In a perfect world, we’d all love our jobs, right? We’d come to work enthusiastic, full of ideas, ready to make a difference, or at least ready to make the day go well for ourselves and others while we’re there. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. Between burnout, boredom, lack of work/life balance and the fallout from the pandemic, the American Psychological Association (APA) reports that 71% of employed Americans typically feel tense or stressed out during the workday—stress that leads to a lack of interest, motivation and energy, irritability with coworkers and customers, and ultimately, looking for a job elsewhere. There are lots of employee disengagement definitions out there, but they all share this common theme.
Here’s the thing, though—people are good at hiding it, especially from managers who may be distracted or who simply care more about profits than the people who make them possible. However when employee malaise starts impacting the bottom line, it has a way of focusing leaders’ attention―especially in a tight job market where people have lots of options. The trick is to recognize and tackle disengagement before it becomes a triage exercise.
If people are disengaging, the solution is to re-engage them, yes? If only it were so simple. For many leaders, “engaged” equals “productive,” and “productive” equals “grind, hustle, and work incredibly hard every single moment of the day, including hours that take away from your free time, friends and family. Because we’re paying you.” Alas, that’s what probably led to the disengagement in the first place. “Engaged” also tends to mean “controlled, because I can see you” and can rear its head as a euphemism for collaboration that can be achieved just as easily by other less toxic means. (Also not so good for morale.) What employers often forget is that people see right through all that.
Outside of dramatic or catastrophic occurrences that shake up the status quo, there is no sure way to determine the moment at which an employee loses interest in their work. However, it is possible to identify trends over time and continually implement improvements. The model can be as simple as this: Ask. Do. Repeat. If you have a boss who says, “of course I know what’s going on, my managers/HR people tell me,” that’s pretty much a sure sign they have little idea of what’s going on and, because they’re not getting information straight from the source, they don’t care or are afraid of what they might find out.
Anonymized surveys are the gold standard in soliciting employee input. You may have to do some work up front to reassure people that the information they provide is truly anonymous, but any reputable survey firm can help with that. Just know that it may take a while because trust is something earned over time as it becomes clear that honest feedback doesn’t lead to retribution. Additionally, employees want tangible proof that the management team is actually doing something about what they’re learning.
Gartner identifies nine questions that should be in every employee engagement survey to surface whether employees care enough to put forth effort on your company’s behalf. They fall into three categories:
If you’re doing employee engagement surveys on a regular basis and have established trust in the process, you’re going to have an easier time pinpointing anomalies and fixing them in meaningful ways that your employees will recognize and appreciate. But what if you aren’t? Start doing them. But until then, what are some of the signs of employee disengagement to be on the lookout for?
Opting out takes many forms. If it’s happening occasionally, it can simply be a sign of a busy day or that something temporary is being dealt with elsewhere. However, taking oneself out of the mix more consistently—withdrawing from the everyday conversation with peers, not joining in discussions/debates, declining to participate in team activities—is a different level of disinterest or disconnection.
A little more overt than opting out, checking out may surface as failing to communicate important information—deadlines in doubt, issues that affect production/sales, upcoming time off, what-have-you. It can also show up as subtle non-compliance with rules, from longer-than-usual lunches to lax safety procedures.
Stress is exhausting. When the work employees do isn’t up to their own standards—missed deadlines, overlooked essentials, subpar research, lackadaisical effort, etc.—it may simply be because they’re burnt out due to office pressures or things happening outside of your four walls.
Those who’ve lost faith in a company may cease to contribute ideas or, on the flip side, take on the role of dissenter whenever anyone puts one out there. What they’re saying is, “It’s not worth it.” They’ve resigned themselves to a status quo they don’t believe in and see no way out.
Confronting management face-to-face may not be in the cards for most people. However, they’re often more than willing to start engaging in negative office chatter about the company’s direction, the leadership team’s motives, their boss’ capabilities (or lack thereof), irritating customer behavior, etc., when they no longer feel salvation is achievable.
Taken to the extreme, all five result in one thing: tapping out when your employees simply can’t take it anymore. Every year, burnout costs employers millions, whether an employee stays put or a company has to hire and train a replacement.
Employee engagement is tied directly to financial performance, and well-being is tied directly to engagement. Establishing an employee wellness program can go a long way toward creating a psychologically healthy workplace that benefits employees and builds the foundation for long-term business success. In an earlier CoachHub blog, we outlined 10 steps to establishing a program. Two are worth repeating here:
Per the APA, “Teaching supervisors how to support employees and recognize the signs of stress and mental health issues helps reduce turnover and absenteeism. Managers and supervisors who work directly with employees are key to implementing and sustaining policies and procedures and creating a supportive environment.”
Establish a caring culture that enables your company to flourish by implementing a coaching discipline. Coaches can help employees with self-reflection and mental health awareness. Programs such as CoachHub Wellbeing™ are personalized to meet each employee’s needs and enable them to take concrete steps to improve their mental health.
Whether through subtle withdrawal or more overt actions, employees tend to have a “tell” when it comes to disengagement. With the right manager training, coaching and survey discipline, companies can recognize the signs of disengagement early and implement meaningful changes that make for a healthier, happier and more engaged workforce.
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