or to contribute to team meetings and discussions could be a sign of increasing disengagement.
#5 Increased Absenteeism
Frequent leave of absence, late arrivals, or early departures could point to an employee being disengaged from the firm. According to the Q12 survey, disengaged employees tend to have 81% more absent days compared to their engaged colleagues.
#6 Resistance to Change
Employees who resist changes in the organization or their role may be disengaged. In the Qualtrics 2024 Employee Experience Trends report, only 30% of disengaged employees say they’re comfortable with AI assisting them at work versus 53% of engaged employees.
Often, deciphering these signs requires constant observation and communication skills. However, correct identification facilitates intervention and allows for steps to enhance employee engagement. Though it may seem challenging, recognizing symptoms is the first step towards addressing disengagement and minimizing it in the workplace.
Stages of Employee Disengagement
The prevalence of disengagement in the workplace is a concern that managers and business leaders cannot afford to ignore.
Recognizing the stages of disengagement is crucial in addressing the issue before it festers and causes lasting damage to both the employee and the organization. These are common stages of disengagement:
Stage One – Denial
The first stage of disengagement often manifests subtly. Employees might start disregarding engagement activities or seem disconnected from team projects. However, they often deny feeling unfulfilled or dissatisfied when asked directly.
Stage Two – Withdrawal
At this stage, employees start to detach themselves further from their work. Their creativity and input in tasks might subside noticeably, and they may begin to withdraw from team members and workplace social activities.
Stage Three – Apathy
Apathetic employees demonstrate an entrenched lack of interest in their work. As disengagement progresses, they may neglect responsibilities and display a negative attitude. It’s at this stage that actively disengaged employees usually become evident.
Stage Four – Discontent
Once dissatisfaction transforms into discontent, employees may exhibit disruptive behavior, such as spreading negativity, which can be detrimental to team morale and productivity.
Stage Five – Departure
The final stage culminates in an employee leaving the organization. This can often result from a total lack of engagement, causing the employee to look for fulfillment elsewhere.
Proactive, employee-centric policies can help address symptoms of disengagement and energize disengaged employees.
Impact of Employee Disengagement in the Workplace
Disengagement presents profound ramifications within the workplace, affecting varying aspects ranging from employee experience to attrition and overall productivity.
Impact of Disengagement on Experience
Disengagement drastically affects employee experience. When employees are disengaged, they often experience burnout, under-stimulation, and a lack of personal growth. This dissatisfaction can bleed into their general outlook toward the workplace, tarnishing the overall employee experience.
Studies show that organizations marked by low employee engagement frequently fight against high stress levels, poor work-life balance, and an absence of recognition. This lackluster experience invariably reinforces disengagement, creating a vicious cycle that has hugely negative effects.
Impact of Disengagement on Attrition
Disengaged employees are more likely to leave an organization. Attrition rates have a direct correlation with engagement levels, and the cost of losing a great employee extends beyond financial implications.
According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2023 Report, U.S. teams with highly engaged employees have 47% less turnover. In comparison, organizations with a high proportion of disengaged employees face continual recruitment and training expenses, lost knowledge and expertise, and diminished team morale.
Influence of Disengagement on Productivity
Productivity takes a massive hit when employees disengage. Engaged employees bring energy, commitment, and innovation to the workplace — all attributes that drive productivity. Conversely, disengaged employees often perform minimally, leading to reduced output and quality of work.
Gallup’s Q12 survey referenced above reveals that companies with higher engagement levels are 23% more profitable. This demonstrates that engagement narrows down to the bottom line. Ultimately, low productivity from disengaged employees can significantly diminish an organization’s competitive advantage.
The impact of disengagement far exceeds the disruption of individual employees. It breeds a negative company culture that can compound over time. Therefore initiatives to identify and address disengagement should be a top priority for every organization.
5 Strategies to Deal with a Disengaged Employee
If faced with actively disengaged employees or signs of disengagement within your workforce, the good news is that there are healthy and constructive strategies to re-energize. By leveraging the right strategies, you can transform disengaged employees into productive and enthusiastic team members.
1. Open Communication
Communication is a key factor in any employee’s engagement level. An environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their needs and concerns is good for morale. Regular feedback and discussions about their performance can also make them feel valued and heard. Providing platforms for open communication helps to foster a great employee experience and prevent employees from disengaging.
2. Recognition and Rewards
Employee recognition is another effective strategy for reviving a disengaged employee. Recognizing their efforts and achievements can motivate, boost their morale, and promote positive behavior. Accompany recognition with tangible rewards like bonuses, promotions, or even opportunities for continuing education to further enhance their engagement level.
3. Encourage Growth and Development
Providing the opportunity for employee growth maintains engagement and generally prevents employee burnout. Regular workshops, skills training, conferences, or certifications are examples of ways to stimulate employee growth. Employees appreciate this as it shows the organization’s investment in their potential, thereby boosting their loyalty and engagement.
4. Promote a Healthy Work-Life Balance
Overworking is one of the causes of disengagement, primarily because it is a sign that it can lead to burnout. Employees need frequent breaks and ample time for non-work activities. Encourage a balanced life by being flexible about work hours, providing adequate vacation time, and promoting mental health support. This fosters a healthy work-life balance and can re-energize disengaged employees.
5. Cultivate a Positive Company Culture
The Quantum Workplace Driving Employee Success Employee Engagement Trends 2023 report has some more telling stats. It states that roughly 60% of disengaged employees and only 23% of engaged employees would leave their company “for a better culture.” This is yet another source that shows a positive company culture where employees feel valued and respected is key to employee engagement.
This is why it’s so important to focus on creating an atmosphere that nurtures collaboration, trust, and transparency. Involve leadership in demonstrating this culture to ensure it permeates the entire organization. Remember, a great employee is likely to disengage in a negative environment, so maintaining a healthy workplace culture is pivotal.
Following these strategies can significantly increase employee engagement metrics. It allows disengaged employees to regain their enthusiasm for work and contributes to the overall growth and development of the organization.
How Can Cerkl Help You Eliminate Disengagement?
Communication is key for employee engagement. So, the best way to engage employees is with a good internal communications plan.
Cerkl Broadcast provides a comprehensive suite of internal communication software suitable for organizations of any size or structure. Tailored for internal communicators, it functions as a centralized hub for managing communication assets, ensuring easy access and effective planning.
The platform’s omnichannel capability eliminates the need to choose specific channels for communication, allowing the audience to select their preferred channels, depending on what they are using. This accessibility ensures that all employees, whether on-site, in remote locations, or in different countries, can access communications effortlessly.
Cerkl Broadcast offers a free interactive worksheet that will help company executives with strategic internal communications audits. This will help you to focus on the most viable communications channels and ultimate success. Access it free to assess the viability of your existing plan and see what you need to do to improve it.
This refers to a state in which employees feel disconnected, uninvolved, or indifferent to their work, leading to decreased motivation and productivity.
Disengagement is characterized by a lack of emotional commitment and enthusiasm towards one’s job. This results in reduced job satisfaction and organizational loyalty.
To address disengagement, organizations can implement strategies such as open communication, providing opportunities for skill development, and recognizing and rewarding achievements. Offering a supportive work environment and seeking feedback to understand and address underlying issues are also good approaches.
If employees are disengaged, organizations may face reduced productivity, increased absenteeism, higher turnover rates, and a negative impact on overall workplace morale and culture. Disengagement can also lead to a decline in employee satisfaction and hinder the achievement of organizational goals.
The three levels of disengagement often referred to are actively disengaged (employees who are openly negative and disruptive), passively disengaged (those who are physically present but mentally checked out), and engaged (employees who are committed, motivated, and contribute positively to the workplace). These levels serve as a foundational framework for understanding the spectrum of employee commitment and involvement in the workplace.