A man napping at a messy desk beside a laptop. He has pink Post-it notes with eyes drawn on covering his own eyes, showing employee disengagement.
Image: © Prostock-studio/Stock.adobe.com

The dangers of employee disengagement and how to combat it

9 Nov 2023

Hays’ Trisha Brookes explores the value of employee engagement, what happens when it starts to disappear and how employers can keep it.

Companies are always striving to get the most out of their employees but in order for that to happen, those employees need to be satisfied in their jobs and therefore fully engaged in the work that they do.

But employee disengagement can often occur if their needs aren’t being met and there can be a number of reasons for this. To find out more, we interviewed Trisha Brookes, the director of people and culture for Hays UK and Ireland.

She outlined some of the main reasons why an employee might become disengaged, starting with limited autonomy and micromanagement. “If a person doesn’t feel their voice is being heard, then it can appear that it isn’t valued,” she said. “This could happen on a small scale within a team or project, but also more widely as a result of a toxic culture, where diversity or inclusion is not respected and bullying and harassment is allowed to occur in the workplace.”

Another reason for employee disengagement could be a lack of focus on employee wellbeing or work-life balance. This is something that has become more important to employees since the pandemic.

Brookes also said employees can become disheartened at a lack of career prospects and development opportunities, leading them to consider other options. “Likewise, if pay and benefits are not as expected or as promised, or there is a lack of perceived fairness and transparency around remuneration in the team, this can often cause resentment and disengagement,” she added.

The problem with disengaged employees

Employees who are disengaged can have a detrimental impact on the rest of the organisation, particularly as it is often only a matter of time before they leave.

This could lead to poor retention rates and a negative workplace culture, which could affect the company’s reputation as an employer, making it harder to hire future talent. “There could be significant cost implications in hiring and training new people to deal with the employee churn,” added Brookes.

“In this time, the loss of expertise, skills and knowledge may impact the ability to deliver both ‘business as usual’ and agreed projects. Additionally, there may be a skills shortage in an organisation that cannot be recruited for.”

And it’s not just the risk of employees leaving the company that are a problem. Disengaged employees who stick around can still harm the company because they are less invested in the company’s goals and therefore less willing to put in the level of service they once did.

Using the example of customer experience, Brookes pointed out that these employees “might not respond to customer queries and resolve their problems in a timely manner, resulting in lower customer satisfaction”, which will also harm the company’s reputation.

The signs to watch out for

So, for employers who are worried about their employees becoming disengaged, Brookes said the biggest sign to watch out for is an emotional detachment from the organisation.

“One of the ways this is obvious to managers would be a dip in performance, usually because their heart isn’t in it anymore. This might also be because they’re no longer present, whether that’s mentally – for example, if they seem distracted because they’re looking for new opportunities, or even physically, ie, not attending team and social events or taking sick leave more frequently,” she said.

“It’s also worth considering what’s happening around them. Disengagement can occur if a member feels lonely in the workplace. This might happen if their teammates, or colleagues that they’re close to, have left the company.”

How to re-engage employees

All hope is not lost when you start to spot these red flags and one of the biggest mistakes employers make according to Brookes is that workers can only be motivated by money.

Salary is a hygiene factor, not a motivating one. Salary alone does not lead to motivation and engagement. Employees want to be paid fairly, but they also expect more motivational factors. As a result, a combination of strategies to support the usual hygiene factors is required.”

This, she said, means pay, benefits and flexibility should come alongside other practices that are of high value to the employee, which could be better career progression opportunities or more autonomy on projects.

“For me, one of the most impactful strategies to re-engage disengaged employees is developing leaders in compassionate leadership. Leaders need to know they play a vital role in nurturing their employees and making them feel included, connected and part of the team or business,” said Brookes.

‘Celebrate successes on a regular basis, no matter how big or small they are’

“Actively listening to employee feedback, taking an interest in each person, showing respect both ways, encouraging trust, openness and honesty in the relationship is essential. Demonstrating compassionate leadership then unlocks further strategies to foster better engagement.”

What this looks like in practice might be regular conversations around personal development plans, focusing on inclusive policies within the team and recognition of good work.

With the new ways of working, it can be harder to keep employees engaged when there is a mix of hybrid and remote working, but it’s vital to keep everyone involved in the company.

“Regardless of where you work, managers need to keep in touch with their employees on a regular basis and not fall into the trap of ‘out of sight, out of mind’,” said Brookes.

“Regular one-to-ones that are not cancelled or rearranged at short notice show the employee they are important. Sending regular comms so employees know what is going on and how their role supports this is vital. The media used should reach all employees whether they are in the office or remote.”

She also said it’s important to offer opportunities for everyone to get involved in projects so there is perceived fairness and transparency. “Celebrate successes on a regular basis, no matter how big or small they are. Lastly, check in on each employee’s wellbeing – be that mental, physical or financial.”

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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